Upskilling and reskilling have tremendous benefits and value for adult students, returning learners, and communities as a whole

8 key steps to help universities enable upskilling and reskilling


Upskilling and reskilling have tremendous benefits and value for adult students, returning learners, and communities as a whole

2. Enable non-degree-seeking students to more easily access courses that address needed skills/knowledge for high demand jobs. In many cases, the opportunity of taking just a course, or a self-standing certificate consisting of a set of courses, without having to enroll for a complete degree would enable those who did not have the luxury of taking time off for a degree, or who needed specific advanced knowledge over a shorter time period, to gain from the expertise of faculty. The graduate certificate in Unmanned Vehicle Systems at the University of Texas at Arlington, developed by 4 departments in conjunction with the aerospace/UAV sector to meet emerging needs in that area, is an example of such a pathway, being structured to be taken either independently without pre-requisites outside an appropriate Bachelor’s degree or being an integral part of the full degree. The concept of “knowledge in a package” is a powerful means of upskilling/reskilling and has increased applicability if it can be taken outside the traditional constraints of a degree, while leaving open the option for the person to complete a degree, at a later date, if desired, counting courses already completed towards that degree.

3. Recognize the difference between returning adult learners/working professionals and “traditional” students. It is crucial that we recognize that adult learners, and working professionals, have different needs and expectations than an 18-year-old. Their time is valuable; they come with tremendous real-world experience that is equivalent to, and often exceeds, a lot of coursework. Their expectations regarding the value proposition of time spent in gaining knowledge are justifiably high as are those related to “customer service.” Universities seeking to work productively with these segments of the population need to re-orient their front facing operations, keeping their needs and expectations in mind as well as in providing holistic, wrap-around, support services that might be very different from those provided to an 18-24-year-old. Most university-based divisions of continuing/professional education have some of this experience but are often isolated from the general academic units, making this transfer of experience difficult at times. In many cases, when the reskilling/upskilling entails upgrading of technical qualifications the new positions may also require added “soft” skills that would need to be simultaneously provided to ensure success of the re-/upskilled professional in their new position.

4. Develop strong partnerships with the corporate world to offer specialized programs to employees as a means of retaining a workforce through upskilling or assisting them in transition. Companies are often faced with the dilemma of having a very valuable set of long-time employees who unfortunately no longer have the skills appropriate for the new direction/focus of the company. Being able to offer employees the option of specialized training in the new field as a means of “upskilling,” or even as preparation for transition, can be a powerful tool. In some cases, the ability of a university to partner with a specific corporate entity, or industry sector, to offer customized courses and degrees to meet these needs for cohorts of employees opens new doors of employment opportunity. The ability to tailor courses to build on past experiences of the employees and to use case-studies from the desired future work environment are also desirable because they accelerate the transition. While developed for regular degrees, the customizable MBA offered by the Carey School of Business at ASU fits this mold and function.

5. Increase modalities of offerings and flexibility in structure. The ability to have multiple starts in the year, terms of different lengths that accommodate work schedules, and the ability to move between modalities of offerings (online, face-to-face, and hybrid) can dramatically increase access and equity for working professionals. Varied term lengths between 5-15 weeks as offered by ASU, WGU, and UTA, and multiple starts in the year–often catalyzed by the pandemic–are proving to be extremely effective both for regular students and working professionals. Shorter, modular, and part-time/online offerings, the ability to access material both synchronously and asynchronously, and the option of intense periods of direct interaction with instructors, in team-based activities, and with practitioners are important aspects to be considered in the development of program plans.

6. Provide flexibility as related to prerequisites. While the common requirement that advanced courses can only be taken if prerequisites are met is based on genuine, and well-intentioned, reasons, such restrictions when applied to working professionals can result in a major barrier to taking a course. Working professionals and those returning to college after years in the workforce often have skill sets gained through employment and experience that could be the equivalent of the knowledge provided in the prerequisite courses, or often are mature enough to cover the material independently themselves. Flexibility in admission to these courses, based on work experience, would go a long way towards enabling them to gain from accessing the needed knowledge directly rather than having to spend significant time prior to even initiating the desired course.

7. Develop credentials and certificates in areas of high workforce need that are “certified” by potential employers and are stackable towards a degree. Given the plethora of credentials now available, it is critical that programs structured for reskilling/upskilling in the workforce are specifically recognized (and even “certified”) by potential employers and industry sectors, giving a level of assurance to those completing these programs that their efforts will directly lead to improvements/progression in employment. While universities cannot guarantee jobs or progression in employment, it is important from a reputational perspective to ensure that there is “truth in advertising.” Partnerships with industry groups and professional associations, chambers of commerce, and regional workforce development agencies are of great importance in this activity. The incorporation of “stackability” in the design of these courses/credentials is beneficial to all entities involved. Embedding industry-recognized certifications into courses wherever possible is also highly recommended. SAS courses and certificates such as those offered as a Tier 2 academic specialization as part of the business degree at Oakland University and the certificate in Business Analytics within the MS in Business Analytics at the GWU School of Business, as well as the CCNA Security and CCNP certifications offered by Cisco Learning Network as part of degrees at WGU and UMGC, are examples of such integration.

8. Work in collaboration with corporate entities and local and federal agencies to provide financial assistance. It is often mistakenly assumed that working professionals seeking reskilling/upskilling have adequate financial resources. In a majority of cases, the lack of resources is a major barrier and needs to be addressed. While universities by themselves may not have scholarships for these students, it is critical that they work with these students to access financial aid from a range of sources such as local agencies, federal and state agencies, specific reskilling programs, and philanthropic sectors. The creation of a financial aid office focused on this and staffed by knowledgeable personnel is key here. Pell grants focused on credential programs, state programs such as the Michigan Reconnect program, the Career and Professional Education (CAPE) Act program in Florida, the TechCred program in Ohio, and the adult learners grant program in Utah are examples. It is crucial, though, that universities be cognizant of the differences between these programs and those based on employer participation from those available, and traditionally used, with college students, and that university personnel staffing this office be specifically trained in these areas.

To date, universities have largely positioned themselves as a pipeline for learning. In a pandemic driven and eventually post-pandemic world, they have a tremendous opportunity to meet their mission to the community through being both a platform and a pipeline, shifting from control of offerings to flexibility in offerings, providing alternate mechanisms for the student (writ large, and redefined as anyone seeking knowledge) to avail of the knowledge/skills provided by the institution, and facilitating this in ways that best meet the student’s needs. This will undoubtedly necessitate a change from resource control and internal optimization to greater resource orchestration and facilitating interaction developing a true ecosystem between the university, employer, and employee/student.

If this is done, universities will be able a play a critical, and much needed, role in the reskilling and upskilling of the workforce, providing an important function in the socio-economic vitality and resilience of the communities they serve, and in doing so also open new avenues for their own stability through enrollment.

eSchool Media Contributors