Published on 2019/03/25

The EvoLLLution | Eight Strategies to Help Universities Stay Relevant and Shrink Skills Gaps
The demands on universities are changing, which means the approach universities need to take to meet the demand needs to evolve, too.

There are obvious skills gaps in our workforce, with companies struggling to find qualified candidates to fill vacancies. In January, job openings in the United States hit another historic high, with a total of 7.6 million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Disruptive technologies, automation, rapidly evolving business processes and the gig economy have created new needs for knowledge and skills in the workplace. The supply of qualified workers has fallen out of sync with employers’ demands. In its 2017 report, Shaping the Agile Workforce, Accenture identified that “up to 40% of companies experience talent shortages impacting the ability to adapt and innovate.”

In order to grow and survive, companies need an educated workforce with the agility to grow and change as the demands of work shift. Yet after the economic contraction of 2009, fewer companies have internal learning and development programs to train employees on the job. The responsibility of training now falls more to the individual and less to the organization. Universities have an opportunity to play a key role in providing solutions to this challenge, while increasing their value and impact.

Gone are the days of a 40-year career based on one four-year degree. Tomorrow’s professionals will need to retool on a continuous basis to keep up with the evolution of work. As The Atlantic described in its March 22, 2018, article, “The Third Education Revolution,” schools are moving toward a model of continuous, lifelong learning in order to meet the needs of today’s economy. “The ‘third wave’ is likely to be marked by continual training throughout a person’s lifetime—to keep current in a career, to learn how to complement rising levels of automation, and to gain skills for new work. Workers will likely consume this lifelong learning in short spurts when they need it, rather than in lengthy blocks of time as they do now.”

Historically, universities have been known for comprehensive degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels that can take years to develop and shuttle through extensive review and approval processes. However, the length of the development cycle puts universities at risk of becoming obsolete as the market races ahead of their programs.

A strong, credible and responsive resource to these emerging needs can be found in short-term, non-credit certificate programs delivered by professional education programs within universities. Unlike four-year degrees, short-term credential programs are more accessible to working professionals, since they can be completed in months rather than years. These programs can support the career growth of individuals, while meeting the evolving hiring needs of businesses. The content of these programs can be designed to be practical, applied and pertinent to current marketplace needs. These programs can still be high quality, while the financial investment is much lower than that of a full degree.

To remain relevant, universities need to update curriculum and adapt learning models more quickly. Non-credit professional education programs combine the best of both worlds—the expertise and quality of the university and the flexibility and adaptability of an innovative, entrepreneurial organization.

To stay current with employer needs, short-term programs can follow these strategies:

1. Rather than focusing on formulating answers, turn attention to asking questions of businesses to better understand their current and future workforce needs. Partner with companies to identify and assess knowledge and skill needs through focus groups, advisory committees, surveys and one-on-one conversations.

2. Engage human resources directors and talent managers in regular discussions to learn what skills and credentials they cannot find in the marketplace. Then build programs to develop the workers they need to bridge the gaps they cannot fill with the current workforce.

3. Collect and analyze data on enrollment trends, individual employer requests, and alumni employment to gauge demand for specific programs, and then adjust quickly when demand shrinks in one area and emerges in another.

4. Partner with workforce and economic development agencies that collect data on labor market and economic trends. By working together, education, workforce, and economic development partners can create a unified, systemic response and deliver collective impact, better alignment with business needs, and greater return on investment than they can achieve working independently.

5. Create a nimble organization with flexible staffing and agile processes that can adapt quickly to shifting industry trends.

6. Partner faculty with subject matter experts within industry to develop relevant learning that can be readily applied on-the-job.

7. Pilot innovative program topics through short courses delivered to a broad audience. Evaluate attendance and gather feedback, and then develop events that will be of interest to your students in full-certificate programs.

8. Be willing to prototype and beta test programs in a short development cycle. Develop, deliver, evaluate, adjust and repeat on an ongoing basis. Static programs have a short shelf life and are sure to expire.

Universities that implement these practices will be better equipped to deliver leading edge, in-demand knowledge. As a result, they will be more likely to become go-to strategic education partners for businesses looking to develop and grow a competitive workforce.

Short-term credentials are key to keeping pace with the needs of the workplace today, tomorrow, and beyond. As Accenture recognized, “Continuously reskilling workers creates a resilient workforce where human strengths are emphasized in a collaborative relationship between people and machines.” Universities offering quality short-term credential programs can simultaneously meet the career-long needs of students and deliver a relevant, skilled workforce to the organizations in their communities, resulting in stronger partnerships, a diminishing skills gap and a more vibrant economy.

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