Workers Wanted, Worldwide: 9 Takeaways for Higher Education

October 6, 2022 by Remie Verougstraete

Workers Wanted, Worldwide is a new research report from Lightcast that highlights the global scale and long-term time horizon of the ongoing demographic drought. While the report itself is primarily addressed to employers, it has important implications for higher education — especially when it comes to growing enrollment in a future where traditional college-age students will be increasingly scarce. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s the (very basic) gist: 

Population growth is slowing across the world (though at different rates in different regions). In response, businesses and community leaders should focus on increasing labor force participation, boosting employee retention, and generally making the most of the workers that are available. Practically speaking, this could mean offering more flexible work arrangements, adopting skill-based hiring practices, and/or proactively investing in upskilling, tech-readiness, and other talent-development initiatives.

There’s much more detail, data, and nuance in the full report, so we encourage you to download a free copy for yourself. As you read it, consider how your institution might play a role in meeting the challenges and providing the solutions outlined in the report. Here are nine possible action items to get you started:

9 takeaways for higher education administrators, faculty, and staff:

1) Understand the trends in your region. Just like some countries will fare better than others globally, some communities will fare better than others locally. Lean into partnerships (with employers, government leaders, etc.) and leverage data to understand how national demographic trends are translating to your regional context.

2) Adapt to serve adult learners. The numbers don’t lie. While some regions will be affected sooner and more dramatically than others, the traditional college-age cohort is set to decline virtually everywhere in the near future. If you want to maintain or grow enrollment, it likely won’t be coming from high school graduates, at least not in the long-run. Now is a good time to consider what kinds of programs best serve working adults, and explore new adult-focused program opportunities in your area.

3) Don’t make people choose between education and work. Employers and policy makers will be increasingly focused on getting people to join the workforce and stay there. Rather than competing with employers for people and competing with people for their time, you can offer flexible pathways and work-and-learn programs that allow individuals to stay connected to the workforce while pursuing their educational goals — whether it’s a senior marketing manager looking to upskill or an entry-level warehouse worker finally earning that college degree.

4) Partner with employers to develop work-relevant curriculum. As employers face an unprecedented talent shortage, they are likely to focus more on retaining and upskilling the people they already have. Note that the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) predicts an increase in education benefits as a retention strategy. Colleges and universities have an opportunity to position themselves as partners of choice, producing high quality graduates by offering work-relevant curriculum that aligns with the needs of employers and the professional goals of employees.

5) Be the bridge. One of the main strategies outlined in the report for counteracting the demographic drought is boosting labor force participation. BLS research shows a positive correlation between educational attainment and labor force participation. This means colleges and universities can help businesses (and society) thrive by working to reconnect unengaged or overlooked talent pools (e.g. disabled population, formerly incarcerated, long-term unemployed, etc.) with the resources and education they need to take their place in the economy. 

6) Be realistic about international enrollment. Institutions that rely more on international enrollment should pay special attention to these trends and note which regions are forecasted to see greater population decline, sooner. Use this insight to set more realistic enrollment goals and expectations as well as explore other regions to focus on for student recruitment. 

7) Prepare students to work well with technology. Another strategy highlighted in the report to help businesses cope with the talent shortage is a focus on leveraging technology and automation. As employers turn to tech, job seekers equipped to work with and maximize the effectiveness of that technology will be in the strongest position to secure desirable roles and command higher wages. Institutions can set students up for success by tracking with and adapting to evolving technologies relevant to a learner’s current or desired industry.

8) Speak the language of skills. As employers continue to loosen or eliminate degree requirements in response to a tight labor market, it will be all the more imperative for institutions to articulate the education they provide in terms of skills. Doing so can help employers and learners alike better understand the value and relevance of course content. As CU Boulder has demonstrated, it also helps institutions equip their learners with a life-long learning mindset focused on ongoing skill development rather than one-time degree attainment. (For more on the unique advantages of a skill-based approach to higher education, download the free Skills Required ).

9) Encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. Innovative business models and solutions will also help employers compensate for a dearth of workers. Institutions that support innovative research can produce a pipeline of skilled talent with the ideas, curiosity, and entrepreneurial spirit needed to most effectively solve the business challenges of the future.

Aligning education, people, and work

In a world where people are increasingly scarce, employers and educators will need to work together to close the unique skill gaps that exist in each community — ensuring individuals have the skills required to keep businesses (and society) running. Institutions willing to adapt where needed, innovate where possible, and offer flexible, career-aligned pathways for individuals in all stages of life can play a critical role in the future of learning and work.


Lightcast is committed to helping you leverage labor market insight for action and impact. If you’d like to learn more about our solutions for higher education or how our data can support your work, reach out anytime.