The struggle to find talent is one of the most-discussed problems among business leaders today. Whether leading small, medium or large businesses, the talent gap is an uphill, persistent battle fought every day by hiring managers. The topic is top of mind because some factors driving it are intensifying: A strong economy is fueling job growth while the gray exodus is shrinking supply.

Compounding the problem is that more jobs require high-level skills and some level of information analytics and digital expertise, which further restricts the talent pool. The last straw is the challenge to cultivate a diverse workforce that reflects today’s customers and the increasingly diverse consumer market of the future.

The problem has been a long time coming, and the solution will require even more time, as well as the commitment of high-level executives and adequate resources that many businesses have not considered.

A college degree from a four-year institution has been a consistent, predictable path to employment for many years. Two-year degrees, especially in high-demand fields offered at community colleges, can be equally impactful. Despite a clear path to building a robust talent pipeline, we are falling short for many reasons:

• Over the past 25 years, consumer prices have risen 115 percent, but the cost of attending college has risen by 500 percent, according to Inflationdata.com.

•By 2020, 74 percent of jobs will require postsecondary training, and at the current production rate, the U.S. will fall short by 5 million workers, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

• The average student-loan borrower graduates with debt of over $37,000 in student loans, which is a $20,000 increase in the last 13 years, according to higher-education expert Mark Kantrowitz.

• According to a recent survey of businesses by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, nearly half of respondents had positions that were unfilled due to lack of qualified applicants.

• The Pell Institute notes students from the bottom socioeconomic quartile are eight times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students from the top socioeconomic quartile (7.4 percent vs. 60 percent).

Many state and national programs have taken on the challenge of low college graduation rates. Most of these efforts address financial need, but money alone isn’t enough.

Through federal, state and institutional aid, access to college is improving. Graduation rates are not. In Minnesota, only 63 percent of college students at four-year colleges will graduate, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education said. And because both four-year and two-year college graduates are needed to meet our employment needs, business leaders should care about the college graduation gap.

The talent gap is the result of conditions that begin long before a young person applies for a job. Every college student at one time or another needs help in figuring out financial aid, choosing a major, getting through finals week, learning time management skills to balance school and life, and so on. Lower-income students, many of whom are first generation, are less likely to get this support. That’s why students in this population quit and nationally have an unacceptably low graduation rate of 21 percent, according to the Pell Institute.

The solution to low college graduation rates, particularly for lower-income students, must combine financial aid and comprehensive support. This approach can be even more effective if businesses provide mentors, paid internships and college-to-career programs. By combining money with high-touch support tailored to this population, scholars at Minnesota-based Wallin Education Partners have achieved a six-year graduation rate of over 90 percent.

Twenty-six years ago, Win Wallin, one of Minnesota’s most revered business leaders, recognized the forces that have resulted in today’s talent gap. He decided to focus his philanthropy on “home grown” talent. Helping lower-income, high-potential students receive a college degree was the solution he embraced. Wallin brought a business perspective to a societal problem that has resulted in a program that is highly effective.

Nearly 4,800 Wallin Education Partners scholars have become software engineers, business analysts, teachers, health-care providers and artists, to name a few. And because students must attend college in the region, 80 percent live and work in the greater Twin Cities area.

Business leaders across the state are working to solve the problem of finding qualified employees. They may not recognize, as Wallin did, the relative simplicity and effectiveness of his solution — increase the number of lower income college graduates to expand the pool of talented, diverse job candidates in Minnesota.

Working together, business and education leaders can solve the college graduation gap, which in turn can help solve the talent and diversity gap. The good news is that by bringing business and education initiatives together, programs like Wallin Education Partners will ensure a high return on their investment.

 

Susan Basil King is executive director of Wallin Education Partners.