Ryan Stowers: Workers need skills, but they also need purpose

Don’t assume that good jobs always need a college degree.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Delta Air Lines flight arrives at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

Before the holidays, Gov. Spencer Cox announced he had eliminated the college degree requirement for most Utah state government jobs. Maryland was the first state to enact this change, and Pennsylvania announced a similar one this month.

Private sector employers are making the same smart decision. As The Wall Street Journal has reported, Delta Air Lines and IBM are among the corporations that have done away with degree requirements for certain jobs.

A revolution is afoot — and it is long overdue.

A narrow focus on degree attainment is not working since more than half of Americans over the age of 25 either never went to college or never finished a degree. Decisions like Cox’s will create meaningful opportunities for these individuals while helping fill the more than 10 million jobs U.S. employers have open.

Eliminating degree requirements is courageous and important, and we cannot stop there. We need a comprehensive rethinking of our school-to-work pathway, a culture shift that recognizes skills attainment is part of a larger mission: to help each person find their purpose and unlock their unique potential. Students, parents, educators, employers and other stakeholders all have a role in facilitating this shift.

The country is primed for this revolution. According to McKinsey & Co., 70% of Americans define their sense of purpose through work. A 2021 study by Populace, a nonprofit research organization, concluded, “The American workforce values work as a way to not only materially provide, but also to nourish a sense of self.”

For most Americans, the goal of work is more than a salary. It is self-actualization, or the fulfillment of their own unique talents and passions. Too many people are mismatched right now — they have jobs, but those jobs do not connect to who they are. As a result, they do not find purpose beyond the paycheck. Indeed, Gartner found that, post-pandemic, more than half of workers questioned whether they had purpose in their job.

One reason for this disconnect is our current top-down education and workforce ecosystem focuses on seat times and degrees and not enough on connecting skills to each individual’s aptitudes and passions. As Populace CEO Todd Rose has said, “We need to develop people rather than process them.”

There are innovators who are already transforming the landscape.

In 2020, community-based training programs, employers, national nonprofits and others created SkillUp, which helps individuals explore careers suited to their own passions and aptitudes and connects them to coaching, training and learning opportunities that will help them get ready for that job. This type of personalization already has helped more than 1 million Americans.

The Catalyze Challenge has awarded $10 million to 50 winners — community organizations, entrepreneurs, employers, and cross-sector partnerships — that will pilot, launch and scale solutions to help people discover meaningful careers, build skills to do work they love and, in the process, expand economic mobility.

Winners include Builders and Backers, which helps underrepresented entrepreneurs gain the experience they need to pursue their ideas; the Ella Baker Institute, which positions young people to identify community challenges they care about and develop solutions to them; and BAYADA, which connects young people to careers in nursing and applied behavior analysis.

We must stand beside these innovators and respond to individuals’ demands for purpose — because when people find it in their jobs, they are better off. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, being engaged at work translates to better health, personal and professional growth and improved mental resilience. Some research even suggests people with a sense of purpose at work live longer. And what is good for the employee is good for the employer. Gallup estimates employers lose $322 billion each year in turnover and lost productivity due to challenges like employee disengagement and burnout.

According to a December 2022 LinkedIn survey, 61% of Americans are thinking about quitting their jobs this year. Lack of individual purpose at work is one reason. The stakes are too high not to shift the culture surrounding learning and work. Let’s keep this revolution moving.

Ryan Stowers

A Utah native who lives in Cache County, Ryan Stowers is executive director of the Charles Koch Foundation, which partners with social entrepreneurs to remove the barriers that prevent people from reaching their potential.