National Security

Get to know us: Q&A with Karen Elzey

April 5, 2011

Last October Skills For America’s Future, an initiative of the Aspen Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program, was launched at the White House. The following is a Q & A with Skills for America’s Future Director Karen Elzey on the future of the program, challenges facing workforce training, and what brought her to the Institute.

Karen Elzey

1) I hear that Skills for America’s Future just secured a major commitment from UPS. Congrats! Can you tell us what that means for you, day-to-day?

We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to work with UPS, which is a national leader in workforce development. Since 1998, UPS has trained more than 15,000 community college students in major metropolitan areas. UPS’s commitment to Skills for America’s Future will build on this success by welcoming other employers into these partnerships and working with community colleges to identify needed skills for the jobs of the future. This is critical because employer commitments to community colleges can help ensure that a student’s education is aligned with labor market needs.

2) Skills for America’s Future emerged from the President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. What has your relationship with the White House been like and how does that help your work?

The White House is supporting Skills for America’s Future, but the initiative is a long-term, non-partisan effort of the Institute and works with many other partners. President Obama has placed an emphasis on increasing the number of people in America who have graduated from college or hold relevant postsecondary credentials. Skills for America’s Future is clearly an important part of achieving this aspiration.

We have a good relationship with the White House. Over the past six weeks, Skills for America’s Future has worked with the Administration on the Regional Community Colleges Summits being held around the country. The Summits have provided a wonderful opportunity to share information about Skills for America’s Future and to highlight effective and sustainable employer-community college partnerships.

President Obama announces Skills for America’s Future at the White House:

3) What are some of the biggest obstacles facing skills training across the country?

There are a number of obstacles facing skills training. Despite an unemployment rate of 8.9%, many employers still indicate that they are having difficulty filling open positions due to a skills mismatch. Furthermore, by 2018, the US will need 22 million new college degrees, nearly 93 million people in the US lack literacy skills which prevent them from enrolling in postsecondary education and training programs, and almost 40 percent of all college students must take at least one remedial education course.

4) How important are public-private partnerships in the ultimate success of this work?

Public-private partnerships are at the core of Skills for America’s Future’s mission. Ensuring that students achieve credentials that translate into economically valuable skills can’t happen unless community colleges, employers, and others get on the same page. Add into the mix that government spends billions on training in this country and it’s clear that unless all the pieces work in unison, it’s difficult to help regular folks get the skills they need to succeed.

5) What were you doing before you came to Aspen and what brought you here?

Prior to coming to the Aspen Institute, I was the vice president of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW) at the US Chamber of Commerce. ICW focused on education issues ranging from early childhood education through the needs of adult workers. Before joining the US Chamber, I coordinated public-private partnerships between K-12 school districts and employers for a local economic development agency in Indiana, and taught English as a Second Language in Poland.

I came to Aspen because the promise of Skills for America’s Future is the logical extension of the work that I was doing at the Chamber—helping all of the workforce training pieces fit together. I’m thrilled to be part of this employer-driven approach to education and training, and know that we can make a big difference for many Americans who are really struggling right now.

6) Why is Aspen the right place for Skills for America’s Future?

Through the Economic Opportunities Program (EOP), the Aspen Institute has been a national leader in workforce training and education, microenterprise development, and financial services—fields of practice that make economic opportunity more accessible to those who are struggling in the changing economy. Skills for America’s Future is an initiative that builds on this work. It’s also going to draw on the existing expertise of the EOP, through the Program’s relationships to community-based organizations, its sector initiatives, and its research and analysis capabilities.

I think this makes Skills for America’s Future a perfect fit at Aspen—helping to grow a core program area at the same time that it draws strength from the impressive work Aspen has already done in the field.

In addition, the Aspen Institute has expanded its postsecondary education portfolio by adding the College Excellence Program as a policy program. The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which is part of the College Excellence Program, will recognize community colleges with outstanding academic, student learning and workforce outcomes. The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence and Skills for America’s Future are working in tandem to ensure that postsecondary certificates and credentials have value in the labor markets, and that the effective practices are replicated.