Solving the labor crisis will require a cultural shift in higher education

Nebraska and our nation are facing a labor crisis. These are less headline news and more like slow and steady headlines spelling trouble for our economy.

The Nebraska Department of Labor reported a record high employment in October with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. This combination speaks volumes about a national trend: There aren’t enough workers to go around. The US Chamber of Commerce reports that if every unemployed American found a job, we would still be 4 million short of jobs to fill current vacancies. In short, that’s about four times our total statewide workforce.


Joanne Li

Compounding the problem is the demand for an educated workforce. In 2020, 35% of all jobs require a bachelor’s degree; a figure expected to rise as high as 65% by 2030 if projections from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics prove correct. This means that, for some, higher education may be seen as a necessary step to completion rather than an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Concerns about affordability, accessibility, and already busy schedules can deter prospective students from pursuing a promising future.

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This concern is pointless if higher education broadly improves its responsiveness to societal needs and increases the social mobility of all students. Attending university is not and should not be the same as joining an exclusive club. It should be joining a community of people who dream boldly to better themselves and their community. No matter their background or experience, it is the drive to follow ambition that makes someone a learner. As a community, we must work to eliminate the perception of exclusivity in higher education because the primary responsibility of universities is to educate citizens. Public universities exist to provide accessible and affordable education to the masses.

Today’s student surpasses the high school graduate. Expanding the workforce pool requires us to attract underserved communities to higher education. While many students are first-generation college students, more than 74% of current students were previously identified as nontraditional. The Nebraska State Legislature adopted LR335, encouraging at least 70% of Nebraskan citizens ages 25 to 34 to have a postsecondary credential by 2030 (up from 58%). Achieving this goal requires all of us to reflect on our definition of a learner and rethink our strategies for achieving this goal.

There are several ways to expand our workforce. One of them is innovating in learning modality and pedagogy. The pandemic poses challenges but also creates opportunities to promote remote learning. Institutions are rapidly adopting flexible modalities to provide access to students. But true flexibility goes even further, requiring meeting students where they are in their career, their education, and their ability to add class to their busy lives.

This is where microcredentials or workforce development credentials come into play. Embraced by institutions across the country, these smaller modules can allow learners to refresh their skills at their own pace while earning credentials quickly. Many are stackable, allowing some to be counted to a certain degree if desired. The added commitment, compared to a full degree program, can create immediate opportunities for working professionals, busy parents, service members transitioning to civilian life, or anyone who thinks higher education is out of reach.

Such efforts should become standard practice across higher education to address the labor crisis. Offering flexibility, micro-credentials, engaging mature learners, and seeking to meet learners where they are in life are all ways higher education can respond to the needs of our learners. As a metropolitan urban university, UNO is uniquely positioned to maximize the number of qualified candidates in the workforce pipeline. This requires opening up higher education to more people. At UNO, we are clear about this: everyone has.

Universities are at a critical point in encouraging workforce development. At UNO, we aspire to change the social culture and perception of our industry. We’re introducing Career Connect to give students more access to paid internships and hands-on experience without sacrificing salary. We are committed to expanding relationships with employers and communities. For example, we are introducing our Future of Work Symposium and Office of Engagement as we are committed to continuing direct and honest dialogue in society.

Meeting high expectations won’t happen overnight, and there will be a need to adapt as the workforce calls for change, but meeting students where they are is the best way to rewrite the conclusion of the workforce story for the better.

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Joanne Li, Ph.D., CFA is the president of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.