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Jumpstarting the Reskilling Revolution with Virtual Learning

“Rewarding Reads” is a space for articles and personal essays meant to be thought-provoking and informative for human resources professionals, from sharing the “human” perspectives on workplace issues to book reviews of business titles we find inspiring. Have an essay or blog post to share? Contact us at workspan@worldatwork.org.

If you were planning on earning a degree or other credential to advance your career or reskill for a new career, 2020 was a uniquely challenging year.

First, the pandemic created a massive disruption to the nature of work, shuttering many industries and turning the United States economy by mid-summer into what Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom called a “working-from-home economy” in which 42% of workers worked from home with the remaining workers either essential or unemployed.

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With so many industries facing an uncertain future, the coronavirus has accelerated a global demand to provide ways for workers to reskill. Before the coronavirus, global consulting firm McKinsey predicted that workers in as many as 375 million jobs worldwide would need to train for new roles by 2030 — simply because their jobs would be eliminated by AI or automation.

As a society, how do we retrain 375 million adult workers for an in-demand field like athletic trainer, UX designer, or wind turbine service technician during a pandemic? One key is to realize that adult learners have unique needs and learn differently than do college students. Adults seeking a career education represented more than 50% of the college population pre-COVID and they face multiple pressures (professional, family, financial and scheduling) that make it difficult to start and finish a training program.

In COVID times, you can add to that list the delights of working at home with new parenting and home-schooling responsibilities or working outdoors at a social distance — if you are fortunate to still be employed.

With all these challenges to retraining, online education is poised to be part of the solution. While enrollments were down throughout higher education this fall, growing enrollments at fully online K-12 schools and online colleges suggests that many seeking new skills and new careers are migrating to accredited, fully online colleges. The reason is that schools that specialize in online programs offer some unique benefits that can help students achieve their goals even in a pandemic-altered reality, by offering flexible, affordable, career-focused programs designed for adult learners.

Flexible Schedules
Have you ever heard “Study at your own time, at your own pace”? It’s not just marketing. The ability to offer a program that is flexible enough to accommodate the complex life, work and family responsibilities for most adults has been a driving force in online education since the beginning.

Pre- or post-pandemic, most adults have small, fluid packets of available time where learning can take place, making it hard to commit to sitting in a class for three hours every Tuesday night. Online institutions provide a solution by delivering instruction, classwork and even instructor feedback using asynchronous learning, so you can study when time permits, while making sure that you meet regular deadlines. The U.S. News and World report has a directory of accredited online colleges but many more can be found with a Google search.

 Affordable Programs
With the average college student now graduating with nearly $30K of loan debt, many consumers now question whether college is worth it. Education can provide a more affordable solution because fully online programs don’t have to support the range of services and maintain the campus overhead that traditional colleges do: the best schools focus on providing quality instruction, without the expense of travel, housing or relocation. As a consumer, you want to look for accredited schools and carefully evaluate the per-credit tuition to assess your costs. The Department of Education’s College Scorecard site helps out by enabling you to compare tuition, graduation rates and more.

Career-Focused
The adult student population is incredibly diverse, but one fact holds true for most adult learners: they are highly motivated to succeed in programs that are career-focused and directly applicable to the real world. And while the four-year liberal arts bachelor’s degree remains a powerful knowledge builder for an 18-year-old student, the format can seem too broad for an adult focused on achieving specific life goals. If you are looking for a career-focused program, try comparing online institutions to locally available schools.

 You will find that many online schools are founded by educators whose academic teams, faculty and advisory boards are dialed into national changes in required skills and qualifications in the job market, as well as the new opportunities that continually arise. Which means that whether you intend to become an athletic trainer, UX designer, or a wind turbine service technician, an online program could be your most accessible route to new career.

About the Author

Gordon Drummond is the president of Sessions College.


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