The world’s rich countries face a looming challenge in education: Too many of their citizens lack the skills and credentials needed for the jobs of the future. To keep people productively engaged in work in the coming decades, and to ensure that economies maintain robust growth, governments, educators and employers will need to make lasting investments in a new class of students: adults.
The trouble for now is largely demographic. Although a growing share of people between the ages of 18 and 24 is going to college, the total population of young adults is shrinking in the U.S. and Europe. So total college enrollment is largely in decline. Meanwhile, the population of older workers keeps growing. In the U.S., by the middle of the next decade, nearly one-quarter of the workforce will be over 55. And many adults lack the post-high-school education and training that employers increasingly demand.
A majority of new jobs created in the U.S. since 2010 have required workers to have medium-to-advanced digital skills. Over the next decade, the percentage of jobs worldwide requiring a college degree or higher will continue to increase, according to a McKinsey Global Institute analysis.
So, efforts are needed to bring adult workers into the classroom – or, in many cases, back to the classroom. Some 17 percent of Americans over 25 – 36 million adults – have some college education but no credential to show for it. Today, if all U.S. “near-completers” finished at least an associate degree, incomes would rise by $112 billion, according to the American Council on Education.
One hurdle is financial aid. Government subsidies are overwhelmingly geared toward traditional college-aged students. Government educational grants and loans should be expanded to cover certificate-granting programs, including coding boot camps, that older students want.
Private companies should give their existing employees incentives to go back to school while they remain on the job. And colleges should also accommodate working adults by expanding online classes and giving returning students credits for the professional skills they’ve cultivated on the job.
Most critically, older adults need to be steered toward the kinds of education that employers want them to have.
The long-term goal should be to revolutionize educational systems – to make them places that adults revisit, as needed, throughout their working lives.
Bloomberg View editorial.