Going back to school is starting to look a lot different.
Ninety-six percent of students at Pennsylvania College of Technology entertain job offers in their final semester. It's an enviable statistic, one that the college is very proud of, said Tracy Brundage, vice president of workforce development and continuing education.
“Our tagline is ‘degrees that work,’” she said.
But employer interest isn't limited to graduates of the Penn State affiliate's two- and four-year degree programs.
Located in Williamsport, Pa., Penn College began to offer short-term, non-credit training in 2009 for five jobs on the state’s list of high-priority occupations: roustabout, welder’s helper, production technician, floorhand, and a commercial driver’s license program.
“When oil and gas hit the area, it really started to boom in Central Pennsylvania in 2007, 2008, we started to come together and say, we need to address what’s happening here and figure out what kinds of jobs are out there. What kind of training can we do to try to help link people to these jobs?” Brundage said.
Those conversations grew into ShaleNET, an entry-level program to prepare people to join the rapidly growing energy industry. It was conceived as a "stackable credential" model. Built like a Lego pyramid, the program moves from foundational skills, such as applied mathematics, to industry certifications, and on to advanced degrees. It clearly shows what skills are required for different jobs.
The point is to help students make better-informed decisions about their education by providing concrete end points, said Laura Fisher, senior vice president of workforce at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development in Pittsburgh. She said the world of work is rapidly evolving, and a stackable credential model has the potential to work just as well for liberal arts jobs as it has for manufacturing or oil and gas jobs.
“Technology is transforming occupations of every sort, and this idea of up-skilling or increasing one’s skills is just going to be a fact of life.”
It’s an issue that’s particularly pressing in the Pittsburgh region. Within the next decade 250,000 baby boomers will retire, and there’s a shortage of people to replace them, according to a May 2016 report from the Allegheny Conference.
“The challenge we have in the education and training system is that traditionally they move much more slowly and change much more slowly than industry itself,” said Fisher. She added that much of the disconnect between job-posters and job-seekers is semantics.
“Within industry, there’s no common taxonomy about how jobs are described, what they’re called, the specific skill sets.” What’s more, “Every job posting you’ve ever seen is essentially written for a perfect candidate. It’s got everything you could ever want.”
A stackable credential model standardizes that whole conversation. Penn College worked with industry leaders and with educators to talk about what they really needed, and how to ask for it, said Brundage.
“Without that information, that road map, it’s hard to jump in," said Fisher. "Where are the gaps?”
Most significantly, Penn College found that many employers were missing employees with “soft skills,” things like a great attendance record, customer service skills, a good attitude. They emphasize to students that no matter how much an industry changes, or contracts, in the case of natural gas, those skills are transferable.
But educational institutions have to do more than simply rearrange the progression of courses, said Jeff Rafn, president of the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. “If we’re going to require students to come and take large blocks of classes in very inflexible times, they can’t do that and raise a family and go to work at the same time. We’ve got to think about how we can offer things in smaller, more easily accessible chunks.”
Speaking at the Federal Reserve Conference in Philadelphia, Rafn said another systemic problem looms.
“Our federal system of financial aid has not caught up with that kind of movement of students going in and out of education throughout their lifetime.”
Fisher agreed, noting that historically, industry has changed much faster than education's ability to keep pace.