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Collaborative Education: How Universities Can Bridge the Labor Market Skills Gap

The EvoLLLution | Collaborative Education: How Universities Can Bridge the Labor Market Skills Gap
Though more commonly seen in community colleges, apprenticeships are gaining steam as an effective programming option at four-year institutions as well.

Students today expect that their university experience will lead them to a good job. As a result, there’s more pressure on universities than ever before to adopt a model that drives greater collaboration between the academy and the labor market. One model that’s increasingly bridging this gap is apprenticeships, though they have traditionally been managed by employers themselves, or as a partnership between employers and community colleges. Can universities succeed with this model as well? In this interview, John LaBrie discusses how his institution championing the apprenticeship model and shares his insights about the applicability of apprenticeships in universities. 

 The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are higher education institutions beginning to pay closer attention to the potential for apprenticeships as a mechanism to drive employment outcomes?

John LaBrie (JL): For the past decade, higher education has become keenly aware that the employability of our students is a central expectation of our work. Regardless of the discipline or the region of the country, our students are increasingly demanding that we show verifiable proof that our education will lead to a good career.  As educators, we know that one of the most powerful ways to teach our students for a lifelong career is by providing them with authentic, real-world work experiences. Experiential education is now a powerful pedagogical element at many institutions. For example, at Clark University, my institution, the central organizing feature of our undergraduate experience is the integration of Liberal Education with Engaged Practice (LEEP).  Co-op and internships have become central in many school’s curricula.

Apprenticeships are a logical extension to that trend. Apprenticeships move an educational model from the classroom and onto the job site. Rather than merely experiencing the workplace as a learning experience, the workplace is the educational process. The employer and the school become co-equals in the student experience. As we think about employability, there is no more authentic experience than when education and employers work hand-in-glove in crafting the learning experience. If a central outcome of our work is to ensure our students are highly employable when they finish their education then we must be open to the power of the apprenticeship model.

Evo: The benefits of apprenticeships for employers and learners are clear; how do universities benefit from supporting apprenticeship training?

JL: Universities have been training talent for society’s institutional needs since the middle ages. Cambridge and Oxford existed to supply the crown and the clergy with the expertise to keep society working. Historically, we considered universities to be the realm of the professions while community colleges and trade schools were the realms of the more applied arts and trades. Today, our society has become a sophisticated array of technology and culture. The applied fields are highly complex, and the trades require individuals who possess a high level of technological sophistication.

Universities can also learn a great deal from the knowledge that is being curated and applied in the modern-day workforce. Effective managers foster learning communities within the workplace to hedge against competitive and evolving technological forces. Academia can ill afford to be walled off from the modern economy.

So, to answer your question, universities benefit from apprenticeships through the active and engaged working with the employer community. It reinforces our ability to remain current and relevant to the broader economy. In the end, all of our students will benefit as well.

Evo: On the subject of universities, apprenticeships tend to be part of community colleges’ repertoire. Why are universities well-suited to supporting apprenticeship offerings?

JL: Community colleges and trade schools have been an invaluable asset in our nation’s talent development tradition. If they remain true to their historic mission, they will continue to be powerful institutions for our economy. I would argue that research universities can learn a great deal from our colleagues in colleges. The technical sophistication and complexity of today’s workforce demand that the full spectrum of education be engaged in supporting students to their ultimate goal of a better life. This is not your grandfather’s economy anymore. Universities can leverage their impressive technical and intellectual capital to provide training and education for apprenticeship participants. We can seek ways to credential experiential learning so students and learn and earn. Stacking experience with traditional knowledge is a powerful one-two punch to getting people employed. Making all of it portable is key to building that educational capital that students demand.

But in today’s economy, it is almost a guarantee that the former student apprentice will re-enter our educational system again and again as a student. This notion that the student today will re-enter our systems again in the future is a strategy of enlightened self-interest for universities. Universities, by their very definition, have multifaceted missions. They are knowledge creators as well as knowledge disseminators. The apprenticeship model gives us yet another avenue to achieve our mission.

Evo: What are a few of the management challenges that come from offering programming through the unique apprenticeship model?

JL: Perhaps the biggest and most daunting management challenge in the apprenticeship model for higher educators is our own insular culture. We are not a profession that extends frequently beyond our campus. The apprenticeship model demands an active collaboration between the university and the employer. The employer must see themselves as a full-fledged partner in the educational process. That is a challenging perspective for us.  There are other challenges, as well. How much education should be formalized before the apprenticeship begins? Employers view education through a training lens, so we need to work to bridge the difference of perspective to the benefit of the student. Our administrative structures are not designed to measure and validate apprenticeship learning. Think about our credit hour system and how we should measure learning at a yearlong apprenticeship in a technology company. We pre-define learning outcomes in our curriculum, yet apprenticeships may yield learning outcomes that vary from one experience to the other. As a consequence, apprenticeship work must be viewed through new lenses for us to maximize its meaning.

Evo: What advice would you share with other university leaders looking to play a role in apprenticeship programs?

JL: I would suggest that our role as educators is not merely to perpetuate styles of learning that have evolved randomly over time. For example, the lecture is scalable and easily replicated; yet it hasn’t been proven to be the best learning tool. Instead, it should be our quest to find modes of learning that make education more valuable and, yes, exciting. Working collaboratively with the employer community to craft a learning experience that can stage a student for lifelong success is a compelling proposition. If our learning outcomes are clearly and convincingly achieved, then our fixation on the credential may not be as central to our value system.  So, my advice to colleagues is to jump in and explore this avenue of experiential learning. It is not a radical idea, after all. There have been apprenticeships for hundreds of years.


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