As the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt workforce and education dynamics among nearly every sector, universities must undertake a renewed focus on ensuring their academic programs align to workforce needs. This intentional alignment between an institution’s academic offerings and industry needs will provide additional educational and economic value to the student, the employer, and the university.
The pandemic’s impact has included the decrease in labor force participation of women, disproportionate employment impacts on people of color, and job losses among those in low-wage work (Pew Research Center, 2021). In parallel, the pool of available workers with workforce relevant skills in key industries of healthcare, education, business and technology is forecasted to remain in under supply for years after the pandemic. Meanwhile, the radical pivot of many occupations and services shifting to online platforms and environments during the last 18 months has also created an “explosion of remote work, [that] will expand demand for jobs in information technology services and other knowledge worker categories” (SHRM, 2021), changing the landscape of how and where learners transition into their careers.
Data from Strada Education Network’s Public Viewpoint survey show that the most common motivations for alumni in relation to their education were career related: to be able to qualify for good jobs (87 percent), to gain skills to be successful in work (86 percent), and to advance their careers (84 percent).The need for assisting adult learners in their transition back or shift within the workforce to these high-demand, skill-focused careers should be a central mission for the higher education sector.
What is a Workforce Relevant Academic Program?
Workforce-aligned degrees are defined as academic offerings that have embedded content and assessments that build the knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed for learners to enter and thrive in specific industries. Healthcare, education, business and technology fields not only require strong content knowledge by working professionals, but also an understanding of key industry practices, tools, and processes. Both emerging fields (data science, cybersecurity, etc.) and established occupations (nursing, software programmer, etc.) that are experiencing high projected growth rates rely on workforces that are proficient in emerging technologies, tools, and platforms in their respective fields.
This targeted industry-relevant knowledge often leads to salary premiums in the labor force for students; students can site key skills on their resumes or online portfolios. Adult learners actively seek out these industry skills in an education program, understanding there is return on investment (ROI) on skill development for their career. Highlighting how a program’s curriculum aligns to workforce skills and specific occupations is a key message to students on the academic rigor and relevancy intentionally designed in coursework.
Beyond benefit to the individual student, institutions who provide workforce relevant degrees strengthen partnerships and pipelines with their local employers and assist in strengthening the economic conditions of their region. A reciprocal relationship develops between institutions and local organizations when there is collaboration of industry knowledge and research, including student and employee pipelines.
How to Develop Workforce Relevant Academic Programs?
Creating workforce relevant degrees requires keeping the vast and unique experiences of adult learners in mind. Adult learners desire to bring in their prior knowledge and experiences into their chosen academic setting, but may have varying levels of content knowledge and exposure to a new discipline or field.
Creating sufficient on-ramps for students of different backgrounds enhances student success and retention. Program on-ramps can include online student orientations with leveling, supplemental materials and introductory level courses that provide the foundational concepts of a topic. In educational programs, this can include topics of educational theory and classroom management. In technology courses, on-ramp supports could include program language tutorials (Python, Java, etc.), math refresh opportunities, and computer science framework guides. In graduate business programs, creating on-ramps and supports for students without accounting or finance programs in these specific topics can assist students in their engagement and retention, scaffolding their knowledge and ability to succeed in more advance graduate courses.
Faculty can also assist students with excelling their ability to enter a new area of the workforce by embedding workforce technologies into learning modules. For example, technology disciplines can include learning activities and assessments that involve the use of Microsoft Azure, Github, AWS, or other cloud tools or platforms. In business disciplines, embedding the use of presentation software (Pitchvantage, Microsoft PowerPoint, etc), project management or product management software, data analytics or marketing tools (Salesforce, Tableau), or general online collaboration tools (Zoom, Webex, etc) supports students in their workforce readiness. In nursing disciplines, providing exposure to electronic health record (HER) or electronic medical record (EMR) platforms allow students to immediately transfer their knowledge of a software to their workplace settings. In education, creating projects and assessments that include classroom edtech platforms such as Flipgrid and Quizlet can help students create transferable skills, whether they are seeking initial licensure or an additional content or leadership roles.
When creating workforce relevant degrees, faculty and administrators should review alignment between their program and course objectives and leading industry certificate standards. In this calibration process, faculty should attempt to use the same terminology for concepts as presented in industry certificates, helping students and employers understand the functions or abilities students will have when existing an academic program.
In technology programs, common industry certifications can include those in the cybersecurity industry domain such as CISSP, Security+, and Network+. In computer sciences or information systems technology programs, programs can align program or course objective language to major industry standards or certifications that focus on common workforce tools such as Microsoft platforms, Amazon Web Services, and Google Cloud. In business disciplines, embedding coursework that aligns to common industry certificates or licenses could include Project Management Professional (PMP), Salesforce Marketing, or Certified Public Accountant certifications. Education programs can include coursework and competencies support certification in Applied Behavior Analysis, online teaching, and other specialty content areas beyond a licensure area. Nursing programs can align curriculum to support registered nurse or advanced practice registered nurse licensing exams.
Faculty can create engaging, relevant learning delivery methods including of workforce-relevant or industry certificate competencies in experiential learning or project-based learning modules. Examples include the use of real-world case studies from local industries, business case competitions focused on addressing an issue in a local economy or region, the creation of software solutions or data visualizations with open-source data projects, and student development of ePortfolios or online websites to showcase their real-world knowledge and applications. As learners prepare to pivot or propel further into an industry, assessments such as capstone projects with local industry partners or industry content can provide additional application of content, while helping students showcase their knowledge to employers.
The call to serve adult learners in their career journeys remains prominent as we continue to navigate the aftermath of a global pandemic. As academics, our contributions to creating workforce relevant degrees and programs can assist with the economic recoveries for the individuals and regions we serve. Partnering with industry leaders, tools, certifications and processes to ensure content relevancy is key in this effort. This practice of providing opportunities for students to gain not only necessary skills, but distinguishing skills, should remain a best practice in academic and course planning going forward as the economic and talent landscape increasingly change.