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Defining a Model for Accessible Workforce Education: Calbright College and the Recession

The EvoLLLution | Defining a Model for Accessible Workforce Education: Calbright College and the recession
With millions unemployed and a suffering economy, colleges have very limited time to upskill displaced workers and get them back into the workforce.

With millions of displaced workers in the United States, the only fast and efficient way to get them back into the workforce is through short-term courses designed to support upskilling and reskilling. What’s needed is an environment in which even the most vulnerable populations can access high-quality programming. This is going to require college and government leaders to rethink the educational ecosystem and restructure it to support lifelong education. In this interview, Eloy Ortiz Oakley discusses the importance of non-credit workforce programming, the obstacles of creating these programs during a pandemic and how Calbright College can provide a workable model to build from.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is access to high-quality workforce-directed programming so important during recessions?

Eloy Ortiz Oakley (EOO): During recessions, the most vulnerable workers in the workforce are most commonly the ones who are displaced. There are also a lot of individuals coming out of high school or college and looking for work. So, in a state like California, a recession really leads to a lot of displacement in the economy.

This is the exact time when community colleges need to be able to step in and help upskill and reskill as many displaced workers as possible. In this current recession, we have a significantly high unemployment rate, so it’s even more important to get these individuals back into the workforce with the right skills.

Evo: This recession has some unique traits that don’t mirror past iterations. Why is it so important to pay attention to non-credit workforce development programming to support economic recovery this time around?

EOO: We went into a significant period of displacement almost overnight. There are millions of Californians out of work. While many of them will get back to work as the economy re-opens, there is a significant number of them whose jobs are not coming back and may not come back for quite some time. It’s critical that we create short-term upskilling opportunities for these individuals. Many of those opportunities may not be your typical degree or certificate program that takes multiple semesters to complete.

We don’t have multiple semesters to help get people back into the workforce. We have weeks, maybe months. The economy is suffering so much that we can’t wait a year to help individuals develop skills.

These non-credit upskilling opportunities allow individuals to get a foot back into the economy quickly. From there, we want them to continue their education with long-term credentialing that helps them secure long-term wage gains. But right now, our focus is a fast and efficient way to get them back to work.

Evo: What are some of the obstacles that colleges face when transitioning this very complex and hands-on workforce-directed programming into a remote or online setting?

EOO: We’ve been talking about catching up with the future of work in colleges and universities. We thought we had plenty of time, but suddenly we have found ourselves in the future of work. And in that, we have come across a number of challenges that—while we knew they existed—we didn’t think would be this problematic.

Nursing, for example, was a program that was very hard to continue offering given the physical distancing circumstances. With the huge need for essential workers in the allied health industry, we wanted to make sure we were supporting the labor pipeline

The challenge lay in meeting requirements from accreditors and governing bodies, which prevented us from continuing these critical programs while remote. Additionally, many hospitals and medical centers stopped letting our students use their space for clinical rotations—a key work experience required to become a nurse–so we had to rely on technology. After a lot of wrangling with the agencies and boards who certify registered nurses, we were able to increase the use of virtual simulations.

On the training and education side of this industry, we didn’t really appreciate the use of technology in education until now. We have to reconcile that, as we move into the future, technology has to be built into these programs. That is a significant obstacle, and this obstacle is played out in just about every workforce training program around. The certification requirements don’t match up with the use of technology today.

Evo: When we look at the economic realities of today, what role can and should Calbright be playing in supporting unemployed and underemployed Californians’ socioeconomic recovery and growth?

EOO: The first challenge is ensuring we communicate clearly. Calbright is very well-positioned, despite the drama and the politics surrounding it, and clearly it’s something new and something different. Many of our faculty and college administrators don’t understand why we need something like Calbright, but this pandemic is really exposing that need. For one, it’s focused on serving adult learners. Secondly, it’s focused on upskilling rather than offering traditional certificate and degree programs. People are starting to understand what that means now that we have millions of people unemployed.

In order for Calbright to be successful, we need to give it a little bit of runway. The college is less than two years old. It already has over 500 students enrolled. It was never meant to be perfect on Day One, but now is the time for Calbright to provide support to the millions of displaced and vulnerable workers. These are individuals who provide some of the most basic services to the state and have the least amount of education.

I have a lot of confidence that this will be the year for Calbright. There’s already a significant number of partnerships being developed behind the scenes, now that we’ve gotten past the budget fight. And I’m hopeful that this was the last budget fight for Calbright.

There is a lot of criticism across the country that California should’ve purchased or acquired a fully-online college, as some other major institutions did, but that’s not the way things work here. It’s really important for the community colleges to build its own engine, to create its own tool and make it a public option. We need Calbright to be publicly available and to ensure that our most vulnerable workers have access to skills education the moment they need it.

