Declining college enrollment and the impact on your workforce

Declining college enrollment and the impact on your workforce

There’s a flashing warning sign for companies that rely on onboarding professionals with college degrees: the declining college enrollment rate. While declining college enrollment is set to impact your talent acquisition efforts four years from now, it will have long-term implications for years to come. 

Fall semester has started for most US universities, but professors are already seeing fewer students in their classrooms this academic year, virtually and in person.

This declining college enrollment is adding more fire to a situation that is already dire — contributing to the shrinking pool of candidates available to join your teams with education in certain domains.

If the impact of the global pandemic is decreasing, it would make sense that enrollment would be increasing. But a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report revealed that undergraduate enrollment in four-year schools dropped by 4.7%, or roughly 662,000 students, since spring 2021. 

As a result, the undergraduate student body is about 1.4 million students smaller today than it was before the pandemic began. 

Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Current Term Enrollment Estimates”

Declining Enrollment’s Impact on the Future of Work 

To solve the shrinking qualified talent pool problem, businesses must understand why people aren’t going to college — and figure out what to do about it. 

Many would-be students are wary of the costs of getting a college education — and questioning the value. From 1980 - 2020, undergraduate tuition has risen 6.7% a year at public colleges, for an increase of nearly 1,400%, and shows no signs of slowing down. 

Source: College101

And according to a recent Forbes report on 2022 student loan debt statistics, 45 million borrowers collectively owe $1.7 trillion in student debt. More than 3 million student loan borrowers have student loan debt greater than $100,000, and nearly 1 million have more than $200,000 student loan debt. 

Given the near-constant coverage of the Great Resignation and the Great Reshuffling — which has seen many college-educated employees abandon traditional jobs with traditional employers in pursuit of flexibility, quality of life, and more meaningful work, how could students not question what they want from their ‘career,’ and whether a college education will help them realize it? 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.5 million people voluntarily quit their jobs in March 2022, up from 4.35 million, or 2.9% of workers who quit in February. And research from McKinsey revealed that many employees who left traditional jobs aren’t going back. 

Among employees who quit without a new job in hand, only 29% returned to traditional full-time employment. Instead, they are pursuing non-traditional contract opportunities, part-time positions, or starting their own businesses. 

Source: McKinsey, “The Great Attrition is making hiring harder. Are you searching the right talent pools?”

Rethinking Talent Attraction and Development 

Because universities have been slow to change curriculums and costs in ways that could entice more students to enroll and prepare them for the world of work, organizations must rethink how they approach their talent pipeline challenge. 

A few things companies can do now include reimagining their partnerships with higher education institutions, the experiences and opportunities they provide employees, and their approach to finding and attracting talent. Tackling this challenge now will be the key to ensuring a healthy funnel of candidates now and tomorrow. 

Here are three strategies that are rapidly taking shape: 

Certification-based Degrees

Businesses have an opportunity to work more closely with colleges to design customized or certification-based degrees in place of traditionally rigid or linear programs. 

Companies can help design certification programs, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) Certified Solution Architect or Salesforce Certifications, to enable students to find well-paying work while pursuing a degree. 

These very same companies, who ultimately need employees with the critical thinking skills that come from classical liberal arts training, are in an ideal position to hire the students full-time once they graduate. 

As a result, students can offset the high cost of higher education, and employers can build a pool of talent based on specific skills they need for their business while also nurturing those with strong potential to potentially take on leadership roles once they’re ready. 

Modernized Apprenticeships 

Apprenticeships are an effective way to build and maintain a steady stream of candidates entering the pipeline. They provide an employer with an alternative to traditional evaluation criteria such as education and experience. 

By looking at those credentials, hiring managers and business leaders can widen prospect pools and support DEI initiatives. Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, and three hi-tech enterprises are running these ‘earn and learn’ programs to groom young talent and build future leaders in key functional areas such as DevOps and project management, for example. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 241,000 new apprentices entered the national apprenticeship system in 2020, and nationwide, there were over 593,000 apprentices obtaining the skills they need to succeed while earning the wages they need to build financial security. 

Organizations looking for ways to enhance their talent acquisition strategies can lean into apprenticeship programs as a way to better engage prospective employees and build a sustainable pool of qualified talent. 

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “FY 2021 Data and Statistics”

Independent Workforce

While employers offering apprenticeships report a bevy of benefits for all involved, developing the curriculum, identifying mentors, and finding/selecting participants requires time and skill. The same holds true for building out certification-based degrees. 

One way companies have been equipping their workforce with the skills they need is by tapping into the independent workforce. Independent workers bring their subject matter expertise to teams and can help design apprenticeship programs, upskill and train existing team members, and even provide insights into how to build certification-based degrees. 

By tapping into seasoned professionals with unique skills, experiences, and perspectives, organizations can upskill existing employees at the same time. And with key paradigm shifts impacting college enrollment and how organizations attract and retain talent, the independent workforce is becoming increasingly central to the future of work. 

Building the Workforce of Tomorrow

Talent acquisition is top of mind for business leaders across sectors. Solving it will require ingenuity, grit, and commitment. The best way to ensure you have a healthy candidate pipeline is to draw from multiple sources — candidate referrals, social networks, niche job boards, on-demand talent acquisition platforms, and more — yet looking for ways to tap into the workforce of tomorrow today will be vital to building a sustainable labor base. 

If you want more insights on how you can best address talent acquisition challenges today, take a look at this four-part talent acquisition crash course to learn more. 

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