Workforce development and credentialing have both been the focus of recent episodes. Though we didn’t set out to treat these as a series, some common themes have naturally emerged that we would like to call out and connect.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, we synthesize our thoughts around workforce development and credentials, and the related challenges and opportunities they present for learning businesses. We analogize them to the tried-and-true combination of peanut butter and chocolate—both are good on their own, but they take on an even richer flavor when combined. We also share the key takeaways that emerged from the credentialing and workforce development experts we recently talked with: Clare Marsch (ABA), Jim Fong (UPCEA), Van Ton-Quinlivan (Futuro Health), and Jenna Cohen (ACT).
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[00:00] – Intro
[00:41] – Workforce development and credentialing have been the focus of recent episodes:
- The Value of Credentials Now
- Measured Risk-Taking with Clare Marsch of ABA
- The Value of Workforce Development Now
- Unbundling the Future of Learning with UPCEA’s Jim Fong
- Scale, Equity, and Agility in Workforce Development with Van Ton-Quinlivan
- Listening to the Workforce Market with ACT’s Jenna Cohen
Credentialing and Workforce Development As Natural Complements
[01:36] – Workforce development and credentialing often fit together. Credentials often speak to career-readiness or job-readiness. They serve as a clear indicator that a candidate has the necessary skills or knowledge to perform certain roles. Workforce development offerings often lead to a credential, which serves to indicate the individual has the necessary skills or knowledge for needed jobs.
Workforce development and credentials don’t always go together. Sometimes to address a worker shortage, a credential isn’t needed. Many credentials exist that don’t tie to a workforce development initiative.
But, even in cases where workforce development and credentials aren’t tied, they could be and, arguably, should be. Higher education is under scrutiny because there isn’t a tighter connection between a college degree (a credential) and employment. There’s skepticism now about whether college is the right path for many learners and whether a college degree will provide a return on investment. There’s a mismatch between the credential and what the workforce seems to need.
I must confess I’ve been thinking of peanut butter and chocolate, like those old Reese’s commercials. Peanut butter and chocolate are both fine and good on their own, and sometimes that’s just what’s needed. But they can be extra tasty when combined, and, in the same way—or at least kind of…. workforce development and credentials can do good work on their own, but they take on a richer flavor when combined, a sweeter flavor.Celisa Steele
[05:08] – The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce issued a report called “Ranking 4,500 Colleges by ROI (2022)”. The report uses data from the College Scorecard to rank colleges and universities by return on investment. It compares what college graduates make compared to individuals who have a high school degree as their highest level of educational attainment. On average, 60 percent of college students across institutions earn more than a high school graduate after 10 years—but it’s not 100 percent.
Higher education is expensive in terms of actual dollars and in terms of the time investment, so it can be more difficult for certain groups to take advantage of college, and some of the disparities in outcomes and return on investment are tied to gender and race and ethnicity.
Check out our related interview with Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
People expect to get a return from a credential, whether it’s a degree or not. Employers expect the credential to have some value. If you are a learning business and if you’re offering a credential, you need to pay attention to the return that recipients of that credential are experiencing and the return that employers are getting from hiring the people that have your credential.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Talent Pipeline Management® Initiative
[07:43] – The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has a Center for Education and Workforce. It supports a portfolio of workforce projects to help make sure that Americans have the right skills for the jobs of today and tomorrow and that the economy has the skilled workers it needs to grow.
A number of different initiatives fall under the foundation’s portfolio of workforce projects. One is the Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) initiative, which is “an employer-led strategy to build real career pathways aligned to dynamic business needs.” It strives to be attuned to actual, real-world career pathways. It also acknowledges that business needs are changing and dynamic.
The TPM initiative provides a framework that can be valuable when your learning business partners with employers because it can help you identify, quantify, and qualify the challenges an employer is facing. TPM is a concrete approach to tightly aligning with employers to understand what they need workers to be able to do and where there are training or skills gaps. It’s a framework for learning businesses to know about.
The Talent Pipeline Management Academy trains business, workforce, and economic development leaders on TPM as a strategy to create pathways and talent pipelines for students and workers. TPM is something that we’ve recommended in a number of consulting engagements as it’s a useful process to talk about needs. Even though there may be some competitive elements, when you’re talking about a field or an industry, there are usually common needs, and that’s where workforce development can play a role.
