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It seems that when things change for the worse, they tend to do so very quickly- like rising gas prices. Yet, when conditions improve they seem to do so slowly- a penny here, a penny there- never making much of a difference.

When the Great Recession hit in 2007, the impact on the job market was felt immediately and unemployment peaked at 10 percent only a couple years later in 2009. We’re now on the road to recovery, and the jobs that were lost seem to be taking forever to return, if at all. Employers who quickly shed workers at the start of the recession, are taking their sweet time to offer new opportunities to people desperate for jobs.

What is the reason for this reluctance? Well, there are a few.

Technological advances during the recession played a role in eliminating some jobs, while others were “shipped” out of the country. In addition,  there are employers in a number of industries claiming that they cannot find enough qualified candidates to fill their open positions due to a “skills gap”, resulting in almost 4 million open jobs in the U.S. at the start of 2014.

Rob Sentz for Forbes.com writes, “The skills gap is not so much a singular, monolithic problem as much as it’s a multifaceted phenomenon perpetuated by hundreds of regional labor market interactions inside of America’s complex economy.”

According to Sentz, there are three key distinct factors that make the skills gap problem difficult to analyze.

  1. The U.S. has a really, really big economy – Trying to analyze and influence direction in something as giant and complex as the U.S. economy is a monumental task.
  2. The U.S. is diverse – The $16 trillion our economy generates supports about 150 million jobs (including self-employed workers) spread across 1,100 classified industries, which are additionally staffed by hundreds of unique and specialized occupations.
  3. The U.S. is decentralized – The diversity in the U.S. economy also makes it next to impossible to manage and understand from a single point. All the jobs and industry activity are distributed across a highly varied geography.

It may seem obvious that a major solution to a skills gap rests in education. Simply send more people to college and encourage them to specialize in the areas where there is a talent shortage. There, problem solved!

Not so fast. Unfortunately, college may not be the answer.  While it is true that college graduation rates are at an all-time high, it appears that a college degree alone may not be the solution.  According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, only 19 of the 30 occupations projected to grow fastest from 2012 to 2022 require some form of postsecondary education for entry. In addition, occupations that do not typically require postsecondary education are projected to add 8.8 million jobs between 2012 and 2022 accounting for more than half of all new jobs. These occupations employed nearly two-thirds of workers in 2012.

However, there may some good news on the horizon. This pressing issue for higher education seems to be shaping itself into an opportunity for associations. According to Shelly Alcorn, CAE, many certifications offered by associations, will play a bigger role than traditional college degrees in the future.

“Associations have a distinct advantage over a college system by their ability to quickly adapt to the changing needs of the industries they represent,” she said. “They can take their domain knowledge, and create online education offerings that are understandable, and by doing so establish themselves as the go-to source for that information.”

We couldn’t agree more. Associations should be developing programs and services to position their organizations as THE career resource for their industry or profession.

Can associations do this overnight? Admittedly, no. While the association industry as a whole is very large and still very strong, it is made of thousands upon thousands of organizations that do not work together. Many different industries and professions are represented, and their individual organization’s interests do not align, except for one important area. Relevance.

One of the best ways to create relevance is to market relevance. Having an online job board or career center is an extremely effective way to sell your value to members, prospects, and employers in need of qualified talent. Taking a “regional” approach can also work, because studies show that niche job boards like an association career center, remain highly attractive today.

As Shelly pointed out in a recent article on Associations Now, if associations successfully navigate the education-to-employment market, unprecedented member loyalty could follow. To get there associations will need to adjust their thinking.

“I don’t know if there’s a better kind of member loyalty than ‘they helped me train for a job, find a job, get that job, and get a better job,’” she said.

It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be overlooked.