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Aligning Education and Workforce to Meet Learners Needs

Aligning Education and Workforce to Meet Learners Needs
To survive and thrive, postsecondary institutions need to focus strategically on meeting the needs of adult learners and employers. By creating a network of resources and connections, we can have a thriving learning ecosystem. 

As higher ed adapts to this new normal, it’s important to look at the good presented at this time. It’s an opportunity to reshape current processes and step into something new and more aligned with the needs of today’s learners. By aligning workforce development and postsecondary strategies, the future of higher education can not only survive but thrive. In this interview, Earl Buford discusses the importance of workforce development, reshaping curriculum to meet the needs of adult learners and the vision he has for CAEL. 

 The EvoLLLution (Evo): What made you want to be a part of the CAEL community?  

Earl Buford (EB): First and foremost, it was CAEL’s nearly 50-year history. That legacy is behind CAEL’s stellar reputation and has made it a known commodity, not just in the postsecondary world but also in the world of workforce and economic development. I’ve worked in all of these spaces, but CAEL’s national–actually, international–network allows us to scale our best practices, expertise and experience, connecting the right regional players. That, in turn, allows us to multiply the collective impact educators, workforce development organizations and employers can have on talent solutions and community-wide economic growth.

Evo: How do you hope to leverage your experience as a leader in the public workforce with the current work CAEL is doing?  

EB: CAEL’s mission is all about linking learning and work. Having managed workforce boards in two different markets and led a regional intermediary that partnered with industry and labor, I see a tremendous upside to building more familiarity with CAEL among various industries. I’ve worked with employers for over 20 years, and though not all may be familiar with CAEL, they are united by a growing urgency to work closer with postsecondary education providers. What they need is an intermediary to make connections, and that is right in our wheelhouse. The second piece to that is that there are so many resources that can be connected to the CAEL mission. There are federal initiatives but also regional, state and local programs that we can tie into a blended funding model to further amplify our impact. 

Evo: CAEL works to align learning and work in everything it does; do you think postsecondary education and workforce development are becoming more and more intertwined?

EB: Personally, I think they are already intertwined, but not everyone recognizes it yet. For instance, workforce development is economic development, but so is postsecondary education, which has the great responsibility of preparing learners for the future of work at all levels, whether it’s blue collar, white collar, “new” collar or any other collar you want to talk about. We have to start speaking a similar language and commit to sitting down and working more effectively together. And CAEL is the ideal vehicle to make those connections happen.

Evo: What’s a major misconception that people have about workforce development and what is one of its best-kept secrets?

EB: Honestly, workforce development often has tunnel vision, focusing too much on the hardest to serve. We need to take the broad view. An effective talent solution strategy has multiple layers, multiple variables and multiple partners. I mentioned earlier the role of CAEL as connecting postsecondary education providers, businesses and industry at a variety of levels, from blue collar to middle skill to professional. All of those are important and needed, but we also need more holistic communication along those variables. We talk a lot about pathways, but what about the paths to those pathways? How do internships, first jobs and the college experience fit in? What funding supports worker and learner success? There are a variety of intersections where the two systems can come together to accelerate and scale efforts for greater, coordinated impact. It’s all there—we just have to sit down and speak a common language.

Evo: How can employers and industry groups in cities and regions work together to promote social mobility and economic well-being?

EB: Each industry has its own take, so it varies. But the one commonality is that right now they’re all screaming for help, so the opportunity is there for us to make a difference. But it goes beyond assessing their quantitative workforce needs. As I mentioned earlier, there are many layers of variables to the collaboration we need to cultivate. How do talent development, upskilling/reskilling and educational advancement align to drive equitable economic advancement? The good news is employers are much more open to having these conversations than they have been at any time over the past 30 years. I would also point to the fundamental role equity plays in CAEL’s mission. We believe that adult learners are the lifeblood of our economy. When we support them, we are supporting entire communities and a brighter future for all of us.

Evo: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities to CAEL’s vision? 

EB: Those are always tough questions, but I can tell you that my desire to join CAEL was driven by the bright future I see for the organization. Building on CAEL’s stature within postsecondary education, there is almost limitless opportunity to grow by creating more connections with employers and industry. One of our tasks will be to help more funders understand that they can amplify their social impact by partnering with CAEL. So many are focusing efforts on greater access to work-relevant education and training. They can realize their vision by supporting CAEL’s mission. Again, our potential continues to grow as we pull together more stakeholders, so I appreciate The EvoLLLution helping get the word out. It’s important that postsecondary education providers, businesses, industry, funders and other partners understand that we are here to help them find solutions to common problems. 

Evo: What does the future look like for postsecondary education?

EB: That’s the question everyone’s asking across the board. The short answer is that it looks different, and it has to look different. The pandemic has created a series of challenges, from enrollment, to costs, to being forced to embrace online learning on a scale and timetable that would have been unthinkable before the pandemic. But there’s an opportunity within this disruption for postsecondary education to reshape itself, to meet learners, particularly adult learners, where they are. A key part of this will be finding ways for postsecondary education providers to connect the end game of employment and career paths in a way that is much more aligned than at present. But I never shy away from challenges, because that’s what makes this work so fun and meaningful. You get a chance to be a part of creating the solutions that turn these challenges into opportunities. 

Evo: What advice do you have for institutions looking to make their curricula more relevant to adult learners?

EB: Put simply, we need more conversations to take place. And during these conversations, postsecondary education providers need to appraise themselves and ask, “What do we want to look like? How do we make ourselves more available?” There’s a different type of learner coming in—a trend that has been accelerated by the pandemic and economic fallout. And along with that inward look, they need to determine the right stakeholders with which to partner. I’ve mentioned employers repeatedly during this conversation, and it goes back to my point about education and work being two sides of the same coin. But let’s also consider how we can align the right resources to deliver solutions and create opportunities associated with education in this country. All of the conversations I’ve had with college presidents for the past year and a half invariably come around to the same set of core concerns: “How do I prepare my seniors, whether at the associate or baccalaureate level, to capture workforce opportunities? How do I support employers that can’t find qualified candidates? How do we make that match? How do we stop the phenomenon of ships passing in the night?” CAEL’s work is central to answering all of these questions. 

Evo: Personally, what did you most look forward to when joining CAEL?

EB: It’s great to be part of an organization with such a rich legacy. But more than that, it’s the talented team that’s here. And as I talk about the importance of engagement and having the right pieces of the puzzle at the table, a perfect example of that is our parent company. Being part of the Strada Education Network is another huge opportunity to expand the avenues of success for adult learners as well as the employers and educators who depend on them. That impact is so important for our students, our workers—our citizenry as a whole. There are so many individuals in this country who are hungry for opportunities that will connect them to rewarding career paths. It’s our job to provide them with better roadmaps. That’s what excites me most of all moving forward.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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