‘Learning in the flow of work’

We talk with researchers at Northeastern’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy about their recent research on workplace learning and what employers want from college partners.

A new analysis from Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy digs deep on employer attitudes about workplace learning programs, as well as how much they’re investing in them. The report draws on interviews with 37 HR leaders and learning officials in the tech, manufacturing, and health-care industries. (You can read our story on it here.)

We asked the researchers about some of the trends they identified, and what colleges and other education providers should take away.

Q: Many of the companies you spoke with are working to break down roles into skill sets and categories. How can colleges and other providers better understand those emerging skill sets? 

Sean Gallagher, executive director of the center: What companies are doing here is highly customized to their businesses and contexts, and it will be important to watch if new standards emerge.

Real-time labor market databases like EMSI Burning Glass are of course of great value, but it’s also crucial for colleges and other providers to directly engage employers if they’re planning to partner with them for employee learning and development.

It’s also important to keep in mind the distinction between generally aligning curriculum and graduates’ outcomes with hiring needs, and the even harder work of creating and delivering content and instruction that’s mapped to rapidly changing business needs.

Tova Sanders, associate teaching professor at Northeastern: Companies are definitely seeking highly customized learning which is specific to their employees and contexts. Many colleges are taking steps to identify curriculum that is industry-informed through intentional collaboration with industry experts. Often this takes the form of engaging with multiple organizations in the same industry and then validating the skills that seem to be universal for a specific role.

Across the board, employers were talking about leadership/soft skills and digital, and these will likely maintain high priority. Stackable modules addressing these will likely be in demand for employers. However, colleges also need to develop relationships with industry leaders to identify gaps and allow for curriculum design that has the ability to rapidly adapt to changing contexts.

Rashid Mosley, associate teaching professor at Northeastern: Many of the technology companies I spoke to have identified needed skills to achieve organizational goals. Once these skills are identified, the learning leaders either provide the training for their employees or provide the funding for external training. Colleges and other providers should collaborate directly with the learning leaders in organizations to help them identify the skills gaps and co-create learning opportunities for employees. These opportunities can extend beyond the “classroom” type activities and include activities that promote learning in the flow of work. The most helpful data is collected from the organization. 

Q: You write: ‘In the years to come, it seems increasingly likely that both employers’ and workers’ energy and investments may coalesce around microcredentials as a meeting place of both job-related skills needs and as a pathway to potential degrees.’ Could you say more about that? 

Gallagher: Employers are generally focused on funding learning that will drive business results and that is short and focused. Microcredentials meet this need and are the anchor of many of the online learning platforms that are growing in popularity: the “B2B” offerings from Coursera and EdX for example have stackability built in, so after a series of modules or courses, an employee can build toward a degree. Many business schools long ago recognized that custom training and executive ed could stack into degree programs—and this is now spreading to other disciplines.

And, it appears that employer education benefits offerings are evolving to include a focus on certificates and various types of college and university non-degree learning. 

Sanders: Employers and workers are continuing to work in a rapidly evolving workplace which often requires learning that is targeted toward specific competencies and skills and can be immediately applied to the work environment. Employees are seeking continuous learning opportunities, but still see the value of an earned degree, as do employers.

Employers, employees and colleges/universities all benefit from an agile and stackable curriculum that meets the immediate needs of workers and organizations but also has the potential to lead to more sustained learning and formal degrees. Adult learners, in particular, are motivated by this structure and the opportunity to directly apply what they have learned in an flexible format that accommodates their schedules and competing commitments.

Mosley: In the age of the Great Resignation, both employees and employers are mindful that the current employee pool and organizational needs may shift shortly. In other words, it is not guaranteed that the same employees will be around next month. With this in mind, long-term benefits, including the traditional tuition assistance programs, which are primarily for two or four-year degrees, are being modified to capture “bite-sized” learning in the form of credentials. These micro-credentials help the employees demonstrate skills mastered much sooner than a traditional degree. This can benefit the employee seeking to demonstrate specific skills to their existing employer or for future job opportunities. Micro-credentials are helpful for employers as the micro-credentials ensure that the employees gain the immediate abilities needed to achieve the organization’s business goals. There is a shorter return on investment.

Q: Many HR leaders commented on the lack of speed or nimbleness in working with colleges and universities—but others were highly invested in local college partnerships. What can make the difference for employers?

Sanders: At this point, the most successful partnerships seem to be occurring when there is a targeted need for upskilling or reskilling a specific cohort of employees. For some organizations, this is due to the fact that automation will make some roles obsolete, for others, such as the semiconductor industry, there is a shortage of talent overall and specific learning is necessary to fill specific roles in the industry.

The most successful partnerships seem to be occurring when college and organizational partners collaboratively break down and articulate skills needed of their workers and then work to design a stackable curriculum to meet the needs of a certain cohort. Some institutions are better poised to do this than others, and identifying those who already have models and processes for developing agile and customized learning pathways is key.  In addition, local partnerships, such as those with community colleges, seem to be successful largely due to a shared commitment to the community in which they are embedded.

Mosley: In addition to lack of speed or nimbleness, the relevance of the content and its applicability to the actual work environment are other areas that could make the difference when a company is debating whether to choose LinkedIn Learning and Degreed or a college and university as their go-to providers. In industries such as technology, manufacturing, and healthcare, employees must gain specific skills to allow the company to gain a competitive advantage. In addition, companies are considering how the skills learned are applied in a real-work situation. In other words, are employees learning to translate the skills into their work environment? Do they gain the experience of practice? Some well-known go-to-providers cannot verify this critical detail.

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