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The Role Continuing Education Plays in the Future of Work

Continuing Education is uniquely positioned to be a bridge between the workforce and higher ed, allowing learners to get the skills they need to fill in-demand jobs.

As the labor market looks to higher ed for talented workers, it’s critical for higher ed leaders to pay attention to what’s going on in the labor market—and it starts at the top. In this interview, Alex Clark discusses the importance of upskilling and reskilling, what it takes to create this culture at an institution and creating partnerships to align the workforce with higher ed initiatives and programming so learners are prepared.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed leaders to be tuned into what’s going on in the labor market?

Alex Clark (AC): It’s important for higher ed leaders to be tuned into the labor market. It’s vital that we contribute to society—and we can do that in many ways. A key function of education is supporting people by providing them with the skills they need to live and work. Skills are changing, as is the world, so our courses should change too. We want to be a part of a better world. It’s very important that universities do that. This is a great way to further our contribution.

Evo: What are some things that higher ed institutions can do to start meeting this learner demand for upskilling and reskilling?

AC: There are different stages, and it’s really important for higher ed institutions to use data and recognize what we think the needs are. When we can include data and prioritize our data, we have a foundation for our courses, both long- and short-term courses, especially when it comes to the microcredentials that respond to demands in the market.

It’s also about meeting our learners’ needs, depending on what’s going on in their lives, the various skills they want to develop. Rather than providing them with offerings that suit us as an institution, we must provide offerings that suit learners’ lives and help them move to the next stage in their lives with the right skills.

Evo: What does it take, from a senior leader’s perspective, to start creating this broad culture to be more innovative or evolved when it comes to skill development?

AC: Think of the three Ps: processes, platforms but most importantly people. You’re really aligning the platforms, which can be a technological element for an online university like ours, but also aligning the processes to identify and target particular areas of need.

Timeline and perceptions can vary a lot. Universities are not known to be the quickest. But to be responsive, we must do well on a timeline, which means our platforms and processes must respond to it. With people, it’s about having a rich tapestry of talent within your organization. Talent from a user design, accessibility and an inclusive standpoint to meet the all learners’ needs. We can put the best courses together that are accessible and inclusive as well, but it’s the passionate people behind them who really make the programs shine. By aligning people, platforms and process, you really begin to see movement toward good offerings on a good timeline. That’s what really works for learners.

Evo: What are some key survey findings that stood out to you or surprised you?

AC: What’s really interesting is the number of respondents wanting to reskill—nearly 75%. When you think about the work population in Canada, two main areas of reskilling emerged: digital skills and interpersonal skills. Those interpersonal skills often delay projects or lead to avoidable conflicts. The combination of interpersonal and digital skills that people see as being the greatest need is important. There’s an exciting opportunity for us there.

Evo: What does it take to start crafting corporate training and learning partnerships with employers to really position the university as a learning partner for local corporations?

AC: Listening is critical when going out into different sectors and learning what their needs are. Not thinking about products or services we’ve offered in the past but understanding their needs now. Then we want to work relationally. Universities work best when they’re part of the conversation and have strong relationships with different sectors and government. Thirdly, employer feedback is also important. Combining those three elements is key to adding the greatest value to those offering jobs throughout our societies.

Evo: Do you think the disconnect between employers in higher ed is still as pronounced as it has historically been? Or are we starting to bridge that gap to better respond to industry needs?

AC: There’s a real encouraging openness there. When I go to events with representatives from government, business and higher ed, I’m encouraged by the amount of openness and mutual respect there. There’s a real recognition that higher ed institutions can and should make a difference. Often, we’re poised to meet employer needs.

The main area we’ve improved in is the availability of labor market data. Telling a story about needs with data is critical. Data-driven decision-making is really useful and helpful. We’re better positioned to respond and more open to do so. And in having better data, we can improve the course offerings we provide our learners moving forward.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about Athabasca’s motivations for the survey and how you see higher ed’s role evolving as it relates to upskilling and reskilling the labor market?

AC: Athabasca University is well placed in this space. Time shortages, the need for work-life balance and reskilling will only going to get higher and greater. We have about 90 microcourses in everything from AI to energy resources to project management. Diverse content is what’s meeting these needs. It’s exciting and different to offer these courses in a flexible way. No matter where you are in the world or what your need is, you’re able to reskill and fulfill your life’s ambition. You can keep moving your career forward.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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