The economy is thriving, but workers are not — yet

The Labor Department released new data in November showing that the United States has a near-record number of job openings, with more than one job available for every unemployed person.

This follows the announcement in September that unemployment was at 3.7 percent — its lowest level since 1969. And despite recent plunges in the stock market, most agree our economy is doing well and has been for some time.

Yet despite the thriving economy, there are storm clouds on the economic horizon. Wage growth has stalled, while the gap between wealthy Americans and the lower and middle classes continues to widen.

Jobs have been touted as the solution to these problems, but merely creating enough jobs is not a sufficient remedy. Instead, our country is facing critical issues related to workforce development.

Rapid technological changes have created seismic shifts in the nature of work, resulting in a shortage of skilled labor. If we hope to remain at the leading edge of industrial advancement, we must get over this critical hurdle.

Universities are at the epicenter of our nation’s workforce development efforts. With renewed focus on advanced manufacturing and other technical capabilities, innovation and research are converging at campuses across the country to not only address today’s workforce gap, but to build skills for jobs that haven’t yet been created.

But while universities are home to the brightest minds and groundbreaking research, the perception has persisted that higher education has fallen out of touch with the needs of industry. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Therefore, it is more critical than ever for industry partners to collaborate with universities to develop tailored curricula and training to meet their needs.

In South Carolina, we’ve experienced this firsthand. Despite a thriving economy and the lowest jobless rate in almost 20 years, we have an aging population, limited numbers of skilled workers and a labor force that’s actually shrinking.

To meet these challenges, government, industry and academic partners have teamed up to attract and train future workforce and researchers, while simultaneously cultivating relationships with corporate partners to nurture and retain promising talent. It’s a classic win-win.

The University of South Carolina and its Office of Economic Engagement recently opened a new 15,000 square-foot Digital Transformation Lab, a research showplace featuring research and consumer products from in-demand industries, including robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud-based platforms.

The lab was created through a collaboration with industry giants like IBM, Siemens, Samsung and Yaskawa to provide real-world training in growing fields, while furthering our commitment to continuing to meet and exceed the workforce demands of industry.

USC is not alone in its collaborative experiment with corporate partnerships. This month, the University of Arizona and Microsoft announced a new cloud-computing research center that will not only foster research, but support workforce development in tech fields.

In Washington, D.C., George Washington University teamed up with the Health Resources and Services Administration to develop a pipeline program in the health-care industry, providing development opportunities for students with key regional partners.

Not only do these partnerships provide cutting-edge equipment and platforms for students to train on, they create and modernize courses and curricula uniquely tailored to meet the evolving needs of industry.

This convergence of industry innovation and access to top academic talent means well-paying jobs for students and a trained and available workforce for companies.

Skilled labor should not be a roadblock to economic growth. In fact, our ability to cultivate, attract and retain talent can be an economic driver. It is as attractive a calling card to businesses as tax incentives and robust infrastructure.

By developing and building on partnership successes through initiatives, we can maintain our economic strength and prepare for the jobs of tomorrow by training students and current employees today.

Harris Pastides, Ph.D., is the 28th president of the University of South Carolina.