In a workforce short on skills, we often look to higher education as the currency of potential and performance for this advanced economy. Among the many political topics that affect employment, education took the spotlight during the Democratic National Convention. For example, Hillary Clinton proposed a dramatic free-tuition program. However, the issue is much more complex. Despite our obsession with alma maters and sheepskin, the ongoing glut of unfilled jobs across the nation would imply that grads aren’t making the grade. Today’s talent need to learn practical and applicable skills. It’s something Germany has understood for a long time, and we can absorb much by studying their alternative education system. If MSPs and their staffing partners want to deliver exceptional talent, they may need to help their clients rethink the weight placed on educational requirements and develop alternative sources of learning. Fortunately, there are plenty of options.

Dual Education: The Perfect Union of School and Skills

Graduate and postgraduate degrees have largely been considered the best predictors of an employee’s success in an organization. Yet, that tide has been shifting. EY, the renowned professional services firm, rattled the traditions of corporate America when it abandoned college degrees as hiring criteria. Others have followed suit, including Apple, Penguin Random House and even Google. They seem to be following an example set by Germany’s “dual education” model, which meshes academic structures with on-the-job training to build practical skills for today’s labor market.

As Joseph Parilla and Martha Ross explain in their insightful piece for the Washington Post:

“From the beginning of the journey from school to work, dual-system participants establish close relationships with employers. Companies sign contracts with young people (typically around age 15 or 16) and provide them an hourly wage just below that of an entry-level worker. On-the-job training typically comprises two-thirds of the curriculum in the dual system. Collaboration is key to the success of this system. Regional chambers of commerce in Germany work with employers and government to classify about 350 occupations nationwide, design and administer certification exams for apprentices, and monitor how businesses train and treat their workers. About 60 percent of Germans receive a relevant occupational certification by the age of 20, either through the dual system or a full-time vocational school. And apprenticeship experiences can be used as credit if young people want to continue their studies at university.”

Some Students Prefer Learning Trades to Tolstoy

Pursuing a college diploma is not always right for each person. Some students have no desire to pursue academics; they instead hope to learn trade skills. The German system directs high-school students into vocational education when they don’t need, desire or have the aptitude for university. The country recognizes that not every student will derive a benefit from college. Germany has therefore forged a partnership between its government, employers and unions, which matches students to the vocational training most effective for their career aspirations. As a result, the country boasts a strikingly low youth unemployment rate: 7 percent compared to 11 percent in the United States.

This problem at home is further complicated by the inability of schools to meet the demands for qualified candidates. Schools can’t always offer programs targeting the skills needed by the workforce. They struggle with limited capacity, obsolete educational models, declining standards and an alarming trend among students of shifting away from hard skills disciplines like engineering and science. In fact, the BLS projects that 60 percent of the new jobs created over the next decade will require skills possessed by only 20 percent of the current workforce.

In many cases, educational institutions can’t predict what skills will be critical from one year to the next — and that’s the rapid rate at which technology evolves today. Implementing new programs and curriculum takes even longer. If universities can’t match the pace of developing business solutions, will these students build the skills they’ll need to thrive in their upcoming vocational roles?

How MSPs Can Capitalize on Alternative Education Models

Partnering with Trade Schools

America offers plenty of vocational schools and trade-specific universities. MSPs and their staffing partners can take advantage of these resources by attending career fairs for young talent who are poised to enter the workforce, or established workers looking to acquire new skills, and explain these alternative education options.

MSPs and staffing professionals can develop partnerships with trade schools that support the skill sets employers are desperately seeking. Interview talent to determine their ideal work environments, aspirations, interests and aptitudes, then match them to vocational programs that will fulfill those goals — for the workers and the employers who need them. Undertaking these efforts also helps recruiters develop pipelines of candidates for opportunities with other clients.

