Higher Ed’s Challenge to Meet the Job Needs of Students in a Post-COVID World

By George Lorenzo – Published March 2021 in Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

In the twenty-first year of the twenty-first century, higher education and the world of work have been dramatically transformed by a tragic pandemic. Now, after a whole lot of video conferences (and still more to come), there is a great deal of hope and optimism that things will indeed get better in the not-so-distant future.

For the moment, we define WFD in basic terms (taken from an article written by an industrial, workforce consultancy):

“Workforce development focuses on an individual’s ability to grow their skills and develop the tools they need for business success. In other words, workforce development trains individuals to be more productive and prosperous in the workplace, which benefits both the employer and the worker.” And, we would add, benefits the overall economy and students’ capabilities to thrive in any field of endeavor they may choose to participate in over a lifetime.

The Backdrop
So, today, in the early part of the first quarter of 2021, tens of millions are unemployed; the student debt crisis has obviously not gone away; an enrollment crisis looms large at many colleges and universities; COVID-19, which further exposed and exacerbated inequality issues, is still with us; and numerous prospective students are looking for shorter, less-expensive educational opportunities that can quickly enhance their skills and propel them into meaningful jobs post-COVID. Those educational opportunities, however, often don’t include enrolling in a college or university.

The goal for higher education is to continuously improve, and one of many elements of that goal is to provide the most up-to-date and relevant educational experiences within the enormous arena of WFD. 

Three Areas in Need of Improvement
According to a December 2020 report by Brookings, WFD has been declining for decades on three fronts that need to be upgraded.

  1. Many college and universities need to overcome a bevy of challenges in order to continuously improve their mandate to provide students with the most relevant and innovative educational experiences they require for gainful employment. This struggle is due to a variety of reasons, including, most recently, a lack of funds driven by COVID-influenced enrollment declines.
  2. Employers and government need to increase workforce training opportunities. Millions have been unemployed, and many of the businesses that employed them have been permanently destroyed, also due to COVID. These individuals need new job-skill training for a new post-COVID world.
  3. Private-sector unions, which have diminished for decades, need to be revived and supported in a drive to increase on-the-job training and worker protections.

What Happened to Higher Ed?
Our focus here is on #1, higher education. The Brookings report notes that fall 2020 enrollment declines (a four-percent undergraduate decline compared to 2019 and a 13 percent decline in first-time students) were caused primarily by the necessary increase in online education course offerings. Even though online education had significantly grown in popularity pre-COVID, “less than five percent of college budgets had been directed to information technology spending [to enhance online teaching and learning environments]. Hence, many universities were unprepared for the transition to online during the spring 2020 semester as the pandemic began to spread and many students and faculty members had not received sufficient training to fully utilize online learning applications.”

In addition to institutions encountering increased costs for necessary online education technology improvements, they were forced into expensive purchases for protective equipment and social distancing accommodations for lab- and clinical-based in-person courses. Plus, billions in revenue losses happened in other areas, such as unused student housing and meal plans, athletic event cancellations, and drops in revenue that traditionally came from higher ed-allied hospitals.

A Newly Challenged Landscape
As explained in the Brookings report:

“Alongside these financial and logistical challenges for the higher education sector, changes to the labor market will require institutions to change the way they prepare students for the future workforce. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, automation and artificial intelligence technologies were transforming the workplace, increasing interactions between workers and machines, and requiring new skills of workers (McKinsey, 2018). Autor and Reynolds (2020) speculate that the post-COVID labor market will markedly differ from its pre-pandemic environment in four key ways: telepresence, urban de-densification, employment concentration in large firms, and general automation forcing. Other studies have made similar predictions of how work will change in the wake of the COVID crisis. This will require significant steps forward in training our workers for the post-COVID-19 economy.”

“Significant disparities exist in institutions’ and students’ ability to face these challenges…”
According to WorkingNation, higher education needs to rethink its readiness with more hope, as opposed to fear, in conjunction with a new road map. “This means upskilling our workforce now to ensure that each man and each woman has the skills they need in an economy that is putting more emphasis on technical skills, knowledge-based tasks, and automation than ever before.”

Suggested Solutions
That road map comes in numerous shapes and sizes professed by many WFD-oriented organizations. We’ll synthesize only one here (with many more to come in future issues):

The New Geography of Skills: Using regional skill shapes to build a better learning ecosystem/Dec. 10, 2019, Strada and Emsi

The New Geography report proposes a “new learning ecosystem that better serves all workers and learners,” supported by “real-time labor market information” enhanced by sophisticated analytics that trigger what the authors call “skill shapes.” These skill shapes are defined as “unique skill demands associated with a career field, region, or individual,” and they are focused on regional demands.

It’s proposed that by understanding skill shapes, higher education can design “learning programs that are personalized, aligned with workforce demands, and efficiently designed to help learners keep pace with rapidly evolving skill demands.” Such learning programs are identified as “precision education.”

Precision education environments are aimed primarily at “lifelong learners and earners looking to reskill and upskill throughout their working lives.” And it is advised that such precision education environments be modular “with just-in-time training that allows workers to update and upgrade their skills without duplicating the skills that they already have.”

For instance, community colleges, through partnerships with regional companies, can utilize skill shapes “to build more short-burst training programs with employers that enhance learners’ mobility in the labor market,” as opposed to advising prospective non-degreed working-class earners toward enrolling in full-blown degree programs.   

Three Transformed Industries
The New Geography report concentrated on careers in manufacturing, digital marketing, and cybersecurity in select regions.

Manufacturing, for example, is not a dead industry, as so many believe. Yes, automation has dramatically decreased this industry’s historical reliance on the hiring of physical laborers, but the U.S. manufacturing industry still represents 11.39% of the economy’s output and employs 8.51% of the workforce, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

Manufacturing career opportunities require applicants, for example, to “simultaneously keep one foot firmly rooted in the old world of machining and welding while planting the other in the advanced computer-automated technologies of the present and future.”

Manufacturers today need multi-functional engineering technicians who possess traditional manufacturing and engineering skills, along with human skills like communication and collaboration. A high-value production worker is a hybrid of a boots-on-the-ground technician and an engineer laser-focused on improving how things get done.

The report noted that the central and surrounding areas of San Diego, CA, Wichita, KS, and Hartford, CT are good regions for short-burst, skills-shaped, precision-education courses and training. 

Jobs in the field of digital marketing were underscored as rivaling those in the field of information technology, with students who graduate from business, communications, liberal arts, and social science programs gravitating toward digital marketing careers.

Digital marketing now comprises a vast array of skills, including search engine optimization, social media marketing, and email marketing. Recently, jobs in some regions have come to emphasize user interface and user experience design, as marketing tactics have become integrated into virtually all digital content.

The skills employers seek out in the field of digital marketing “vary substantially by region,” with Denver, CO, Atlanta, GA, and Boise, ID identified as key central and surrounding areas for careers in this arena.

Jobs in cybersecurity continue to be in a state of high demand. Companies are forced to deal with data breaches; financial records of consumers are accidentally exposed; hackers are responsible for billions of dollars in lost revenues.

It is no surprise then that the demand for cybersecurity professionals has been skyrocketing for nearly a decade. The number of cybersecurity jobs (classified as “information security analysts” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) has grown by 42 percent since 2014, adding some 35,000 new jobs to the economy, with an additional 22 percent increase expected through 2029.

Washington, DC, Columbus, OH, and St. Louis, MO-IL were recognized as key areas of the country for cybersecurity jobs that also vary considerably by region.