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Upskilling Working Adults with Pathways

Credential pathways
Developing educational pathways for adult learners ensure that they stay professionally relevant through difficult economic periods by providing constant upskilling according to market needs

The Mass General Brigham (MGB) Hospital system, the largest private employer in Massachusetts, is looking for a solution to ensure that thousands of frontline workers, who are typically high school graduates with, perhaps, some college can be upskilled to take advantage of openings as practice assistants. Especially when labor markets were tight, these vital roles proved hard to fill. But as an employer with a storied reputation for innovation in human resource development, MGB was looking for a new model and formed a novel partnership with the University of Massachusetts to develop it.  

A practice assistant is generally the first and last person a patient interacts with. Their responsibilities differ depending on their location in the workflow. Pediatric practice has them interacting with parents and children from infants to teens, most of whom are seeking check-ups or simple services, but some of whom need treatment for cancer. Obstetrics and gynecology units require practice assistants to serve women anxious about fertility treatments, joyous over having babies, or seeking care for a serious reproductive disease. Oncology and orthopedics differ still.  

While it is possible to treat these positions as generic, Mass General Brigham believes that practice assistants who understand what patients are going through are more empathetic, more patient, process more accurately, and more committed. Their exposure to psychological elements, especially inter-generational relations, information management, organizational structure, and the like gives them a higher cognitive understanding of the situations they encounter every day. 

But the frontline workers who aspire to fill these jobs, especially those who begin their careers in non-clinical divisions like environmental services or nutrition and admitting, typically lack the education and skill to qualify for them. Campus-based, generic medical programs are too costly and inconvenient, and traditional online programs are often insufficiently tailored to the work environment.   

The University of Massachusetts Online division (UMOL) had the answer. Funded by a Commonwealth Corporation grant, the online provider developed a competency-based, asynchronous practice assistant certificate program that will allow Mass General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital employees to access pathways for educational and career mobility. Working with subject matter experts in the healthcare field, the teams designed the certificate for employees/learners to earn the equivalent of 15 credit hours. This CBE certificate enables participants to apply the knowledge they gain in class to real-world examples drawn from the patient-facing work environment they will encounter.  

In the fall, UMass anticipates launching a higher degree pathway–a general bachelor’s of business administration—for MGB employees who have an associate degree but need a four-year degree to qualify for higher level finance positions. General business skills (accounting, finance, human resources, and information management) are valuable to employees who want to ascend the hierarchy of administrative jobs. Offering a specific emphasis on health care administration to complement this degree is part of the package. 

These options improve upon traditional online education, which adapts the delivery modality but may not emphasize the skills employers want their workers to master or draw upon examples that are environment-specific. Filling that gap is critical to increasing opportunities in the labor market, providing upward mobility in the form of promotions and higher salaries, and protecting their gains against the coming onslaught of automation.   

Data compiled by the World Economic Forum tells us that the transformation of the labor market would have been profound owing to automation alone“By 2025,” they say, “85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms, across the 15 industries and 26 economies covered by the [Future of Jobs] report.”[1]COVID-19 accelerated these trends and hence thrust the role of adult education and training into the limelight, since changes in work process usually demand new skills.  

Curated education—crafted to wrap broader, conceptually oriented, cognitive development around firm-specific work environments—is often the best solution to skills gaps. In the Mass General Brigham example, practice assistants come to understand how to manage patients who don’t know how to find the medical professionals to help them. They navigate technologies designed to capture medical histories, insurance plans, post-surgical guidance, and parking charges. They are better able to contend with people who are upset or worried, in conflict with their relatives, or exhausted by their medical troubles. Problem-solving in a complex organization requires figuring out who can answer a question, including queries that are entirely novel and making sure the information gathered gets to the right place. Mistakes are costly. An enriched, but tailored, educational opportunity closes the skills gap and promotes occupational mobility, higher earnings, and an orientation toward continuous improvement.

Employers are committing $18-19 billion a year in tuition assistance programs. They are beginning to look more carefully at talent development, employee participation and firm loyalty.  Flexibility, ease of access, and quality of student support–in the form of 24/7 wrap-around services, from individual tutoring to financial aid–matters to them. Bespoke or curated programs influenced by employer needs are increasingly in demand: Walmart, Verizon, JP Morgan, Disney, Amazon and many other corporations are now moving into this space, looking for providers that understand the needs of their adult workforce.    

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is projecting an economic rebound from the pandemic recession in 2021.[2]  They forecast a growth rate of 4.6% that will slide to a more normal acceleration of 2% by 2023.  But the CBO also notes that unemployment will not decline to pre-pandemic levels through the rest of this decade. Robust economic growth with anemic employment recovery tells us that millions of Americans are going to be in trouble. They will need to adjust to an economy that seeks new skills. Neither campus-based nor traditional online education will meet these needs. Curated programs will help a worker stay one step ahead of automation and retain value for the employer they work for now and the next one down the line.


[1] World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs Report 2020 (Published October 2020)


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