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Linking Learning and Work

It is critical for institutions of higher education to review and analyze every credential, program and course they offer to ensure it is aligned with employer needs, so students succeed in the workforce.

A Q&A With Two Stakeholders at the Center of Education-Employment Collaboration in San Diego 

As CAEL’s Senior Director of Event Operations, I can tell you everyone at CAEL is excited about returning to an in-person format for our annual conference (11/17-11/19), especially in beautiful San Diego at the Hotel Del Coronado. Of course, with disruptions continuing to affect different parts of the country as we work toward a recovery, we are offering a virtual conference attendance option as well. 

Whether you join us in person or virtually, you’ll be sure to value the contributions of our local partners  in San Diego: the San Diego Workforce Partnership and National University. As they come together in support of our conference, they embody the collaboration that is central to the CAEL community. After all, as our new president shared with The EvoLLLution earlier this year, the lines between learning and work are increasingly blurring. So, we asked them to share their perspectives on some of the challenges and opportunities facing educators, employers and advocates of adult learning. Below, Peter Callstrom (President and CEO of the San Diego Workforce Partnership) and Nancy Rohland-Heinrich (Vice Chancellor, Communications and Community engagement at National University) share their perspectives in a Q&A.

I look forward to continuing the conversation on these topics with you in November! Thanks to all of our sponsors who made this year’s conference possible. If you haven’t yet, register here.

Q&A With Peter Callstrom, president and CEO of the San Diego Workforce Partnership

CAEL: Why did you decide to  partner with CAELconference?

Peter Callstrom (PC): To advance thinking and partnerships between Workforce Development and higher education. Too often, these systems don’t overlap at all, leaving participants without the information and support they need to advance their careers. 

CAEL: Your site mentions that you connect San Diegans with training and paid work experience programs across the county. Are postsecondary education providers part of that networking process?

PC: Yes, we partner with UC San Diego Extension as part of our Income Share Agreement (ISA) initiative, focused on information and technologies pathways. We are also beginning a new partnership with National University to expand our ISA into healthcare occupations. 

CAEL: You recently launched a free online hub for job seekers. Can you share a few details about how usage has gone and what type of stakeholders support it? 

PC: We have developed a number of new and disparate resources. The hub is the culmination of providing a clear entry point for our customers as the options are many. This hub enables users to quickly find what they want and then explore each area in depth. 

CAEL: Can you talk about the education and training providers involved in your on-demand training portal?

PC: We launched this in the early days of COVID-19. It’s our intent to provide easy access to a range of free and low-cost training options as we all navigate the challenges of the pandemic. 

CAEL: Do you have any tips on how industry groups, Workforce Development agencies, and other organizations focused on economic and Workforce Development can most benefit from organizations like CAEL?

PC: The workforce system is very diverse. The 550 boards across the country vary widely in budget, staff and ability to serve. Many are a city or county department and primarily function as a pass-through of federal formula funding, authorized by WIOA. A smaller number of boards (like San Diego) are independent 501(c)(3) nonprofits that have the ability to raise private sector and philanthropic funds in order to expand their service model. Few boards partner meaningfully with education (K-16). Other entities can and should find ways to expand their impact. Partnering with and learning from CAEL would help them understand better ways to advance their mission. 

CAEL: What are some benefits of a regional approach for addressing current and future talent needs?

PC: All regions and economies are different. A benefit of the workforce system is that decisions are locally conceived and driven. When a workforce board partners with other key entities (education, economic development, labor, municipalities, chambers, etc.), they are able to best address local talent cultivation, development, attraction and retention. 

CAEL: What have you done in collaboration with postsecondary education providers or other regional partners that has worked particularly well?

PC: UC San Diego Extension has been our key ISA partner from the beginning. With their partnership, we’ve been able to offer world-class certificate programs on quicker timelines and with more supportive services at no upfront cost for students. 

CAEL: How do you support a better alignment between the credentials issued by postsecondary educators and the competencies needed for career success in growth industries?

PC: ISAs work well for this. Our Outcomes Center provides resources to set up these kind of opportunities. Additionally, we are happy to be part of Advancing San Diego, which streamlines information from employers to help educators design training curricula that equips residents with the skills required for existing and future jobs in San Diego’s high-growth sectors such as tech, life sciences, health care and advanced manufacturing, while providing pathways to those jobs.

CAEL: STEM and other hard skills are traditionally prioritized in discussions about vital workforce skills, but there have been reports that soft skills gaps are holding back growth also. In your experience, what skills do workers need to possess to succeed in today’s workplace?

