Students have always deserved educational opportunities aligned with workforce needs and employment opportunities, but the significant rise in the cost of higher education has made this alignment even more critical. For many students contemplating college or workers considering reskilling or upskilling, calculating the return on investment—not only of money but also of time—is crucial. We must bring government, businesses, and education leaders, along with other relevant partners, to the table to devise solutions that bridge education and work.
With unprecedented numbers of American workers filing for unemployment during the spring of 2020, shifting the landscape to one of earning and learning is imperative to get Americans back to work with the skills they need. Displaced workers need opportunities to upskill and reskill into good jobs in stable fields through online and distance learning, and those newly enrolling in college need assurance that the time and money invested will lead to meaningful opportunities. Now more than ever, the promise of higher education must lead to a real return on investment to better the lives of students and their families.
Building public-private partnerships and the necessary funding to establish and scale solutions for in-demand and highly needed programs is key to meeting a state’s workforce goals. Students and workers, especially in newer and quickly changing occupations and future-facing careers, need access to quick, efficient, high-quality workforce solutions. WGU can be a partner in these efforts.
In the wake of COVID-19, individual health departments nationwide are hiring hundreds of contact tracers to work with patients to identify and stem potential chains of disease transmission. Johns Hopkins University created a 5.5-hour course offering a training certificate for individuals to enter this line of work very quickly. This is a timely example of how higher education institutions can work with government agencies to quickly set up programs that address an urgent workforce need and provide a pathway for retraining displaced workers.
As education leaders, it is imperative to map skills and competencies achieved through education to real-world, in-demand skills for hiring purposes. State policymakers are positioned to facilitate partnerships between employers and education providers to efficiently connect displaced workers to jobs, through embracing hiring practices that prioritize skills and competencies.
While more will need to be done to educate and position skills-based hiring as the leading best practice for implementation, efforts are currently being carried out in early stages by WGU and others through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the White House’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board. Although businesses will play an important role in skills-based hiring, support from state and local policymakers will be crucial for effective implementation. Many states, such as Colorado and Indiana, are working with the Markle Foundation to bring these practices to scale, including within their states’ own workforces. Using skills tied to an interoperable comprehensive learner transcript, states can lead efforts to pilot or implement skills-based hiring with public-sector workforces as appropriate.
Often paraprofessionals are working in fields where they could directly upskill to higher-level credentials. In one example, New Mexico’s Grow Your Own Teachers program offers scholarships and a pathway for educational assistants to become fully licensed classroom teachers. With an alarming and growing shortage of classroom teachers, innovative pathways are essential to filling the gaps and meeting the needs of today’s students across the educational continuum. With these types of upskilling and reskilling programs, students are able earn higher-level credentials and better pay while meeting critical workforce needs.
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Andre enrolled in the IT Management Program at WGU. There, he learned about finance, statistics, and business processes that were vital to his job. Now, Andre works as a senior director at Oracle, while earning a doctorate degree at The George Washington University.