September 9, 2022

Skills Boom? Degree Bust? Exploring What’s Next in Education for Employment

Education to Employment Process

As traditional higher education enrollments continue to decline, the workforce skills market has ballooned to $13B. This increase is driven by working learners who tap into online skills training to expand career prospects and increase their earning potential. With this skills market growth, many are starting to question if we’re headed towards another for-profit education boom.

At the same time, employers are facing a talent crisis. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of employers are still struggling to find qualified talent, according to new Cengage Group data. And while the majority feel removing degree requirements would help them find qualified candidates, nearly half (47%) are grappling with how to measure the value of skills credentials and certifications.

It's clear online skills education is here to stay and learners have a growing number of pathways to education. But with this increase in options, learners face confusion in determining the best path. They want the best value for their money and time. So, what can the education industry learn, and how can it ensure learners are receiving a quality education where outcomes are both measurable and valued by employers?



Cengage Group CEO Michael Hansen recently hosted Maria Flynn, President and CEO of Jobs for the Future and Matt Sigelman, President of the Burning Glass Institute for a LinkedIn Live conversation to explore the next phase of the online skills education boom – measuring outcomes and success. Drawing on their respective experiences in education, skilling, and labor and workforce trends, they discussed how learners, job-seekers and employers can navigate the growing number of education pathways, and the role institutions, education technology providers and policymakers have in enabling success.

Navigating the Future of Education  

The traditional wisdom for decades in the U.S. has been that a college degree is the best way to ensure you can land a well-paying job and find success in supporting yourself and your family. However, this path isn’t available to all. Only about 40% of people follow this traditional path to college. Whether it’s money, time or other barriers, 60% of Americans are being left out. Today, learners have an increasing number of options to gain the skills and competencies that can help them find a job or grow in their career. However, according to Degrees of Risk by Jobs for the Future, three out of five Gen Z respondents feels a lot of risk around choosing the wrong post-secondary pathway. So, how can learners discern the best education pathway for them?  

“We’re at a point where this idea of multiple high-quality pathways is really taking on some new energy . . . fueled from the Covid experience, from virtual learning and virtual work, and the issues around the cost of higher education and student loan debt,” noted Maria Flynn, a leading voice on the future of work as well as on the equity of education and workforce opportunity.

Flynn continued, “the biggest challenge we have, as a nation, is around navigation. We do not have, really at scale, equitable high-quality ways for individuals, whether they are high school students or parents or if you're a worker who's looking to reskill and change jobs . . . to get reliable, actionable information to help you make the best decision.”

The panel also discussed the very present role that stigma plays in shaping the current narrative. “There is stigma attached to anything that is not a degree,” said Michael. Maria and Matt agreed that it’s imperative all stakeholders – parents, teachers, counselors and employers – are able to properly communicate the opportunity landscape to learners and empower them to make the best decision for their future. Skills education choices begin at high school and continue throughout a person’s career arc. Michael elaborates in this video excerpt from the panel on how we might begin to dismantle that stigma by having more role models that haven’t followed that ‘traditional’ path tell their stories:


How Employers Can Enable Change

Many companies are already removing degree requirements. And, according to the Burning Glass Institute, an estimated additional 1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees over the next five years. Even with policies and requirements changing, there’s still a massive transformation needed.

“We know that there’s a big distance between exclusive hiring practices – ones that are designed to filter – and inclusive ones, which are designed to broaden,” commented Matt Sigelman, a valued leader and pioneer in the labor market when it comes to talent, skills and trends. “Without something else [a degree requirement], we’re asking employers to do a whole lot of work to validate whether somebody has the skills that are needed for a job.” Even though a degree doesn’t necessarily mean you’re qualified and have the skills, “it’s an easy proxy, and that’s why employers have used it,” said Matt.

Many companies still have concerns about a skills gap between their open positions and the candidates needed to fill them. It's imperative that companies look more broadly to address the talent shortage. So, how can we provide employers more effective credentials that provide alternatives to degrees?

The Role of Higher Ed in Powering Education for Employment

It’s no secret that colleges and universities have seen gradual or steep declines in enrollment over the last several years. “I think higher education institutions are going to play a very important role going forward if, for no other reason than that it’s the infrastructure that we have that has scale,” said Matt.

The need for reskilling and upskilling in the market today is profound. The Burning Glass Institute found that 37% of the skills of the average job have been replaced just over the last five years and that’s accelerated over the second half of that five years.

“When we think about what that means for people’s ability to keep up, let alone to get ahead, it means that everyone’s going to need to be able to acquire new skills on the fly,” said Matt “I think we’ve seen a very positive explosion of demand in utilization of online resources, but at the end of the day, America needs its community colleges and higher education systems.”

If we look beyond high school graduates, more than 39 million Americans have some college, but no degree. There are 160 million people in the U.S. workforce and all of them need to acquire new skills. “When higher education can align itself more effectively to the market with greater agility, greater responsiveness then I think it’s going to be a powerful force,” said Matt.

Colleges have brand recognition that can often carry meaningful weight for the individuals and businesses in the communities they serve. But scale can often be an issue in being able to adapt to community learning and skills needs quickly. This is where EdTech providers have a role to play in helping these institutions scale by building high-quality online courses. In fact, this is a large focus of Cengage Group’s ed2go business. By building partnerships between institutions and edutech providers, we can provide student-centered learning. The job market is moving fast, and this collaboration can help institutions be more responsive.

Measuring Outcomes and Success

To measure the success of skills-based learning there needs to be an increased focus on measuring outcomes, particularly as we link education more closely to employment. This includes the very base measurement, of ‘did this degree, certification, or training get an individual a job,’ but we also need to look at metrics like receiving an increase in pay or achieving career mobility. “The assessment and measurement of mobility in America today, in a time when the American dream is increasingly challenged, is one that I think needs to be front and center in every conversation,” said Matt.

Matt went on to suggest three key focus areas that are needed to ensure learners are receiving a quality education where outcomes are both measurable and valued:

  1. Certifications-first mentality – We need an ecosystem that’s defined by clearly accepted, high currency credentials. This will create greater confidence in for-profit and alternative providers of education.
  2. Clearer metrics – We need to make sure metrics are at both the program and provider level. Today, many metrics are at the program level and are in the rearview mirror looking at how people have progressed over the course of several years. We want to have a more agile, more responsive education and training environment. For example, if we have a skill that people need now that might not be as in-demand in a few years, waiting several years to see how graduates of that program did is not going to provide us a good outcome standard. We need to be able to evaluate the program as well as be sure that the institution or the provider has a solid track record as a quality provider.
  3. More effective and direct relationships between edtech providers and employers – According to Matt, “the best [edtech] providers today are out there building bridges with employers. The best employers out there are recognizing that training providers are really critical partners in making sure that the workforce they have can be the workforce they need going forward.”

Learn More About What’s Next in Education for Employment

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