Higher ed’s role and opportunity in coskilling, upskilling, and reskilling

The COVID pandemic not only disrupted schools and colleges, it also amplified discussions related to the perceived–and real–value (or lack thereof) of a degree, and the surprising, yet not unexplainable, conflict between the number of unemployed graduates and jobs that are unable to be filled due to the lack of qualified graduates.

The accelerating convergence of information and technology especially as related to AI and robotics is changing the knowledge and skills desired in the workforce, with some estimating that nearly 50 percent of subject knowledge acquired during the first year of an undergraduate degree program is outdated by the time the student attains a degree. Recent estimates predict that by 2022 about 54 percent of all employees would require significant reskilling and upskilling to meet the needs of a changing work environment.

There is a greater need than ever before to provide increasingly specialized disciplinary knowledge, coupled with advanced workforce skills, without diminishing the role and importance of a broad-based education that ensures critical thinking and analytical reasoning along with social and communications skills and understanding. Simultaneously, in the context of millions of employees with some or no college and no degree, there is a need for academia to play an increased role in facilitating the continued employability of people already in the workforce through short-term credentials and certifications, enabling an updating of their knowledge and skills base.

This necessitates that higher ed treat education, writ large, as a continuum, effectively merging the previously distinct roles of degree-based education with that of individual courses and certificates offered directly or as part of continuing/professional education, and in doing so also encouraging the move from standardization to personalization with inbuilt flexibility in meeting new and changing needs.

While the discussion differentiates between coskilling (providing job skills simultaneous with, or integrated into, a degree), upskilling (providing advanced knowledge/skills within a job sector), and reskilling (providing a completely different set of knowledge/skills for a different job), in reality, the three merge in terms of needs and potential offerings, and are both coupled and overlapping.

1. Coskilling: The integration of knowledge (broad based and specialized) and relevant job skills into degree programs so that both facets are mastered simultaneously requires that institutions of higher ed focus on four key aspects simultaneously: (a) Increase opportunities for students to gain a well-rounded education intertwined with professional skills; (b) Respond at a significantly faster pace to the needs of the job market and be better aligned with advances in technology and information; (c) Create more flexible and personalized pathways for students to convert knowledge and learning to skills that result in earnings capacity; and (d) Change the “stove pipe” structure between academe and the workplace to enable greater alignment between the curriculum and new areas of workforce need.

This approach of “coskilling” is already taking place through a variety of options both integrated into degree plans and provided as add-ons. Coding and “skills-building” bootcamps, enhanced career development services, and credentials and certificates are increasingly being offered by community colleges and universities either by themselves, or in conjunction with, external entities. Some are forming partnerships with corporate giants such as Boeing, Amazon Web Services, Cisco, and Google, leveraging their initiatives and either incorporating them into degree-based curricula or providing access through career development centers.

Given the rapid changes in the workplace, maintaining relevance of degrees will require faster updating of degree plans and curricula to ensure that students are at, or close to, the cutting edge, and providing electives for specialization in the last two years–for example, preparing them for jobs that may not have even been widely known when they were freshmen. Given economic realities and the large non-traditional student population, it will be important to design pathways and ramps that enable students to use a carousel between college and work so that a student who has to “stop out” due to family or work responsibilities is better positioned at each stage economically in the workforce and can easily return/continue education at a later date.

2. Upskilling: The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the transition to an online/remote environment with greater streamlining and automation of operations scenarios, placing increasing emphasis on digital and technical skills, and resulting in a greater need for employees to be “upskilled–mastering new skills, developing an understanding of a higher level of use of technology, and operating in a highly data-driven world. While a portion of upskilling can be undertaken “on the job,” institutions of higher education have the responsibility and opportunity to develop new certificates and courses, both self-standing and stackable, towards post-baccalaureate degrees that will build on existing levels of knowledge and skill sets. These sets of courses could be developed as self-standing certificates such that they can be taken by individuals needing “upskilling” to either keep their jobs or to progress along a career path while leaving open the option of completing a degree at a later date.

This is already possible through stacking of credentials, and use of pathways, in the IT, health sciences, aerospace, and automotive sectors, but far more needs to be done. With job roles shifting faster than ever before, institutions of higher ed could modularize some of their academic offerings to meet focused workforce needs. While endogenous credentials can be integrated into degrees, there is a greater and more immediate need for exogenous credentials at the post-baccalaureate and post-graduate levels, with pathways to higher positions and greater security of employment.

These offerings need to be developed rapidly, updated annually based on actual workforce needs, and offered in modalities that are attractive to both the employee and the employer. Irrespective of the path followed, offerings must lead to credentials that are recognized and accepted widely rather than just by a single employer, and the structure must lead to a greater assurance of better paying jobs and career advancement, ensuring not just employability and relevance to the first job but through a lifetime.

3. Reskilling: The same forces that cause the need for upskilling are also resulting in many jobs becoming obsolete at a faster rate than ever before, with the skill sets of those employees–primarily those without a degree–being very different from those needed in emerging jobs. Beyond the socio-political issues raised by such drastic transitions, many of the employees have other skills and team characteristics that make them immensely valuable to employers, and hence aspects of effective and efficient reskilling must be brought to the forefront.

There is a need for short-term training programs, credentials, certificates, and certifications that are often stackable to designate increasing levels of skill, but which do not need a degree, enabling employees to transition from one field of work to another. While many for-profit entities offer a range of reskilling courses, there are huge differences in quality and applicability to better employment. Community colleges have been extremely effective in offering courses towards reskilling, often in conjunction with professional organizations and certifying authorities. The same courses discussed earlier as part of “coskilling” have relevance here. Far more needs to be done to ensure that those taking the time and putting in the effort are assured of well-defined and employer/profession-recognized pathways and credentials.

The goal, as with upskilling, is not one of academic discovery but rather of gaining the precise knowledge and skills needed by a sector of the workforce with openings for employment. Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to do this, setting aside qualms of engaging in non-degree offerings and re-envisioning their compact with the communities they serve enabling reskilling as part of the continuum of life-long learning.

Higher ed has to date largely framed the discussion around academic preparation in college and career skills for the workforce as a binary choice, even while extolling the value of life-long learning. Today’s rapidly changing environment, however, demands that we effectively merge the two, redefining a student as anyone who has need of knowledge and skills at any point of their life, with higher ed, in collaboration with government agencies and the corporate world, providing a range of offerings from courses, certificates, and certifications, to degrees, in modalities and formats that best meet the needs of the student. Surely that is the mission of public institutions of higher education.

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