As a learning business providing training and education, if you can help facilitate conversations with employers, using something the TPM framework, you’ll play an incredibly high-value role. This comes back to matching up credentialing and workforce development.
BenchPrep is an award-winning learning platform purpose-built to help learners feel confident and prepared to take difficult entrance, certification, and licensing tests by delivering an intuitive, efficient, and engaging study experience. BenchPrep helps you accelerate test prep revenue growth by offering the tools you need to create market-ready products and data to improve your content and understand learner behavior.
Many of the world’s leading associations, credentialing bodies, test providers, and training companies trust BenchPrep to power their online study programs, including ACT, the Association of American Medical Colleges, CFA Institute, CompTIA, GMAC, McGraw-Hill Education, AccessLex, and more. More than 8 million learners have used BenchPrep to attain academic and professional success. To discover more, visit BenchPrep.
Lessons Shared in Workforce Development and Credentialing
- Do your research, and use data.
- Make learning achievable.
- Partnering is powerful.
- The pandemic will have lasting impact on lifelong learning.
- Do things differently.
Do Your Research, and Use Data
[15:53] – Data comes up again and again in conversations about learning businesses understanding their markets, and data came up in our conversation with Jim Fong of UPCEA.
If you are in the business of educating and supporting adult lifelong learners, the types of data Jim woks with are extremely important. You need to engage in efforts to collect your own data and understand what it says about what your learners need.
It has to be an ongoing effort to gather and analyze data, not just the one-shot thing. We talk about this a lot, where you send out the survey once every five years or something like that. That’s not going to get you what you need in today’s environment. Research and the continual use of data should be an ongoing thing for any serious learning business these days.Jeff Cobb
[18:27] – Data also came up in our conversation with Jenna Cohen of ACT. She is focused on following the data, listening to the market, and using that information and insight to drive decision-making. ACT has a huge set of initiatives focused on workforce development and workforce readiness, including Work Ready Communities, the WorkKeys assessments, and the National Career Readiness Certificate. Jenna’s work reinforces the importance of knowing your market and being able to dig into problem-solving with employers so that you understand their issues and then offer a solution.
In our conversation with Clare Marsch, she also emphasized the know-your-audience component. She and the American Bankers Association are exemplars of collecting data, doing research, and being in contact with employers in the marketplace. Clare also supports taking measured risks because often you don’t know how people are going to respond to an offering until you put it out there. Often one of the best ways to get the data you need to make the right decisions is testing something out in the market.
Our conversation with Van Ton-Quinlivan reinforced assessing the market and seeing what’s needed. Futuro Health had to meet the huge shortage of allied healthcare workers. Realizing that no single organization was going to be able to meet that need, Van turned to partnerships. When you see the market and understand its needs, you begin to understand what your solution should look like.
Make Learning Achievable
[22:02] – Making learning achievable came up with Jim Fong, and it relates to the situation that higher education finds itself in now. For working adults, it can feel daunting to pursue a degree or even a full-blown certification or larger credential. Learning providers need to look at unbundling what they have, making it possible to stack smaller credentials into larger achievements, and making it feel more realistic for adult lifelong learners to undertake learning.
Jenna Cohen used the metaphor, “How do you eat an elephant? It’s one bite at a time.” That’s what unbundling does. It can turn learning into bite-size, manageable pieces—and with a credential to go with it.
One of the things that stood out in our conversation with Van Ton-Quinlivan was that you also have to have supports to go along with the learning. Adult lifelong learners tend to have responsibilities beyond learning—jobs, family, life. A big part of what Futuro Health is thinking about is what supports are needed, and this is a big focus of workforce development in general. You should treat the learner as a whole human.
The Finish Line Grants that Governor Cooper put in place in North Carolina speak to supports and what adult lifelong learners need, in addition to accessing the content, to really be able to learn.
Partnering Is Powerful
[25:03] – Clare Marsch pointed to the potential for partnering that goes beyond determining what’s needed right now. A lot of workforce development is future-focused, and you have to look at how the whole field or industry is evolving. Clare talked about seeding the future workforce and figuring out what the issues of the future will be by continuing dialogue with employers and other stakeholders.
For Van Ton-Quinlivan, the power of partnership becomes apparent when you think about what problems you can’t solve on your own. Those are the cases where there’s a strong, compelling reason for the partnership in the first place—a key ingredient in strong partnerships. Another key ingredient that Van pointed to is partners bringing what they do best to the table. Partnerships should merge strength with strength.