PC: We created the Essential Skills Rubric in partnership with the San Diego County Office of Education, which identifies six essential skills: emotional intelligence, communication, creative & critical thinking, collaboration, dependability and resourcefulness. 

It is crucial to model, evaluate and set goals around essential skills to support career readiness, growth and advancement. Essential skills apply across all sectors and impact students at every phase of their learning and careers. 

Educators in K-12 schools, colleges and professional training programs can use these rubrics at any grade level, and career counselors can use them to promote self-awareness in job seekers. Tools:

CAEL: What advice would you give to postsecondary educators on forging partnerships with businesses, industry organizations, or workforce and economic development groups to better serve adult learners?

PC:  When key entities—education, economic development, labor, municipalities, chambers, etc.—connect, they are able to best address local talent cultivation, development, attraction and retention. When all groups are open to learning from another and ultimately focused on student and employer success, the right program design will follow.

Q&A With Nancy Rohland-Heinrich, vice chancellor, communications and community engagement AT National University

CAEL: Why did you decide to participate/be CAEL’s local partner in CAEL’s conference?

Nancy Rohland-Heinrich (NRH): Just like CAEL, National University (NU) was founded in the 1970s and has focused on adult learners from day one. At the time of our founding, the demographics of higher education looked very different than they do today. Working adults were far from the majority, and most colleges and universities did not have effective systems, support services or programs in place to serve that population well. 

Our founder was inspired to create National University because he saw that working adults and military service members in career transition couldn’t access the training and education they needed to study while working. At the same time, employers in San Diego’s major industries couldn’t find the right talent. They were interested in hiring veterans and experienced professionals, but they needed staff members with more directly applicable skills. In other words, the higher education system had gaps that needed to be filled to benefit employers and working adults alike. 

Our founder was motivated by the same set of concerns as the faculty leaders who joined together to form what eventually became CAEL. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, it’s exciting to look back at how much the field of adult education has grown. It’s also critically important for colleges and universities that focus on the adult learner to elevate best practices in serving this population and advocate for their needs. 

CAEL: As a fellow pioneer in strategically serving adult learners, have you found that effectively serving adult learners in general has naturally intersected with effectively serving minoritized and other underrepresented learners? 

NRH: In general, the adult workforce is very diverse. We view our adult-serving mission as working in concert with our goal of addressing access, affordability and equity in higher education. 

While we are known for serving working adults, veterans and educators, we are also highly diverse, even within that population. Approximately 30% of our students identify as Hispanic (National University is a designated Hispanic-Serving Institution), 10% identify as Black or African-American, and 10% identify as Asian. Approximately 25% of students are on active duty or have previously served in the military. We’re proud of the diversity of our students, and we want only want to become more diverse and inclusive.

We know adult learners are not only very diverse, but often must balance their studies with the demands of work, family, finances and community involvement. When organizations like NU dedicate significant time and resources to removing barriers to adult learner success, we are in essence creating a more inclusive student experience, improving student outcomes and contributing to our society as a whole.

To support equity and underrepresented students, NU has embraced a system-wide focus on social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (S-JEDI). Our inaugural Vice Chancellor for S-JEDI, Tom Stewart, is dedicated to serving underrepresented and historically excluded student populations. Tom and his team are charged with evaluating all of our internal processes, services and policies to ensure a system-wide focus on equity and inclusion at the faculty, staff and student levels. 

CAEL: Postsecondary education’s response to the COVID-19 crisis seemingly compressed what would have been a multi-year timeline into twelve months or less. Do you see any silver linings in this? 

NRH: National University has long been committed to accessibility, affordability and flexibility for all students. As we continue to navigate the pandemic and an uncertain future, it’s critical for all institutions to make these factors a priority. Higher education has been profoundly changed by the pandemic, and the ways in which students think about and access postsecondary education and training have changed as well.

It’s important to recognize that while the pandemic has been difficult for all students, working adults have faced a particularly challenging set of circumstances. Nevertheless, faculty, staff and students have risen to the occasion—and technology has played a critical role. 

National University has over 20 years of experience teaching and advising students online. This strong track record has enabled the university to be nimble and provide academic continuity for its students amid the evolving public health crisis. In March 2020, for example, as colleges and universities across the nation grappled with how to shift operations online as campuses closed, National University successfully transitioned 500 campus-based courses to an online modality in less than 24 hours. 

CAEL: Do you have any tips on how educators, industry groups, Workforce Development agencies and other organizations focused on Economic and Workforce Development can most benefit from organizations like CAEL?

NRH: Organizations like CAEL have their finger on the pulse of current workforce needs. They serve as the nexus point to help move higher education forward in step with Workforce Development needs. 

