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Gunderson: Private-Sector Schools Can Help Fill Skills Gap

News that the U.S. economy has been steadily adding jobs the past few months is certainly welcome as our nation tries to recover from a debilitating economic recession.

However, there are still millions of jobs available that are waiting to be filled. What, exactly, is the hold up? In most of these cases, it is a serious shortage of skilled workers to fill available jobs.

GOP presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) recently criticized President Barack Obama for suggesting that all Americans need a college education. What Santorum should say is that not all Americans need a degree from a liberal arts school because projections do suggest that we need to increase the number of American workers with some level of postsecondary education by 12 million over the next 15 years. In fact, the administration has set the goal of ensuring 60 percent of 25- to-34-year-olds have a postsecondary education by 2020.

In an effort to reach that goal, the Obama administration has announced an initiative focused on community colleges to help more Americans obtain the skills and training necessary to secure meaningful and stable employment. Anyone committed to helping the administration reach its goal of leading the world in college graduates should laud its initiative but also support the role of other institutions of higher learning that play a central role in the effort.

This includes private-sector colleges and universities, which are called “career colleges” for a reason: They prepare students for real, viable employment. Across the country, students of career-oriented schools are learning the skills they need to immediately begin working in their respective fields.

As someone who has studied at a private-sector school, I know this to be true. Years ago, I took a course in broadcasting from a private-sector school in pursuit of a dream of becoming a hockey announcer, so I am familiar with the personal yet very focused career aspirations many of our students strive to achieve.

The real-world training provided by private-sector institutions enables students to be an immediate asset to employers looking for skilled workers. These schools — ranging in focus from culinary arts to medical technology and everything in between — allow graduates to enter the workforce fully trained and prepared for the challenges that may lie ahead in their careers. And the jobs that these schools prepare students for are in some of the fastest-growing sectors today.

In his State of the Union address, the president mentioned the need for skilled workers to help bolster our workforce and economy. He called for greater coordination between colleges and companies to design programs that better prepare students for successful, rewarding careers.

Private-sector colleges and universities have been following this model for decades and will continue to work tirelessly to fill the void of available skilled workers for decades to come.

Unfortunately though, some of the recent policies that have come from the administration run counter to its goal of expanding access to higher education.

For instance, the announced “gainful employment” rule establishes a one-size-fits-all approach for deciding which institutions will be eligible for federal student aid and in the process limits the options of nontraditional students seeking skills and training for the purpose of securing employment. And Congress has not been far behind, with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) recently calling on the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits institutions of higher learning, to conduct a “careful review” of career schools.

This follows numerous impediments placed in front of private-sector schools by some in Congress for the purpose of scoring political points, all of which do little to ensure certainty among these local employers and educators of millions of Americans.

Private-sector colleges and universities are ready, willing and more than able to help America fill the “skills gap” that is keeping unemployment high. Career colleges provide a highly specialized, extremely targeted curriculum to students seeking to enter today’s workforce and immediately carve out their own career path for the future.

We look forward to working with Congress to address the importance of preparing individuals for the job force and how career colleges can continue to provide choices and access to all students seeking postsecondary education.

Former Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) is president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.

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