Influential MSPs can help their clients consider similar initiatives. Southern California Edison (SCE), a California utility, offers a compelling example. In 2008, SCE teamed with Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif., for a proposed two-year certificate program in nuclear operations and maintenance. SCE paid for the tuition and books of the 48 people it selected. It also paid the students for summer internships at the plant and offered temporary employment for graduates on a trial basis, according to David Ripley, a training manager at the now shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (its closure was unrelated to staffing issues). After one year, they become eligible for permanent employment.

Tap into the Expertise of Alumni

Alumni recruiting is another creative way to fill the widening skills gap. Over the next 10 years, personnel attrition is likely to become the most important issue. Organizations know they’ll be losing workers to retirement over the next few years. As critical staff are reduced, process inadequacies become more evident because additional, qualified talent are no longer available to compensate for the inefficiencies. In some environments, mandatory retirement protocols are also enforced because of safety regulations. However, high-performing alumni can be re-engaged to facilitate training and knowledge transfer.

Former talent can be brought in to provide technical and career coaching. Structured and formalized mentoring programs, as opposed to informal on-the-job training, allow veteran workers to instill mission-critical skills to the next generation of workers, shortening the learning curve and creating supplemental professional training programs that are staffed by qualified experts and highly trained former employees.

Go Virtual

Another strategic resource comes from the transformative growth of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) programs. Educational analysts are recognizing the ability of MOOCs to turn the expensive and somewhat exclusionary privilege of college into a low-cost, on-demand and universal experience. Staffing industry experts have also discovered that MOOCs are rising to create new frontiers in sourcing, engaging and hiring STEM talent with brand-name certifications and degrees.

In fact, some pioneers in the MSP and staffing space are capitalizing on the full power of MOOCs by designing internal courses that address the skills their clients seek. Specialized classes for individual businesses deliver a powerful way to entice talent. People looking to work at specific companies will naturally be more inclined to complete courses tailored to those organizations. Those agencies already offering free or low-cost classes using MOOCs are attracting quality candidates and enhancing their skills prior to placement. We’re living in an employment era where the mantra has become “hire for fit, train for skills.” The MOOC model, when combined with staffing curation, epitomizes that philosophy. It increases supply, ensures quality, expedites screening and engagement, and serves as a compelling selling point to hiring managers.

More organizations are taking MOOC degrees seriously. Current studies indicate that the knowledge acquired from online learning is just as valuable, comprehensive or relevant as from traditional college courses.

Champion Dual Educational Models

One of the biggest challenges facing students today is affordable education. Most graduates are buried under crippling debt from student loans. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich also pointed out the frustrating deficiencies with the emphasis on universities: “A college degree no longer guarantees a good job. The main reason it pays better than the job of someone without a degree is the latter’s wages are dropping.”

As Parilla and Ross note in their article, “We must build stronger bridges between employers and educators. A number of initiatives integrate high-quality academics and skills training with work-based learning experiences through internships and co-ops. These include job-training programs such as Year Up and high school reforms such as Career Academies and Linked Learning.” They also describe how post-secondary level educators are partnering with companies to develop cooperative solutions that combine classroom learning with on-the-job experience.

This is fertile ground for staffing experts. As more students in these educational programs seek apprenticeships or internships, MSPs and their staffing partners are perfectly positioned to help match them to the best businesses for these assignments — especially at a time when the United States spends less on active labor support, such as training and job-search assistance, than all but two countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Our Classrooms Extend Far Beyond the Interiors of Lecture Halls

There are more people leaving the workforce than entering it. And this is particularly evident as older generations reach retirement age. When they depart, they will take a vast trove of knowledge and experience with them. Even if Hillary Clinton’s academic plan comes to fruition, which would enable 83-percent of the U.S. population to attend college for free, we still face issues.

Merely having a college degree, especially in a generalized or unrelated field, offers no guarantee that a worker possesses the skills and abilities to meet an organization’s needs. In this century, the best education possible may arise from specialized training programs, certification courses and trade schools. And MSPs have a prime opportunity to overcome the challenges by developing or sponsoring skills-based educational programs that will produce the next batch of the brightest talent.