A New Expression: Non-Credit Programming
Pam Sornson, JD
Yet another evolution is emerging as the economy recovers from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Long regarded as the lesser valued educational track, non-credit programs are now taking on more importance as people seek out new skill sets to help them find and hold gainful new employment. Community colleges are responding to this demand by rethinking their current non-credit opportunities and retooling them to accommodate the evolving training options requested by both students and area employers.
Changing by Imperative
Non-credit teaching programs have responded to varying needs over the decades, initially arising as ‘job training’ options and later evolving into ‘life enhancement’ opportunities. In both cases, their structure and presentation differed from that of the more formal four-year universities, so they’ve always drawn from a different population.
The COVID pandemic, however, revealed the challenges that that particular population faced in its quest to earn a living, as its members typically found work in jobs that offered low wages, no benefits, and almost no employment stability. When the coronavirus eliminated those positions, many workers were left with no employment options at all.
At the same time, employers were desperate to build a well-trained workforce to meet the emerging demands generated by the COVID-afflicted economy. In some cases, their entire enterprise required a rebuild, as technology rendered obsolete what had been their ‘normal course of business.’ In other cases, new occupations and skill sets were needed to keep up with the competition as on-site employees became remote workers and consumers were compelled to change their purchasing habits and choices. In most cases, the pandemic radically changed the ‘nature of work’ from traditional standards to new and continuously evolving practices requiring novel skills and capacities. Accordingly, it’s becoming increasingly clear that ‘traditional’ educational programs aren’t designed to meet the needs of the emerging economy or the industries building it.
It’s also clear that other societal concerns need attention. Research indicates that shorter-term non-credit courses were attended more frequently by people of color and those of ethnic and other ‘differing’ minorities, often because those populations lacked access to the stringent educational requirements of the four-year university system. The implicit ‘white bias’ in higher education systems has widened economic and social gaps and left millions of people without viable access to programs that lead to higher-earning careers. The lack of further educational progress that is the consequence of a non-credit education perpetuates these gaps.
Furnishing the Future Workforce
Today’s community colleges are taking up these challenges to both drive economic growth and alleviate long-standing racial disparities. In many schools, educational leaders are reconsidering what they need to provide through their non-credit offerings, recognizing that both their students and their future employers need resources and results as quickly as possible.
What students need
According to a 2020 study, even before COVID, people were looking for educational opportunities that facilitated well-paid jobs and a better quality of life:
Many survey participants indicated an interest in occupational fields affected by emerging technologies, such as information technology, high finance, and business management. Service careers in these types of occupations provide foundational functions for industry professionals, so training for them isn’t as rigorous even though the work itself is equally critical to industry success.
Jobs that are common to many industries are also favored for their flexibility, such as human resource management, communications, and business consulting. People are invested in the actual labor they will perform regardless of the nature of the industry in which they work.
They also indicated different motivations for finding new work. Some were looking to improve their earning capacity or to rise higher on their particular career ladder. Others wanted more balance in their lives, citing a need for more autonomy in their work as well as a better use of their talents or a more meaningful way to spend their time.
Perhaps most significantly, more than half of these respondents said they didn’t have access to the training they needed to attain these goals., and if they did, they would prefer to access that education through a non-degreed, skills training, or online learning program.
The coronavirus pandemic almost certainly exacerbated these concerns in both this study population and the American population in general.
What employers need:
Changes in the industrial world are also driving the need for changes in educational programming. While the pandemic closed many businesses for good, others modified their operations to accommodate new demands and quickly found there were slim workforce supplies to help them meet those demands. Colleges can reimagine their non-credit courses to help employers find solutions to their concerns in these new circumstances:
Design courses that focus on existing skills gaps. As an example, the exploding technology sector introduces new and novel software and digital solutions every day, all of which require technicians who understand how to implement, maintain, and secure them.
Introduce new training programs as quickly as possible. Worker shortages exist across many industries; developing and implementing appropriate training options as soon as possible solves problems for the employer, the new employee, and the school.
Build industry-recognized credentialing into the program. Sign-posting industry standards of excellence in both training and employment practices emphasizes the connection between the supply and demand for qualified labor.
Here in early 2022, it appears the COVID-19 pandemic may be receding, leaving in its wake a rearranged and unfamiliar world. Consequently, many people are seeking new ways of earning a living, while many companies are seeking new workforce talents to help them attain new markets. Today’s community colleges can help both populations by providing timely, relevant, and innovative non-credit training opportunities that give the skills both groups need and the enhanced lifestyles both groups want.
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