March 04, 2024

Tomorrow's workforce innovation starts today

Hope Lineman
Strategic Advisor to the Chancellor on Workforce Innovation, PASSHE
Executive Director Workforce Development, Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania

Students engaged in employment opportuniesPennsylvania faces a critical talent gap that requires innovative solutions. As members of Pennsylvania’s only state-owned university system, it is incumbent upon PASSHE universities to develop workforce-aligned programs to upskill and reskill Pennsylvanians for positions that can advance their own economic mobility and contribute significantly to the vitality of the commonwealth.

Nationally, higher education is moving beyond decades of tradition. Universities are addressing critical mental health and equity needs while staying current with the academic needs of students and the industries that will employ them. Addressing these needs requires models that include learn-as-you-go or “stackable” credits and credentials to be applied toward a certificate or degree. Workforce innovation – a strategic, future-forward approach – is essential to attract and retain learners and to impact the economy. This approach puts the student first and embraces change to meet new needs as they arise. It requires bringing employers, economic development, training, and education providers together to address the workforce gaps that the nation and our commonwealth are facing.

At its core, workforce innovation focuses on creativity and adaptability to address workforce shortages in new ways. It is nearly impossible to predict or keep pace with the rate of change in today’s workplace. What historically was a one-and-done education process for many professions – becoming a nurse or accountant, for example – now requires new and different skills such as project management and data analytics, to name just two.

Industry-recognized Credentials

Innovation will drive and accelerate change. Adding and/or identifying industry-recognized credentials, or offering them alongside degree programs, prepares students for a dynamic workplace. We can appeal to students’ growing expectations for direct and immediate pathways to employment by offering avenues that include short-term credentials and credit for prior learning. Degrees and training programs designed with targeted skills and flexible scheduling enable learners to step in and out of education over a more extended period.

Aligning education programs with workforce needs is one of the keys to addressing the talent gap. With fewer students able or willing to manage a traditional bachelor’s degree’s cost, structure, and time commitment, more institutions are re-evaluating decades-old traditions and program formats. Short, skills-focused recognition is one growing approach to increasing flexibility in learning. This type of recognition demonstrates competency in a focused area. When offered in a stackable format, these credentials can provide a pathway to a certificate or even a full degree, achieved at a student’s preferred pace.

Workforce-aligned credentials provide learners with pathways that will take them to and through post-secondary education options to achieve their desired career outcomes. Intentionally marking credit-bearing program pathways with short-term credential opportunities results in more robust postsecondary engagement with learners, particularly community college transfers and adult learners who may need to step in and out of postsecondary education to meet other work and family responsibilities. These pathway markers increase learners’ motivation to continue through noncredit and into credit-bearing programs as they see new opportunities within reach. By directly linking the career pathway to industry-recognized credentials, learners who are currently employed can move into higher-paying positions as they progress through their postsecondary program.

Bite-sized Programs Encourage Attainment

This work is especially valuable for addressing the needs of historically unrepresented or underserved populations, including learners from underrepresented, lower socioeconomic, and rural backgrounds as well as first-generation and adult learners. Bite-sized programming allows students to return to college as their educational and career goals evolve. This approach does not cannibalize a traditional degree. Studies suggest that, in many sectors, micro-credentials facilitate the attainment of specialized knowledge, suggesting that a core audience may be college graduates. The demands and desired skills of the modern workforce continue to evolve. Micro-credentials can provide a viable, flexible way for employees to keep pace, and they are a fitting option for a diverse range of potential students.

PASSHE Universities Expand Workforce-aligned Credentials

Many examples of this work are already taking place at PASSHE universities, including robust safety training at Slippery Rock University and employer-recognized credentialing in the tourism industry at East Stroudsburg University. In addition, Shippensburg University joined regional workforce development, business and industry, and education partners to develop a front-line leadership training program for agribusiness, an industry facing critical workforce shortages and the need to upskill employees. The training helps develop essential employability with an employer-driven curriculum focused on creating a leadership career pathway. Universities can expand this course model to other industries and regions across the commonwealth.

Commonwealth University is working hard to address the shortage of police officers and emergency response personnel through the ACT 120 Municipal Police Academy and Criminal Justice Pathway Program. The Mansfield Police Academy was the first in Pennsylvania to include state-of-the-art virtual reality training in its curriculum, allowing cadets to take the knowledge learned in the classroom and immediately apply it to various life-like scenarios. Cadets also can gain more than 100 additional hours of training and certification, including micro-credentials for Taser, the G.L.O.V.E., Enhanced Community Policing Model and DEI, Introduction to the Spectrum, EMT certification, and more. The stackable training and education framework allows students pursuing either an associate and bachelor’s degree in criminal justice to include Mansfield’s Act 120 as part of their program if they meet the qualifications. 

Most recently, the public-private partnership between Google and PASSHE universities makes industry-recognized Google Career Certificates available to students and the public to help them secure good-paying jobs. Across the System, universities are deploying the certificates in a variety of ways, from non-credit training to credentials earned alongside degree programs, and as professional development opportunities for employees. Some faculty are working to add the certificates as part of their students’ coursework requirements. When these students graduate, they will have both the degree and the industry-recognized certifications that employers are seeking.

Serving New Students of All Ages

Stackable credentials and bite-size programming can allow students pursuing a degree to work in an entry-level position and earn and learn simultaneously. It allows those learners who need to step in and out of educational pursuits to step away with a credential that can lead to employment. More and more employers are investing in their employees, “upskilling” them to fill positions as the work transforms and changes with technology. Short-term training can connect classroom learning to job-ready skills development, providing students with the best of both worlds, and it is a great way to help fill workforce gaps.

PASSHE universities remain committed to meeting the needs of Pennsylvania’s workforce and partnering with high schools, non-degree granting institutions, employers and apprenticeship programs, adult education providers, and community colleges to build more pathways that advance learners’ economic mobility and ensure they can thrive and grow while contributing to the success of the commonwealth.

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