Evo: How do we create an environment where vulnerable populations can afford high-quality upskilling and reskilling non-credit offerings?

EOO: This was a conversation that was picking up steam before the pandemic and recession. At the federal level, they were having conversations in Congress about creating short-term Pell grants. In California, we were having conversations with the governor about creating a program specifically to support workers upskilling. AI was already a lot of displacement in the economy, so this pandemic only accelerated a number of growing trends.

If we think about it, we have access to a solution for unemployment through benefits. Now the question becomes whether we can we create a similar training benefit supported by employers, states and the federal government? This could create a pool of resources to help individuals continue their lifelong learning. We knew who the most vulnerable workers were, so when the pandemic hit, we knew who would be unemployed first. But we’re always in this reaction mode trying to solve the problem after we experience huge displacement.

We need to try and create a policy solution that addresses this upfront. We see some of this already happening with employers like Walmart and Disney, but can we create something that supports the workers’ ongoing training so they don’t have to pay for it out of pocket? It only gets more expensive to upskill once they’re unemployed.

Evo: What are the most significant roadblocks to creating a digital experience for online students that encourages them to enroll and then to persist through the course of a challenging program?

EOO: We’re at a point when there’s still a lot of momentum toward building a more personalized, fully online experience. We’ve seen great examples of where it’s working—places solely focused on this issue, who have many core competencies. They spend of a lot of time supporting and training faculty. Places like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Brandman University are all nearly fully online operations with good persistence.

We know the tools are being developed, but we’re not quite at the point where we can offer a fully-baked, solid online experience for all students at universities and colleges. However, the biggest barrier isn’t accessing the technology, which continues to rapidly improve. It isn’t the learning science, which we’re all increasingly familiar with. The biggest obstacle is access to broadband. To have an engaging online experience, students can’t wait till they reach a Starbucks or McDonald’s to access Wi-Fi. This country needs to a find way to create access to broadband like we do for any other utility, like water. It is just as vital to not only the economy but to learning. If we’re ever going to get to the tipping point when science and technology can really create that personalized experience and help students engage, we have to deliver consistent and democratized access to quality broadband.

Evo: What are some factors that need to change to support the Calbright’s enrollment growth and retention numbers?

EOO: There needs to be some certainty. It’s hard to attract students and partners when you keep reading headlines about whether or not the college is going to survive another budget fight. I was never personally worried, but dramatic headlines that have popped up over the past year have really caused uncertainty. Calbright has to be in the position to prove that it is here for the long term.

Secondly, it’s now developing the second iteration of its learning management system and delivery methods, but it has to get to the point. The college must continue to rapidly iterate so that it can create a student experience so good it generates a word-of-mouth reputation. In places like California, it has to help the most vulnerable employees. Students of all walks of life have to have faith that this is a tool that’s really going to help them get the skills they need to be viable in the economy.

Those things have to happen this year. Calbright has a good footing now to be able to get there. This year, we’ll see a huge improvement in their platform and in the types of partnerships they accrue. As a result, we’ll see large gains in enrollment numbers. The final thing they have to do is show that upskilling leads to new and better jobs—that will be key. If they can’t get students into jobs, then there’s no point even enrolling in Calbright.

Evo: Is there a career services aspect baked into Calbright’s model?

EOO: Yes. The original design was split into two equal parts. One is the competency-based upskilling platform, and the other component is providing hiring managers to offer an intentional link to a student once they get into a program. Students are not guaranteed to automatically get a job, but there’s an intentional link. Programs that are being offered have to be linked to employers hiring in relevant areas. Calbright intentionally shortens that link so that there’s a clear bridge between the learner and the employment opportunity.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what you’re hoping to see from Calbright over the coming years and the short-term impact you expect it to have in meeting the challenges of our current period?

EOO: In the short term, Calbright has really already begun to change the way we look at higher education. Before, our system rarely had a discussion about what competency-based education is. Now, we’re going to be sending a new regulation forward to the board of governors that will open up the opportunity for every college to offer competency-based education. That’s already a step forward and shows that we’ve grown as a system. We now acknowledge competency-based education and the value that it brings.

In the long term, Calbright will help us reimagine how we reach adult learners. It will create a new set of competencies in our system and help us learn how to personalize education in a way that we don’t do now.

This is where higher education is going; we’re breaking down the silos. We’re no longer thinking about a degree as the only valuable asset that comes out of participating in higher education. It’s going to be a continued breakdown of those degrees and individuals who don’t have access to your traditional college and university. It’s about individuals who are working two and three jobs just to make ends meet. They need access to high-quality, low-cost upskilling opportunities. This is going to help us see how we can deliver our education differently. It’s helped us already get a start down that road.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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