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Op-Ed: Higher Ed must prepare students for changing workforce needs

In the midst of national and statewide economic uncertainty, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, business and community leaders across Pennsylvania continue to express a common, shared concern – a shortage of quality local talent to fill in-demand positions. 

In the 2019 Pennsylvania Economic Survey, employers listed a lack of qualified applicants to fill job openings as the most pressing issue they face.

It’s understandable that these leaders have lingering doubts about workforce development. Though Pennsylvania has slowly been regaining jobs lost to the pandemic, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate for October 2020 was still above the national average at 7.3 percent. Local central Pennsylvania industries, ranging from health care to information technology, all require a qualified and skilled workforce to maintain and continuously modernize their service and product offerings. Without a top-notch talent pool prepared with relevant 21st century skills businesses face the possibility of failing to remain viable and competitive. 

Reversing that trend will require expansive, collaborative efforts on job training and workforce development. An empowered workforce is made up of individuals who have the relevant, modern tools to reach their full potential, because they have the education and training they need to leverage their talents into opportunity. Likewise, that workforce is valuable to employers because they hold the in-demand skills and knowledge needed.

So what exactly is the best way to support a pipeline of talent in central Pennsylvania?

It starts with developing enduring and transformative partnerships with local partners, traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, and local and regional membership-based associations. It’s also critical to establish alliances with local businesses to support their human resource objectives and expand access to higher education for their employees. 

Historically under-represented communities – including first-generation college students, low-income populations, students of color, those living in rural areas and working adults–are potentially hindered from obtaining the marketable skills they need to succeed and advance in the current job market. Many of these students are potentially the first generation of their family to earn a degree, or they’re re-visiting their education after life circumstances required them to take a break from school. They are often an overlooked talent resource for communities, but have talents just waiting to be developed, as well as real-world experience that is essential to local businesses.

Innovative approaches to college education provide a key long-term strategy for workforce investment and labor market recovery. These approaches must focus on skill-based mastery at an affordable cost with a flexible schedule that allows learners to stay employed while earning a degree. These innovative learning models are complementary to traditional higher education options in the commonwealth, expanding opportunity to fill existing gaps. 

Since 1997 Western Governors University has provided accredited degree programs through an online, asynchronous, competency-based model. Through this unique approach, students accelerate through their learning at their individual pace, fitting their studies into the spaces of their lives. Competency-based education measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time or “hours” spent in a classroom. One of the most important elements of WGU’s model is customized support for each student; every WGU student is assigned a program mentor – a faculty member with advanced degrees and relevant experience in a field of study. Mentors provide individualized learning support to keep learners motivated and on track to reach their long-term goals and complete their degrees. 

As Pennsylvania’s economy moves forward in a landscape dramatically changed by COVID-19, the old ways of preparing for a career are no longer the most effective approaches to match talent with opportunity. The academic needs of Pennsylvanians continue to evolve and change, as do regional workforce needs and the demand for specific skillsets. Higher education has a duty to help connect talent with professional opportunity, by offering a variety of ways to train Pennsylvania’s workforce with the credentials employers trust.

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 120,000 students, including more than 2,300 students in Pennsylvania. She holds a doctorate in higher education leadership from Ohio University.

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