It’s time to rethink workforce development (opinion)

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Adult education has long been a key service provided by American universities in response to the nation’s needs for literacy and basic skills training as well as workforce development. While many flexible and innovative programs are being put in place for technical and skill-based careers, workforce development needs have changed dramatically. Employees at high-tech defense and manufacturing companies that keep the U.S. economy at the forefront need new knowledge-based learning about technologies that didn’t exist when they graduated from undergraduate degrees. or even their graduate degree. America’s largest employers are looking to build new, flexible partnerships around these needs, but the country’s higher education system has failed to keep up. It’s time for a systemic reassessment of how America’s universities can play a role in the lifelong learning of the 21st century workforce.

Before retiring from the University of Texas at Arlington in the spring of 2021, I worked with major regional employers to build meaningful and lasting partnerships with the university. Time and time again, technology and defense companies have talked about the need for easily accessible degree and certificate programs that would allow their employees to deepen their knowledge in their chosen career field. While faculty members and presidents would often push back against the fact that professional training was not a role for a University of Texas campus, these companies were not looking for professional training, but for greater opportunities to build awareness of the kind offered in core undergraduate and graduate programs. More importantly, they were looking for flexibility in learning programs, whether one-off courses in electrical engineering, for example, to catch up with developments in electrification and battery technologies, or certificates adaptable and comprehensive degrees that meet the needs of employers and employees rather than just following prescribed programs and pre-approved study plans.

Several demographic and technological trends are making workers’ needs for new knowledge a more pressing priority. Fewer traditional-aged students are enrolling in college, a development exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rate at which technology has driven the gap between knowledge workers and everyone else is growing, further entrenching existing economic and racial disparities, while the number of quality jobs available to “everyone else” is declining at long term. Finally, the drive to “outsource” manufacturing and shorten supply chains will require significant growth in the knowledge workforce at a time when America is simply not producing enough engineers and scientists. .

Where higher education fails, America fails to recognize, or perhaps fails to respond, to the fact that in a knowledge-based economy there are labor and employees that only America’s knowledge providers – our universities – can provide, and that state universities in particular have an ethical responsibility that they do not respect. This failure is both morally questionable and socio-economically damaging to the nation and its people.

Further, by failing to recognize that many members of today’s workforce need knowledge-based certificates and degrees, higher education is ignoring an opportunity to address racial disparities, ethnic and social backgrounds that have trapped many underserved Americans – inner-city African Americans and Latinos, rural white people, single mothers, veterans and more – into the careers below where their real talent could lead them. Employees who received an associate’s degree in electrical engineering technology (EET), for example, face significant challenges transferring those credits into a four-year bachelor’s degree in engineering without starting over, despite their work experience. Innovative pathway initiatives that support transfers of EET students to EE degree programs should be developed to replicate the undergraduate transfer pathways that institutions like the Georgia Institute of Technology have established for colleges. and universities that do not have engineering programs.

The cost of tuition and the resulting indebtedness also impose an additional moral imperative on our state universities. They are the only institutions with an appropriate price for master’s degrees in low-paying fields, and they already have ties to the employers who need these talents the most, whether they be government agencies, companies, etc. social service organizations or manufacturers and high-tech companies. . Regional public university campuses should take the lead in providing the vast majority of knowledge-based education, online or face-to-face, to these workers, especially if the national ranking-focused public flagships do not are unwilling to commit.

Finally, state universities must ask themselves why they are slow to adapt to meet the country’s new labor needs. Is it just a lingering bias against offering career-focused training? If so, these universities have refused to recognize the fact that technological change and the socio-economic stagnation of today’s economy impose new responsibilities on higher education in America. Today’s employers understand the gap between simple job training and knowledge-based degrees that support career advancement. The academy needs to catch up.

Three immediate steps can move universities and corporate partners forward:

  1. Regional universities should work with their local and national corporate partners to establish a plan for what is needed. The range of business knowledge needs, the percentage of employees who would seek face-to-face versus online options, the greater availability of courses in the third and fourth year undergraduates for tenured an associate degree, adapting individual courses or certificates to fill knowledge gaps in critical or emerging technologies, and creating humanities certificates or programs that support critical thinking, skills writing and leadership would all be part of that discussion. In larger markets with multiple employers, partnerships between industry sectors whose workforces face similar challenges would help universities find a sustainable path to developing this part of their student body. If the local business community is not funding such an exercise, community foundations or regional economic development groups should step in.
  2. A sustained national effort is needed to overcome the racial and socio-economic divides that have resulted from higher education’s relentless focus on 18-24 year old students. The launch of the Power of Systems movement by the National Association of Systems Heads in December is a good start, but the proposal lacks detail on the broader goals. As this effort intensifies, businesses and public universities across the country can now work together to target the degrees most needed in this region and changing industry needs. At the same time, students whose life experience or poor educational background led them to competency-based degrees must be given the opportunity to advance. In some cases, this will require systemic change. For example, the engineering accrediting agency, ABET, should aggressively reach out to industry and academia to support the means by which EET associate degree holders can pursue engineering studies. engineer with minimal disruption to life. Such a process could unlock a massive new pool of local engineering talent at a time when engineers are desperately scarce.
  3. Higher education and the corporate world need to engage with undergraduate and graduate students and their future employers about the implicit meaning and desirability of the overused phrase “lifelong learning.” Students and recent graduates should be aggressive when asking potential employers about their programs to support continuing education throughout their careers, and what educational streams – engineering, engineering management, or business administration – lead to which career paths. Employers need to work more aggressively with university partners to map their future talent needs. Companies might be reluctant to expose their long-term business strategy too much, but since academic disciplines only align tangentially with business units, such exposure could easily be managed by hiring a business school or researcher. in systems engineering as a consultant to manage the exchange of information. Universities need to aggressively shift their focus from alumni as donors to alumni as potential students, corporate insiders and, yes, donors. The money will come, but for today’s students, engagement with their college or university in the future will require a meaningful ongoing relationship; continued career engagement is an important way to achieve this goal.

More importantly, everything described here can be proactively implemented by public universities across the country in the very short term. These steps do not require waiting for the emergence of the universities of the future or undertaking vast academic overhauls which, according to experience, would inevitably become multi-year exercises in navel-gazing. US state universities offer quality education at a much lower cost than private institutions, while working with key corporate partners allows them to focus their efforts on programs with the greatest regional impact. The content of today’s university courses and programs is precisely what the workforce needs; what needs to change are the delivery methods. The academy needs to recognize that its core clientele has shifted from being primarily 18-24 year old undergraduates on a four- to six-year track to a broad, hard-to-define spectrum that includes these students but adds professionals at the start. and mid-career adult associate degree holders, veterans, mothers returning to school, and more. Higher education, which demands diversity of opportunities inside and outside the university, must intensify its efforts to achieve this.


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