Higher Education, Return on Investment, Workforce Development

The Details: Education & Employers

A series of events last week led me to participate in several conversations about the alignment of our university’s program offerings with Connecticut’s workforce needs. These conversations are not new, nor are they surprising. Since our founding in 1913, WCSU has been responding to the needs of the region by growing our program offerings, assessing their quality, and evolving as new discoveries and career paths emerge. Our professional programs align with industry standards and our more broadly liberal arts offerings provide ample opportunity for students to explore the many paths open to them, through research, internships, service learning, and so on. Call it workforce development, career preparation, or access to the American Dream – this is what we do.

Still, I was struck by the confluence of initiatives coming from all corners, so I spent a few hours reading a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, Building Tomorrow’s Workforce: What employers want you to know. In this compilation of interviews with business leaders and career development professionals in higher education there were some important observations about the complexity of aligning education with what employers say they want. There were also some important gaps in the conversations. Those gaps reflect some important details that we all need to understand.

First, not all workforce needs are equal and conflating them is not satisfying for anyone. In our region of the country and elsewhere, there is a pressing demand for an expanded workforce in healthcare. At a four-year university, the pathways to much of this work is through the nursing degree and allied health programs. At two-year colleges, there are opportunities to become Certified Nursing Assistants, phlebotomists, EMTs, and to earn the first level nursing credential. Each of these paths are great opportunities for students and all of them will lead to employment. They are appropriately tiered in terms of the return on investment, with a relatively low-cost for CNA, phlebotomy, and EMT, and somewhat more for the two-year degree, and more for the four-year degree. All of this makes sense in terms of opportunities for graduates and meeting regional workforce needs.

But we can’t keep up with demand. CNAs move on quickly so there is a need for constant replenishment. EMTs are only compensated in some scenarios, so there is some instability there. Nursing programs are working hard to educate as many students as they can, but there are limits on the number of clinical sites, which slows the pipeline. In other words, the education we provide is aligned with the regional workforce needs, but a combination of factors external to higher education is making it hard to keep up with demand.

Then there is the ever-present need for people who understand all things related to computers and the internet. From coding, to cybersecurity, to web development, the demand is clear. The shortfall in appropriately skilled people has led to boot camps, free online programs, the dropping of degree requirements in favor of tests of competence, etc. These short paths to entering reasonably compensated positions is not a bad thing. The industries making these moves are supporting the preparation necessary for entry level opportunities that can be good for the people who take advantage of them.

But, then they want the rest of what we offer — the maturity, the critical thinking, the collaboration and problem-solving skills, and even the understanding of the nuances of cultures — and those short-term credentials don’t get students there. Employers also frequently need the more extensive education in computer science and cybersecurity that we provide. Certainly, those more robust skills and understandings are the path from entry level to more advanced positions. Without them, those short-term credentials may ultimately limit opportunities, rather than grow them.

Universities and colleges do revise and adapt as quickly as we can, but in technology fields new things emerge at a pace that is breathtaking. The short-term paths may be good opportunities for our students, if the employers will also create paths to the rest of the educational opportunities we provide. Support for continued education for those who come through those boot camps would be a great place to start.

What about the degrees we offer that don’t neatly align with a single career trajectory? Well, most jobs require combinations of skills and attitudes that are not aligned with particular majors and a plethora of studies about “what employers want” keep identifying the essential learning outcomes of a liberal arts degree. We do that well. Still, there are some components of positions that a specific course or two might address. For example, there is a high demand for graduates who can support social media sites, so some grounding in how websites work and how to analyze interaction within them might be useful. Many places need people who are able to interpret and communicate about basic quantitative data, so a statistics class is in order. Then there are the many jobs that ask for employees who are adept at interacting with diverse populations of people (in the workplace and in the community). Those skills can come from any number of courses and experiences in our classrooms and in the internships we hope that many organizations will provide. We can be more intentional about promoting these combinations of skills to our students; we hope that employers will make these skills visible in their recruitment language.

The popular perception that higher education is somehow averse to supporting workforce development couldn’t be further from the truth. But supporting the workforce needs of a state is a collaboration. Employers need to understand the barriers we face in meeting their expectations quickly. Limited opportunities for clinical placements make it difficult for us to increase the desired educational pipelines (healthcare, mental health, social work, etc.). Financial realities often make it difficult for students to take advantage of internships. The pace of technological development makes it difficult to re-imagine curriculum quickly. We are not being obstinate; we just face some practical challenges.

These are the kinds of details that need constant attention as we strive to provide the best opportunities for our students and for our region. They are tricky details, but not insurmountable. We are happy to partner up and sort them out. Let’s talk.