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Higher Education: Friend or Foe?

Leaders would like to embrace the prospect of a nation brimming with workers possessing college degrees, poised to take their place in a 21st century workforce. However, many incoming employees lack the core competencies needed to handle their job responsibilities.

This poses a threat to industry productivity and growth. In response, a number of employers in energy and telecommunications have partnered with colleges to design college curricula that teach essential industry skills for students entering the workforce — and employees already working.

In doing so, they are setting an example of how to combine academic content and workplace competencies and narrow the skills gap.

A Need for Communication and Alignment
Communications barriers between employers and colleges have historically been an impediment to establishing effective strategies to prepare students for jobs.

Gail Coppage, director of outreach and innovation for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, or ConnSCU, system — which includes 17 colleges and universities — said these communications issues can completely hobble economic growth and development in a region, especially in energy.

She said previous separate and individual energy-employer partnerships with ConnSCU came up short in fulfilling their objectives.

“If the energy industry wanted to recruit and train students, they would go to a specific educational institution,” she said.

“You could have the industry going to several different institutions in different regions, and these institutions would propose a different tweak or version of the curriculum that the industry implemented for students.”

Colleges are not necessarily communicating with each other about all aspects in developed curriculum, Coppage said. “There wasn’t a uniform curriculum designed or being made available throughout a number of institutions.”

Within the energy industry, Tom Burns kept a close eye on the issue from his post as director of training for Hartford, Conn.-based Northeast Utilities, which worked with institutions to train students in the ConnSCU system.

“The problem was not as much about any conflict existing between employers and higher education institutions that kept them from working together, as it was the relationship between the two was not properly aligned,” Burns said. He retired in March from Northeast Utilities.

He said training for students in line worker positions presents an example of an alignment issue. “A college would come up to us and say, ‘We want to develop a program for line workers,’” he said.

“While that’s a great thing, these colleges didn’t have the right technical expertise on their staff to develop and teach the curriculum.”

The energy sector is not alone in its urgent need to locate skilled labor for changing times. The telecommunications world — where more than most industries, companies either sink or swim with the tide of innovation — has felt the pressure during the last few decades.

Jeffrey Batiste, a South Plainfield, N.J.-based technical training manager with Verizon Communications, said a big concern for companies has been whether workers would be capable of performing tasks related to consumer broadband services, which replaced older landline services.

He said workers’ technical education had some catching up to do.

“The telecom industry was transitioning from providing only telephone services to other areas such as the Internet and television,” he said. “We had a workforce that was used to doing analog work, and they had to be brought into the digital age.”

Employers and Colleges Partner Up
Within the next few years, more than 100,000 workers in the energy industry are expected to retire, raising the prospect of a shortage of skilled workers.

Rather than standing idle, a group of industry leaders has stepped up its efforts to recruit new workers, and they are also making sure they have a substantial voice in how colleges and universities are preparing these workers.

Created in 2000 and managed by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL, a national nonprofit organization, the Energy Providers Coalition for Education, or EPCE, has been creating online curricula in programs and courses related to a variety of energy industry jobs.

Students take all of EPCE’s courses online, in partnership with Bismarck State College, Clemson University, Excelsior College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

For students who excel in their coursework, EPCE member companies offer internships that give students opportunities in the field and give employers the chance to see which positions a particular student might be suited for if hired after graduation.

Further, workers employed with EPCE member companies who wish to increase their skill set or advance their careers can enroll in EPCE-sponsored educational programs that are included in their companies’ tuition assistance benefit policies.

To date, more than 5,000 students have enrolled in EPCE-sponsored programs, which include those leading to certificates and associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Coppage said in her time working in higher education, the EPCE initiative has been the best model she has seen to demonstrate how public higher education institutions and employers can work together to understand and develop the right skill sets for students.

“Undertakings like these require a lot of time, resources and nurturing in order to be successful, and working apart from each other in the past, employers and industries could not properly invest in these things on their own,” she said.

“But with CAEL’s EPCE staff helping to facilitate this effort, this was a perfect opportunity to work through these issues and to define just what the needs of the energy industry were with dedicated industry experts at the table.”

As in energy, telecommunications companies also have seized the opportunity to work with colleges and universities to develop curriculum relevant to the industry’s rapidly evolving skills needs.

For instance, the National Coalition for Telecommunications Education and Learning, also known as NACTEL — created by CAEL in 1997 in partnership with major players in the telecommunications industry and its two major labor unions — has been at the forefront of the industry’s work alongside higher education.

Similar to EPCE, NACTEL offers online certificates, associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees for students, with curricula including telecommunications, mobile technology, video technology, networking technology and wireless networking.

In addition to helping design curricula, NACTEL partners also make tuition assistance available to employees. Students have taken more than 25,000 NACTEL classes since the beginning of the collaboration.

Students also can take advantage of Credit for Prior Learning opportunities to earn course credit based on documented college-level learning from their employment, military service, non-credit courses and independent learning.

Verizon’s Batiste said that, on the whole, the NACTEL initiative has been a boon for the telecom industry, helping to accelerate worker productivity. “When our employees enter a NACTEL program, regardless of their employment level, you absolutely see the difference,” he said.

Staying Positive
According to the 2011 McKinsey Global Institute Report, “An Economy That Works: Job Creation and America’s Future,” to achieve full employment — defined as an unemployment rate of 5 percent — by 2020, the U.S. economy will need to add 21 million jobs.

There are encouraging signs the nation’s job market is improving. But many miles remain on the road to close the employee skills gap in anticipation of new job openings and to create the right kinds of partnerships between higher education institutions and employers.

If stakeholders create these partnerships, new workers will have a more seamless transition into their companies, and current workers will be able to upgrade their skills and knowledge while working, and improve their company’s bottom line.

In many cases the educational pipeline many U.S. employers have long relied on for technical knowledge is no longer able to supply a steady stream of qualified graduates.

But EPCE and NACTEL offer examples of how renewed and re-energized relationships between the educational community and the private sector can create pragmatic solutions that help achieve a national workforce that is both fully employed and fully skilled.

“From our experiences, we find that there is a continued, real, deliberate interest on the part of industry to have this coordinated approach to training students,” said ConnSCU’s Coppage.

“We firmly believe this is a national model that can be used across other sectors.”

Pamela Tate is president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.