Perspective: The Case for Workforce Aligned Programs

The Case for Workforce Aligned Programs

Delivering on Job-Readiness: How to Scale and Differentiate Your Workforce Aligned Programs

Traditional models of learning are proving to be ill-equipped to keep pace with the rapid changes of technology that have accelerated a skills gap in most professions in recent years. There are many definitions of “digitalization” in terms of the impact of technology to transform business. Some focus on the impact technology has on the operations of a business and some highlight the social and communication functions that technology has altered as a subset of operational impact. The need for technical acumen is a part of nearly every job without exception. More than 3/4s of all jobs now require substantial digital skills. This has a global impact, but the US-based system of education and its highly concentrated focus on college for everyone and limited alternative pathways is finding that change is imperative to satisfy the job market and employers who lack the necessary talent pipelines.

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Trends with Current Skills Gaps

The expansion of technology has had another interesting impact. While certain tasks can be more automated, other uniquely human elements need to be accentuated to harness the use of technology effectively. This brings about the need to foster these “soft” or “essential” skills to a much higher degree. For one thing, the rate of change caused by technological advancements requires us to remain very flexible and agile to deploy new tools successfully. Our ability to communicate effectively in teams has been challenged by having to re-learn these basic skills in the context of new operations that have embraced a new technology norm. Then we add in demand for advanced skills such as critically thinking, problem solving, and leadership, as well as interaction in remote contexts as seen during the pandemic.

There is also a generational “gap” in how native our digital skills are. A new generational term has been coined: Zillennials. “Zillennials straddle the generations of millennials, who are considered digital pioneers, and Gen Z, who are considered digital natives who never knew life before screens.” The impact of technology on our lives is so profound that we have a microgeneration forming based upon the introduction of the smartphone! Of course this has an impact on how we learn, and how we work, but what has not changed nearly enough is how we teach.

Traditional academic programs fail to serve today’s learners in the following key ways:

  1. Their structure is too hard to update frequently to remain relevant.
  2. They are typically designed in a passive nature, relying on lecture-style formats and they do not prioritize “doing” in a measurable way.
  3. They are often designed to be theoretical and not applied or made relevant to real-world examples. Since change is so rapid, even if they are aligned to the real world, updating them to remain relevant is very challenging.
  4. They do not evoke interplay between hard and soft skills and often technology is shunned from classrooms, seen as a distraction and not a tool—so fostering soft skills in the context of using technology is not interwoven in a meaningful way. 
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“Pushing” vs “Pulling”

Academic programs at all levels have historically taken more of a “push” method, where the curriculum is mainly theoretical and knowledge-focused. The deficiencies cited above prevail across K12, as well as higher education. Preparation for teachers and faculty has not focused on methods of deploying learning more effectively and this has spawned the role of learning designer. This role being a blend of UX guru, cognitive learning expert, and instructional expert all rolled into one to support subject matter experts.

The workforce of today requires learning designed with a “pull” method, giving the employers a chance to articulate the skills they require and creating an opportunity to craft more agile learning opportunities for a “lifelong learning” mentality—one that can iterate and evolve as rapidly as skills change with technological advancements.

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In this model, learning opportunities include some aspect of “doing” not just “knowing” and they result in some level of demonstrable skills that one can only attain with practice and situational context. There is ample opportunity, as well, to combine soft skills with technology use to embrace new ways to think critically, share ideas, and foster effective communication thus making us all more “digitally native” and aware of our uniquely human role alongside technology.

Additionally, there is a “pull” from employers to articulate the skills they require consistently so that learning can be designed to align with and measure the attainment and proficiency of these skills. Structuring learning this way requires several distinct differences from traditional learning. There are many emerging models to address this need. One such model has been suggested by Jason Wingard, author of The College Devaluation Crisis: Market Disruption, Diminishing ROI, and an Alternative Future of Learning. His Alternative Learning Model captures 6 key differentiations from traditional learning. 

  • Enter: Learning must be continuous, evolving to match the changing world and workforce requirements driven by daily technological advancements. Individuals must continually enter new learning opportunities throughout their lives, moving away from the outdated notion of obtaining a degree and never returning to a classroom or learning environment.
  • Discover: Traditional models inhibit learners’ ability to articulate their skills and align themselves with career paths that match their capabilities. Jason Wingard’s model introduces the concept of discovery, encouraging learners to identify skills in the marketplace and align their capabilities with career paths that lead to success, benefiting both learners and employers.
  • Learn: Learning is at its most effective when it is goal-oriented. Learners pursue education in a format of their choice to achieve specific goals. The intrinsic motivation to learn arises when it aligns with a desired outcome, emphasizing the importance of tailoring the format to individual learning preferences.
  • Assess: Skill acquisition requires practice, iterative feedback, and contextual application. Learning environments must accommodate both performance-based and authentic assessments to foster skill acquisition effectively.
  • Credential: Quantifiable skills pave the way for credentials, with their value dependent on standardized achievement levels. Unlike traditional programs that rely on credit hours, credentials offer a more accurate representation of skills, addressing the skills gap more effectively.
  • Connect: The connection between learners and employers, crucial for bridging the skills gap, remains largely aspirational. Strengthening this connection in a bidirectional manner is essential for aligning education with industry needs.
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The shift from traditional learning models to alternative learning approaches, as outlined by Jason Wingard’s model and others like it, is imperative to address the widening skills gap exacerbated by rapid technological advancements. By embracing continuous learning, fostering skill discovery, motivating learners through goal-oriented education, implementing comprehensive assessments, recognizing quantifiable credentials, ensuring a connection to our uniquely human skills and embracing the connection to technology with those skills, and enhancing the connection between learners and employers, the education system can better align with the dynamic needs of the contemporary workforce. This transition will not only benefit individuals by providing relevant and applicable skills but also meet the demands of employers in an ever-changing technological landscape.

Laurie Pulido: A Catalyst for Educational Transformation
Laurie Pulido is the Founder of Ease Learning. Her insights and expertise are often cited in industry publications on topics related to DEI principles and innovative learning design. Most recently, Laurie has been a driving force in best practices for skills-aligned learning.

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