Skilled workers key to strong economy; Leaders discuss challenges, efforts to build workforce

From left, Arizona Board of Regents Chairman Ron Shoopman and ABOR executive director John Arnold explain the need for a well-trained workforce during a presentation Tuesday at Arizona State University West in Phoenix. [Matt Roy/Independent Newsmedia]

By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia

Arizona lags woefully behind the country in rates of college success — a situation which threatens the state’s future economic success.

This was the message of university leaders during a presentation entitled “A Snapshot of Arizona’s Young Talent,” which was hosted Tuesday at Arizona State University West in Phoenix.

To discuss the role of higher education in producing a vital workforce, the breakfast event was sponsored by the West Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance, which is comprised of the Buckeye Valley, Glendale, Peoria, Surprise Regional, Southwest Valley and Wickenburg chambers.

“We’re raising a population of educated individuals and from families who’ve never had that opportunity before,” said Christine Wilkinson, ASU senior vice president and secretary. “For all of you to be here to understand and to really believe that our workforce needs to have better education to be prepared for the future is very important.”

She said the university’s West Valley campus continues to expand to serve a rapidly growing population.

“The west campus alone is on a rapid-growth trajectory, with enrollment increasing every single semester,” Ms. Wilkinson said. “They have seven colleges offering more than 110 degrees.”

In total, ASU graduated 19,000 students this semester alone, she added.

But while state universities and other institutions keep growing, new college graduates cannot keep pace with job growth as skilled workers retire or leave the market, according to Arizona Board of Regents Chairman Ron Shoopman.

“These are the best-prepared people that have ever come out of our university system,” Mr. Shoopman said. “It’s because we have such an intentional focus on the needs of the future of this state. Because not only are we responsible for education; we’re responsible, in our minds, for the economy of this state.”

He said ABOR has over the past six months completed an economic impact study, which revealed the university system’s economic impact as comparable to that of the state’s military bases.

“Very few people realize that we are an $11 billion impact with nearly 85,000 jobs created,” Mr. Shoopman said. “We’re part of the economy in a very real way, as long as the product we deliver will provide the workforce for the future of Arizona.”

A college degree unlocks much greater earning potential, he said, with bachelor’s degree holders earning 78% higher salaries on average than those with only a high school diploma; and those with a graduate degree making 28% more than those with only an undergraduate degree.

“Over a lifetime, you’re looking at about $1 million more income if you have a four-year degree over being a high school graduate,” Mr. Shoopman said. “That’s very real to families and it’s the challenge we have with our changing demographics, with so many of our youth coming from families who have no history of ever being in college.”

Among the freshman class at Northern Arizona University this year, 56% were the first in their families to attend college. The graduation rate across state schools is around 60% now and officials expect to exceed 70% by 2025, he said.

But while the state system produced a record number of graduates this year, workers are still leaving the market faster than new workers are arriving.

“Those we turn out of our universities will be the folks who lead us into the future,” Mr. Shoopman said. “They’ve got a big chore on their hands and we don’t have enough of them. We’re doing our best: 43,000 degrees this year — a total of the three institutions with almost half of them from ASU — and it’s not enough to replace those that are retiring. We need to do more.”

Changing demographics and increased competition have only exacerbated the problem, according to ABOR executive director John Arnold.

“We are seeing [other] states becoming more and more aggressive trying to attract educated youth into their states,” Mr. Arnold said. “There was a population decline after the Great Recession — the birth rates in the United States dropped and that’s going to start impacting the workforce in the next five to 10 years.”

He pointed out, as examples, that neighboring New Mexico now allows any Arizona resident to attend their state schools at the in-state rate; while Utah and other states offer a heritage scholarship, which allows the children of their state school grads to pay in-state tuition, regardless of where they live.

“I believe educated youth are going to become a very valuable commodity,” Mr. Arnold said. “States are already passing policies to try to attract educated youth … We are competing not only for our students, but for non-resident students at a national level.”

However, as states compete to attract students, out-of-state companies have stepped up their efforts to lure qualified graduates away from Arizona, he explained.

“After our students graduate, we need to compete to keep them here,” Mr. Arnold said. “There are out-of-state companies that imbed with our students as freshman, that come into our universities, they want to be with our students as soon as they walk through those doors because they know how valuable they are.”

Tracking graduation rates, ABOR’s research reveals 83% of 9th graders go on to graduate high school; but only 23% of those enroll in a four-year college and only 17% will graduate with a four-year degree.

Only 27% of 25 to 43-year-olds hold a bachelor’s degree in Arizona, compared to the national average of 34%, according to Mr. Arnold.

University, government and business leaders are collaborating to address the state’s educational attainment gaps through various efforts, including new curricula, internships, outreach and mentorship, data sharing, new funding mechanisms and financial aid.

But a traditional four-year degree is not the only path to success for students and the state’s economy, he said.

“The regents are hyper-focused on this issue,” Mr. Arnold said. “We are caretakers for our three public universities, but we strongly believe we have a broader mission than that. And that we need to promote post-high school attainment of all types … our economy and our state are going to need everybody.”

To meet future needs, officials will continue to work to identify barriers to education and look for ways to engage students and help them succeed, he explained.

“We’ve engaged with a survey group to got out and survey some of the areas where we do pretty well and some of the areas where we don’t do well at all,” Mr. Arnold said. “And we’re going to build some messaging around that to help students understand how to overcome these barriers. But we need partners to help get that message out.”

Mr. Shoopman said despite numerous challenges, Arizonans still have cause for hope as university and business leaders work together to find solutions.

“We do have reason for optimism,” Mr. Shoopman said. “The growth of the freshman class at ASU West over the past two years has been 30%. That means the message is getting out there. You are doing your job to be partners with us … and your voices are added to our voices to say: the future of Arizona’s economy depends on a qualified workforce.”

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