Preparing Workers, A New Geography, and Better Connections

By George Lorenzo – Published June 25, 2021 in Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

According to recent jobs figures posted in June, more than 9 million people are still unemployed. Moreover, the student debt crisis has obviously not gone away; an enrollment crisis still looms large at many colleges and universities; and numerous prospective students are looking for shorter, less-expensive educational opportunities that can quickly enhance their skills and propel them into meaningful jobs.  Those educational opportunities, however, often do not 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 Workforce Development (WFD). 

Three Areas in Need of and Upgrade
According to a December 2020 report by Brookings, tilted “Preparing Workers for the Post-COVED Economy,” 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 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. 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?
The Brookings report notes that enrollment declines 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
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.”

That road map comes in numerous shapes and sizes professed by many WFD-oriented organizations. We’ll synthesize only two here:

  1. The New Geography of Skills: Using regional skill shapes to build a better learning ecosystem,“ published Dec. 10, 2019, by Strada and Emsi
  2. Better Connecting Students to Jobs: A Guide for Policymakers to Encourage Support Integrating Competencies in Postsecondary Education and Training, published May 2020, by the Urban Institute

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.

The Shift Toward Competencies Rather than Credentials
From an historical perspective, higher education degrees (meaning credentials) served as the primary representation for employers to identify the potential of new hires. But that dynamic has changed in today’s world of work. “Even with technological advances in hiring, employers increasingly admit concern that traditional ways of identifying talent (e.g., using degrees as a signal) are not yielding the best results,” notes the Urban Institute in its Better Connecting Students to Jobs report. “The solution may be to shift toward using competencies rather than credentials as ‘currency’ in the labor market,” the Institute adds.

The Urban Institute researchers interviewed more than 20 so-called experts who are “testing ways to build competencies into postsecondary education and training systems, including their own academic or training programs, state policymakers, and leaders of national organizations.” The following synopsis features elements from several bulleted lists published in the report that highlighted recommendations that came from colleges, universities, training providers, and federal and state government professionals:

  • Track student labor-market outcomes and analyze local job markets;
  • evaluate competency-based approaches and be more transparent about what they are learning and share lessons with external stakeholders, including students, parents, and policymakers;
  • participate in communities of practice and share challenges and lessons learned with staff internally and at other institutions;
  • use existing resources to identify competencies, map them to curricula and credentials, and signal them in the marketplace; and
  • support collaboration between the academic departments and registrars to think about how to develop data systems that help both track and communicate competencies.

Overall, there’s a good amount of valuable information in this relatively short read of only 19 pages. In another section of this report headlined “Signaling the Importance of Employment Outcomes for All Postsecondary Education and Training” Institute researchers listed (below in brief) how “actions to signal the importance of labor-market outcomes for all of our postsecondary education providers can occur at different levels”:

  • The US Department of Education can continue to invest in and expand the coverage and quality of the labor-market outcomes gathered and displayed in the College Scorecard.
  • States could signal the importance of labor-market outcomes by annually reviewing College Scorecard data for their state’s programs and considering the appropriate implications for their legislative funding formulas and priorities.
  • Even absent federal or state action, educational institutions can act on their own, tracking labor-market outcomes for their students and making strategic decisions about their program offerings and investments using these data.

Additional recommendations were provided by the Institute on how to encourage educational institutions, training providers, and federal and state governments to focus on competencies, including:

  • Designing and implementing full competency-based education (CBE) programs or thinking strategically about how to translate what students know into terms that employers value and recognize.
  •  State legislation that encourages credential transparency and a broad-based adoption of skills-based hiring approaches.
  • Policymakers could encourage competency-based approaches by introducing this type of system early on in students’ educational experiences in primary and secondary school, embedding it throughout postsecondary education, and leveraging competencies to smooth transitions after high school and between postsecondary institutions.
  • A federal government mandate that seeks to align the language it uses across levels of education. As it stands now, in K–12, the language focuses on “proficiency” and “mastery”; in higher education, on “learning objectives”; and in workforce development and training and hiring, on “competencies.”
  • State policymakers issuing guidance on how college admissions officials should evaluate high school proficiency-based transcripts in the holistic application review process.

Finally, the Urban Institute report concludes with a hopeful forward-looking statement, noting how both the student loan crisis and the difficulties businesses face when attempting to identify and hire talented employees have ultimately fostered “innovation and openness among both businesses and education systems.”

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