First, I need to express how thrilled I am to be president of Alexandria Technical and Community College. In these first few weeks, I have witnessed the pride and caring nature of our faculty and staff — and the sincere support of our community. The beauty and quality of life of the Alexandria area has surpassed my high expectations.

Our student focus and quality programs stand out in the higher education market. However, higher education as an industry is being challenged on many fronts. There is a recent blog on GreatJobsMinnesota by Katherine Kersten explaining Amazon, Google and IBM’s decision to further develop and expand their own post-secondary credentialing and training programs. It is largely speculated that this is in response to higher education’s resistance/inability to align educational programs and graduates with labor market needs. A YouTube video: titled “Success in A New Economy” produced by Citrus College explains the discrepancies between what higher education produces and labor market needs.

The video uses a simple formula, 1-2-7 to describe the mismatch. As of 2020, The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that for every 1 advanced degree we need 2 Bachelor’s degrees and 7 skilled workers, thus — 1-2-7. However, as a society we continue to promote 4-year degrees resulting in a graduate pool more reflective of 1-7-2. Hence, the alignment issue and why more employers are possibly looking to educate their own workforce.

ATCC is not isolated from these threats. We are hearing more and more from our local business partners that their workforce needs are going unmet. As a statewide dynamic, the Legislature appropriated scholarship funding toward attracting more students to high-demand areas such as manufacturing and health care. ATCC received 25 $2,500 awards. We applaud our political leaders for their focus on the issue.

However, scholarships alone will not correct the disparity between higher education and the labor market. The question to all of us is, “How do we change perceptions around 2-year skills programs and related occupations?” Perhaps we need to educate students at an earlier age about what it means to work with your hands as well as your mind or, do we simply improve messaging around family economics and the benefits a 2-year degree offers?

Current data shows that someone with a 2-year diploma or degree will match or exceed lifetime earnings of bachelor-degree holders. In addition to entering the workforce at an earlier age, individuals with 2-year awards have less student loan debt. So for a host of reasons, 2-year colleges should be a first choice, and not a last resort but, in too many cases, it is not.

As a comprehensive college (technical and transfer), ATCC threads a needle in promoting its programming. We are an open access institution allowing our students opportunities to pursue skills or liberal arts for transfer. Although we cannot fix all of higher education and the choices made by students, we can, at a minimum, work on strategies locally to improve alignment within our service area.

We will be conducting community listening sessions on Tuesday, Sept. 17. Our plan is to share a draft strategic plan with you as our key stakeholders to ensure that our vision and priorities align with those in our community. More information on the listening sessions will be communicated in the near future.

Again, thank you for welcoming me to your community!

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Michael Seymour is the president of the Alexandria Technical and Community College. In the Know is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.