Education’s Continuing Role of Supporting Workforce Development

Don Hopkins, Wright State University

The two major impacts that universities have on workforce development involve the initial student preparation for the workforce and a platform for achieving a lifestyle of continuing education that prevents employees from becoming obsolete and providing companies the ability to discover new frontiers.  

The first impact that universities have on workforce development is the most traditional role that universities play, which is providing professional career education for our young people. Companies are used to coming to universities to recruit new hires for their entry-level professional jobs. Universities must stay relevant to the needs of industries in their region or communities. To perform this important role, universities collaborate with business through multi-levels of Advisory Boards at the university, college and department levels. Universities often struggle with the objective of teaching students the ability to learn and understand a discipline versus preparing them for the current job needs of the industry. Universities believe their role should be to provide the skills and knowledge that a student needs to understand the discipline and apply their learned knowledge thereafter. For example, universities educate a student with knowledge (e.g., logic, structure, error handling, etc.) to be an effective programmer versus learning the current most popular programming language (e.g., syntax). Learning just a programming language is destined to become obsolete and irrelevant while learning the “art or science” of programming will make a student more sustainable. However, this is not the end, because the structure of programming has changed over the years (e.g., introduction of recursive calls, object orientation, analytics), which makes additional education important to successfully make these transformations. This is what brings us to the next area of impact for universities.

The second impact universities have on workforce development is providing continuing education and lifelong learning. The rapid growth of technology has made this a much more significant role for the university and one which industry groups might not fully appreciate. Providing continuing education and lifelong learning can have multiple facets:

  • to renew knowledge so one can remain successful in their field
  • to grow into new adjacencies in their career
  • to evolve into a lifestyle.

Universities can support the efforts of employees to renew knowledge so one can remain successful in their field. Our modern society changes quickly, especially with the speed that new technologies are being introduced. Many things we use today did not even exist five or ten years ago. Professionals need to stay current with the latest knowledge, ability, and skills so they can master the developments of new applications required to simply do the job in their fields. If you received a degree in marketing fifteen years ago, there were no social media channels to harvest (e.g., Facebook is only fourteen years old). Employees gain confidence and can do their jobs better when they receive additional education. It is not only important for employees to keep up with the technologies, but they need to assist companies in the introduction and deployment of this new technology.

In the last decade, universities have been adding certificate programs to their curriculums. These certificate programs differ from standard workplace training that many companies employed to teach an employee how to perform a function by teaching the underlying principles associated with the function. This approach of using certificates provides the employee with much more depth of understanding, which markedly improves their problem-solving ability in their area of study. In addition, the student can achieve a more thorough knowledge of their field by completing a Master’s degree in their area expertise (e.g., accounting, engineering, information systems). This facilitates employees in introducing change within their organizations.

Universities can also support the employee’s need to grow into new career adjacencies. Many of the tasks we perform today are interdisciplinary or require expertise in more than one typical domain of knowledge. To many successful professionals, the challenge is to learn the knowledge outside their fields. Many employees with technical degrees have used the Master of Business Administration as a means of preparing for management or other leadership roles that require an understanding of how the business operates. In addition, managers today need to know and practice analytics, which is a new domain of knowledge with interdisciplinary impact. Advancing a career today could mean that someone needs to pick up a degree that is completely outside what he/she originally studied in college. Many times, companies place an employee in an area where they have the greatest need, but does not have an in-depth understanding nor skills (e.g., moving an accountant or engineer into supply chain management). They are performing the job based on the tribal knowledge that has been passed on to them. Continuing education through a Master’s degree in a new discipline, like Logistics and Supply Chain Management, provides the employee with the opportunity to view problems in the workplace from a new perspective, versus the tribal biases that were passed onto them. This provides the employee the ability to perform transformational leadership in their new discipline.

Finally, when continuing education can become a lifestyle, it can broaden one’s business network and influence. From the employer’s point of view, it is a means to retain the talent on the team. In addition, our efforts to become more competent can inspire others too. Not only do we grow our network and enlarge our business circles, our influence grows as well because we keep ourselves up-to-date. For leaders, this attitude to continue to learn and improve shows a lifelong commitment to something greater. In the end, people are more likely to stay in such a nourishing culture rather than leave it.

While universities play a significant role in promoting continuing education as a lifestyle for the twenty-first century, employers have two significant roles to play. First, when planning or supporting career development with employees, it is important to discuss with them the fact that they must continue to upgrade their knowledge and skills to be an effective employee over the life of their career. Second, employers need to reconsider their policies regarding tuition support that will encourage employees to embrace the concept of continuing education as a lifestyle.

Automation will continue to put pressure on employees and employers. Lower skill jobs will continue to be eliminated, but if the past is an indicator of the future, new higher skill jobs will continue to be created. As computers began to automate much of the business processes for the first time during the seventies and eighties, eliminating many clerical jobs, companies were struggling to find computer operators and programmers. Moreover Today, as robots are beginning to dominate production floors, companies will continue to struggle to find programmers and operators to support and maximize the utilization of these new robots. For instance, contrast hospitals today and twenty years ago; nurses must know how to use mobile and computer devices that did not exist years ago but today are the minimum requirements of such positions.

There must be a partnership between businesses (employers) and universities on which the future success of the country is based, and a workforce that continues to step up to the challenges that change will bring this century.


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