Jenna Cohen says ACT works very closely with employers, and she described that work as “peeling the onion of the problem statement.” You have to be a good listener, ask good questions, and hear what the employer is saying to understand the real problem.
Employers can make excellent partners for learning businesses, but they’re certainly not the only option. If you’re in academia, look at ways to partner with related trade and professional associations. Conversely, if you’re a trade or professional association, consider forming partnerships with academia to help you take your content and brand to new levels and audiences. You can also look at regional partners, often nonprofit or governmental organizations, in areas your learning business aims to serve.
The Pandemic Will Have Lasting Impact on Lifelong Learning
[29:27] – The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted how we look at everything, including workforce development and credentialing. It’s important to understand what that lasting impact will be in your field or profession and for the learners you serve.
Jenna Cohen believes the need for convenience and flexibility, driven by remote work, will stick around.
The turmoil in traditional higher education around degree programs is another thing likely to stick around. Many institutions were impacted by students not coming to campus during COVID, and college enrollments declined. There are questions around whether students will come back post-pandemic, and, if they do, what will enrollment look like? A move away from traditional degree approaches and accelerated acceptance of alternative credentials will change the face of higher education—and change the credentialing and lifelong learning marketplace in general, opening up to who can play what role in providing credentials to the current and emerging workforce.
Futuro Health launched a couple of months before the pandemic hit in the U.S. Health went to telehealth almost overnight, which changed what allied healthcare workers needed in terms of training. Futuro Health immediately found good partners, and together tehy were able then to train over 4,000 healthcare workers in 20 states in two and a half weeks.
The need for partnership will likely continue because the big problems, like a huge labor shortage in any particular field, are not solvable by a single organization. No one organization is going to have all the resources and abilities needed to address such a big problem. Partnering makes complete sense in that context.
Unlike Futuro Health, many learning businesses were well established pre-pandemic and used to delivering many face-to-face events when, suddenly, everything had to go online. As one example, One Day U’s entire business model was place-based, and, in the weeks after the pandemic hit, Steven Schragis and his team had to flip everything to virtual.
This was also the case for Clare Marsch at the American Bankers Association. Like so many organizations, ABA had to virtualize everything when COVID hit. Clare made the point, though, that some of what they offered online was more impactful than what they’d done face to face. Online learning created opportunities for impact that ABA hadn’t realized were there before, and they’re not going to let that go. ABA is going to continue pursuing distributed learning programs and hybrid models. The pandemic was a pivot point for digital education. COVID took online learning completely mainstream, and we think online learning will remain a permanent and prominent part of the landscape going forward.
Do Things Differently
[35:21] – Jenna Cohen made the point that you have to be careful not to solve the problems of the past—you have to keep up to date on the market and the data. She also pointed out that you can’t always provide a “baked solution.” Sometimes you have to respond without having had the time to analyze the situation thoroughly. You have to take what you do know and run with it. The pandemic was an example of that for many organizations.
A lot of those initial virtual conferences weren’t necessarily the most captivating or well prepared, but they served an important need in that moment. And so there’s a little bit of a balancing act here between doing your research, knowing the market, but also being prepared to act and not being too caught up in, okay, this is the problem I know, this is the problem that they need, and cling to it when maybe the problem’s changed. Because I think for a lot of organizations, the pandemic is an example of that changing what their learners needed…overnight.Celisa Steele
Similarly, Clare Marsch emphasized measured risk-taking. Often taking a measured risk means you realize there’s a problem or an opportunity to be addressed and that you need to act on before it disappears or you become irrelevant. When the pandemic hit, taking your annual meeting fully online, which would have sounded crazy a year earlier, became a measured risk because it was probably riskier to not take it online if you wanted to remain engaged with your customers.
Jim Fong made the point that higher education doesn’t need to be wed to the traditional 120-credit degree. We should consider unbundling and not be lulled into complacency and doing things they way we’ve always done them. That applies to anybody offering a hefty certification that requires years of experience and education.
[38:16] – Wrap-up
These five takeaways can be of value to almost all learning businesses, but you need to dig in to understand how they apply to your situation and your learners. What are the challenges and opportunities for you to act on before the challenges overtake you and the opportunities are snapped up by someone else?
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