In this series, we ask education leaders how they perceive current opportunities and threats in postsecondary education. Read the last post here.
Employers are thinking more strategically about workforce planning, and they expect colleges and universities to help them develop a pipeline of workers with the skills and knowledge they need.
It's not a new phenomenon, but it's one that companies are increasingly connecting to their bottom lines. One example of that comes from the slew of major employers partnering with colleges to offer free or highly subsidized degrees for their employees. Often limiting the programs to degrees related to their industry, companies hope the benefit will attract more workers, reduce turnover and help them promote from within.
"Employers are leaning into the idea of skills as a benefit," explains Frank Britt, CEO of skills training firm Penn Foster.
But as business leaders become more focused on skills training, colleges and other postsecondary education providers should be ready to serve these learners and tend to their own relationship with employers.
Britt shared his thoughts on the role of colleges and employers in the future of postsecondary learning with Education Dive via email.
EDUCATION DIVE: What's the biggest change you see underway in postsecondary education today from how the sector has previously operated?
BRITT: There's a growing understanding among education and training providers that they need to speak two languages: that of the learner and that of the employer. Both are rapidly changing, and translation between the two can be difficult.
At a time when nontraditional and working adult learners are becoming the "new normal," speaking the language of the learner means making middle-skill education about employment and income improvements, and offering upskilling products that have more robust courseware and are more easily accessible (for example, via mobile-friendly courses), and offering wraparound supports like academic coaching, life skills training, or support such as transportation and housing stipends. It's often those "first-mile" services that many students need to get off to a successful start and help folks better connect the effort-to-value realization.
Employers, on the other hand, value job readiness and consistency — in everything from curriculum to student outcomes to how educators and coaches engage with students and learner analytics. And that's very hard to achieve at a national scale for large-scale employers.
We're seeing employers become increasingly sophisticated in the way they engage with training providers, which suggests that business leaders understand the value of skills training as a benefit more than ever before. Education providers now need to rise to the occasion to meet that growing demand — and demonstrate the dexterity of both serving learners and managing large-scale enterprise partnerships.
What are the most common questions Penn Foster gets from employers or colleges about how learners are being prepared for the workforce through your programs?
BRITT: Employers are leaning into the idea of skills as a benefit, particularly for the middle-skill population. This is a cohort of workers who have historically been significantly underrepresented in terms of training and tuition reimbursement programs to match their career paths and upskilling imperatives.
One of the most common questions we get now is about "outskilling" — that is, helping workers develop the skills they need to land a new job or find a whole new career path, often even outside of the sponsoring organization. This offering provides a trifecta of value as it improves retention rates, affirms the employers as supportive of their talent, and empowers the worker to secure a new career pathway.
In an increasingly dynamic, if not volatile, labor market, one of the best benefits you can provide may be helping workers prepare for their next best jobs.
What does the postsecondary education sector need to do to be ready for the potential forecasted recession?
BRITT: To the extent that the economy is showing signs of a potential recession, there is a perhaps counterintuitive answer here. Skills gaps don't go away during economic downturns as underlying demographics are still constant, and selected sectors like health care only have growing demand for talent.
The reason we hear about the skills gap so much today is that the labor market is tight. If the labor market slackens, it's true that there will be more individuals looking for work, but they will still need to learn the requisite skills to succeed on the job.
Education and skills training providers need to be ready to respond to this need. That means not just being ready for the influx of students that often accompanies a recession, but also proactively working with employers to ensure that they can equip incoming — and outgoing — workers with the skills they need.