Workforce education, conducted in this country primarily by community colleges, has a lot to teach K-12 and the rest of higher education. The leaders of community college workforce development programs gathered in Pittsburgh this week at National Council for Workforce Education conference (#NCWE2014). The proceeding illustrated five things the rest of education can learn from career education.

1. Job to be done. University of Minnesota economist Ann Markusen’s said workforce development efforts should “stop thinking about industries–what people make–and should start thinking about occupations–what people do.” Markusen argued an occupational approach is the “best operational window into skill and talent formation and presence in a region.”

Echoing Clay Christensen, this job to be done frame leads to outcome clarity and leaves the door open for cross industry collaboration around similar skill clusters (e.g., customer care management, project management). Corporations “aren’t complaining about a lack of academic skills,” said Markusen, “they are complaining about lack of work experience and job specific skills.”

Markusen made some observations about the growing makers phenomenon based largely on her son’s experience who observed there is often “no defined, structured job,” and “motivation to work hard and work smart” is key. For small companies, internships are risky, time consuming and often blocked or prohibited by state law. Like big companies, Markusen said startups are looking for “relevant experience, good thinkers, and team players.”

This job to be done frame also leads Markusen to a focus on talent develop rather than the “atrocity of large incentives to attract or just retain corporations” She finds the tax incentives an extravagant waste of money” (A sentiment echoed in my new book, Smart Cities—it’s more about skill-up and startups and than buying jobs)

2. Back-mapped & competency-based. Workforce development leaders are really good at working backwards from a competency map. Strong and dynamic business partnerships help define priority outcomes. Frequent feedback creates relevance for students and iteration cycles for program leaders.

Russ Read is the Project Director for the Community College Consortium for Bioscience Credentials (c3bc), a round two grant recipient of Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College & Career Training (TAACCCT) program. Read led a consortium of 12 colleges that drafted core skills for bioscience job clusters and fostered “learning hubs where ‘graduals’ of information are produced, deconstructed and reconstructed for modularized learning.”

Read works at Forsyth Community College which developed an interesting innovation practice, a Science Skills Lab, which help students fulfill lab requirement in an environment featuring flexible scheduling, instructor guidance, and open source materials. The program develops lab skills as well as work ready “soft skills.” The lab is available to working students, displaced workers, early college students, and students with different styles/needs. (Check out the video below for more.)

3. Applied learning. Workforce develop leaders are all about employability—they are far less parochial about how or where folks pick up skills, they just want them to be able to get a family wage job.

Holly Moore, Executive Dean of Georgetown Campus, South Seattle College, leads new work-based pathways to Bachelors of Applied Science degrees in diverse fields including Prof Tech Teacher Education and Sustainable Building Science Tech. The new degree programs incorporate hands-on work experience but the Northwest accrediting body only allows up to 25% of credits from work-based learning.  She noted that “accreditation is a big barrier” to boosting completion rates. She shared an example of a military vet with more than a bachelor degree of training and development that received little recognition for prior learning. (In Smart Cities, I suggested that states replace the bureaucratic accreditation process with a performance contracting approach—paying for desired outcomes.)

4. Iterative development. Workforce development leaders construct new programs as job clusters emerge.

Jessica Miller manages the UCAP grant program for the Utah System Higher Education supporting the Governor’s goal of boosting degree/certificate completion rates to 66% of adults by 2020. This year she managed grants of more than $2 million to a dozen Utah institutions. One of the grant recipients was University of Utah’s Health Care Management Programs led by Brenda Luther. This emerging field lacks an education pathway in Utah and, despite growing interest, there is a lack of courses and instructional materials. Luther is using the state grant to develop content, but given the lack of shared standards and assessments measuring efficacy of the academic program (much less health care impacts) is a challenge.

Sai Subramanian is CEO of Gradcast, a one year old Dallas division of MyOpenJobs that connects CTE graduates with employers. Colleges subscribe to the service and receive periodic information about which graduates are employed and where. Program completers can send out 100 resumes for free.

Lumens, an enrollment management system from Augusoft, a NCWE sponsor, is another example of an innovator closing the information gap and boosting job training efficiency.

5. Measure what matters. Workforce development leaders pay attention to non-cognitive skills even when it’s hard to measure.

The Center for Worth Ethic Development, a NCWE sponsor, markets a 16-40 hour supplemental instructor-led program culminating in an online mastery exam. “Measuring efficacy is key to staying alive for us,” said CEO Josh Davies.

Core Skills Mastery (CSM), a NCWE sponsor, aims at skilling up the US workforce with an adaptive instructional system that delivers literacy, problem solving, and work skills at levels that exceed most college graduates. CSM measures persistence, efficacy, and self management and provide continuous feedback to learners.

ACT, another NCWE sponsor, claims that as the ACT test measures college readiness, Work Keys accurately reflects work skills through 11 assessment including 3 non-cognitive areas.

Results. NCWE is a group that understands applied and competency-based learning; they are committed to rapid pathways to mastery and open to innovation. Given the unusually strong outcome focus, I asked 10 people I talked to if they knew about Pearson’s efficacy framework which covers desired outcomes, evidence, planning and implementation, and capacity to deliver. (See On Promoting Efficacy: A Conversation with John Tweeddale). Only one had heard of it but they were all in favor of improved efforts to measure and report against an outcome framework.

The sponsoring vendors support a wide range of settings and stages (i.e., back office to instructional delivery) making efficacy measurement and reporting a daunting challenge. The vendors that are two or three steps back from instructional delivery don’t make achievement claims and rely on traditional business success factors: customer engagement, satisfaction and retention.

For a group committed to hands-on learning, NCWE hosts a very traditional conference. Like almost every other education conference, it’s time model the personalized, blended, and competency-based learning we want for our students.

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