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Amid the Confusion and Chaos of Current Events, Our Mission Has Never Been Clearer

Posted by Beth Doyle

Topics: Trends in Higher Education, Adult Learning, Adult Learning Success, upskilling, reskilling

During a crisis, things can seem overwhelming. That’s always been the case. But it’s especially true in the age of social media and 24/7 news cycles. 

Think about it. During the pandemic that began in 1918, news traveled via telegraph and printed newspaper. Today, we’re experiencing an “infodemic” along with a pandemic. 

It is when we’re bombarded with information that we can best appreciate true knowledge. And one thing we know is that the pandemic doesn’t diminish the importance of our work together.

In fact, it underscores the need to help adults access work-relevant knowledge. During this unimaginable pause in academic life, I encourage the CAEL community to plan ahead. Going forward, how will we help adults connect with learning that unlocks rewarding careers?

Focusing on helping others can help us stay in a positive, healthier state of mind. And the issues we will face will be familiar to those of us who have been focused on adult learners. But now we must be ready to manage change on a far greater scale and at a much faster pace.

The CAEL community has long advocated for upskilling and reskilling at regular intervals. Widespread job losses should cast aside any inclination to regard this as a luxury rather than a need. It will be more apparent than ever that the path to prosperity for working adult learners must be built on a bedrock of lifelong learning.

A mindset of continuous learning increases career agility. Economic disruption forces workers to change occupations and industries. Resources that help them navigate the link between learning and viable work won’t just be vital. They’ll be ethical imperatives. They are also the key to economic and social upward mobility.

In the short term, this may be as “simple” as helping workers make stopgap lateral moves. In the coming months and years, it will mean helping workers reorient from a survival response to long-term career development. In all cases, it will mean helping them upskill and reskill so they can crosswalk into new occupations and career paths.

Some of this learning can occur “on the job.” Companies must recognize the value created by a workplace culture of learning. To realize its potential, they will need to refine their in-house capability for supporting and engaging working adult learners.

Postsecondary institutions should prepare for demographic shifts in enrollment. Already, there are signs traditional enrollment may decline as a result of the pandemic. At the same time, job losses are a catalyst for adult learners to return to classrooms (real or virtual) to upskill or reskill. Now is the time to inventory strengths that can be built upon. And it’s a time to act on opportunities for improvement.

All of this should serve as a glaring reminder of how important close coordination is among employers, workforce developers, and educators. They must come together regionally and at the state level to identify common initiatives that will strengthen pathways between learning and viable sectors of employment.

That includes accurately and fairly appraising the academic value of learning that has occurred outside of traditional classroom environments. By doing so, institutions can help working adult learners restart careers quicker.

It also requires a closer, strategic alignment between theory and practice. Colleges should expect greater scrutiny of the labor market outcomes delivered by various postsecondary programs and institutions. Credentials and curricula must align well with job market demands. Advisory boards and other interfaces between industry and education will be paramount.

None of us has a crystal ball. But we have a long history together of anticipating and meeting the needs of working adult learners. We’ve come together to help them adapt to and overcome rapid changes driven by technology. Remember: There was a time when these issues were unimaginable too. Surmounting the coming challenges will require meeting working adult learners where they are with the learning resources that can get them to where they want to be. There’s no time like the present to prepare for that future.