We’ve seen enormous benefit from the use of prior learning assessment (PLA), a decades-old practice pioneered and implemented over time by CAEL and its member institutions. In 2017, National University began developing a new approach to PLA, creating a comprehensive student onboarding process that articulates prior learning experiences that align with an individual’s program and ultimate career goals, as well as workforce needs.

Using our integrated student information systems, the university built a process to create and visualize a comprehensive degree map for each student that includes all course and program requirements, transfer college credits awarded and prior learning credit granted. When these past experiences are taken into account, students are able to reduce the overall time it takes to earn a degree, as well as the cost of going through the program.

Between February 2018 and February 2021, NU students saved approximately $25 million in tuition as a result of prior learning credits granted at the university. In addition to increasing affordability, the university has accelerated progression to the degree for thousands of students, waiving more than 14500 courses through its prior learning strategies.

We are absolutely firm believers in the importance of counting all learning and ensuring adult learners receive credit where credit is due.

Working with CAEL, educators, industry groups and Workforce Development agencies will be able to implement similar programs to enhance the adult learner experience, as well as save students time and money.

CAEL: What are some benefits of a regional approach to addressing current and future talent needs?

NRH: Taking the regional approach better allows us to match the workforce with the regional needs of companies seeking talent. Different industries are concentrated in different regions. One area may be more agricultural, while another more high tech. And there are finer differences. For example, the Bay Area may be more focused on technology start-ups, Seattle more focused on computer science and San Diego more focused on life sciences. The educational approach needs to match the industry approach on a regional basis.

CAEL: What have you done in collaboration with employers, industry groups, workforce organizations or other regional partners that has worked particularly well?

NRH: What worked for NU is first taking the time to understand the technical skills employers need in the workforce. We match those technical skills to our curriculum, then adjust or expand our curriculum to teach all the needed skills. 

CAEL: How do you support a better alignment between the credentials issued by postsecondary educators and the competencies needed for career success in growth industries? 

NRH: To align the credentials we offer with the competencies needed in growth industries, we work with employers to directly map our program learning outcomes and course learning outcomes with the skills needed in the workforce.

As higher education works to serve an older and more diverse student population, institutions should feel a heightened sense of urgency to deliver more precise learning experiences that directly result in students developing career-relevant skills, landing jobs and earning promotions. 

One way National University has supported this alignment is by piloting an ambitious blockchain technology initiative to make academic records more accessible to learners and employers. Learners are able to access a secure digital locker at any time and on any mobile or internet-connected device, which allows them to verify and share credentials with prospective employers and other educational institutions. 

We also have undertaken a review of each program, course and credential to ensure it is tightly linked with a career outcome.

CAEL: STEM and other hard skills are traditionally prioritized in discussions about vital workforce skills, but there have been reports that soft skills gaps are holding back growth also. What skills do workers need to possess to succeed in today’s workplace? 

NRH: The development of soft skills is essential for long-term success in today’s workplace. A key part of our strategy for developing new degrees, programs and credentials is understanding—at a very granular level—the specific skills and competencies employers want to see on the job. These can include mastery of a specific technical skill, but it also includes behaviors or attitudes that are harder to measure but just as critical for students to develop to succeed in the workplace. 

National University has worked to align its education and training offerings with the world of work by implementing education and training methods employers trust, including programming that builds soft skills valued in the workplace, like leadership. The university, for example, launched a one-year MBA program in collaboration with the Center for Creative Leadership, an executive education nonprofit that works with major corporations and federal agencies. The degree infuses the MBA with the same leadership training methods used by Fortune 1000 companies and awards students microcredentials for mastering specific leadership competencies along the way.

We are fortunate that Dr. Michelle Weise, an acclaimed author and expert on lifelong learning and the future of work, recently joined our team as Senior Vice Chancellor for Strategy and Innovation. Dr. Weise has written multiple comprehensive reports and a new book—Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet—about the challenge that higher education faces in anticipating the skills employers need and want at a time when they are changing every day. 

While we may be made for this moment, we also need to build for the future and work continuously to align our curriculum and programming with the types of skills that will enable our students to thrive in meaningful careers after they graduate.

CAEL: What advice would you give to businesses, industry organizations or Workforce and Economic Development groups on forging partnerships with postsecondary educators to better serve adult learners?

NRH: Our advice is not only to build relationships with educators, but to maintain them over time. Higher education institutions will evolve, student attitudes and interests will change and the needs of the workforce will grow in unpredictable directions. Long-term relationships that give colleges and universities the insights they need to continually respond to the needs of students and industry will best serve the process as a whole.

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