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Prepared Remarks From Earl Buford’s Welcome Address at CAEL’s 47th Annual Conference

CAEL’s recently concluded annual conference in sunny San Diego was successful and noteworthy. The first hybrid conference in CAEL’s history, it enjoyed record support, with more registrations purchased than ever before. The nearly 1,000 in attendance represented approximately 250 postsecondary education providers and 115 other organizations, including nonprofits, businesses, and governmental agencies. And the conference was, for many, the first opportunity since the start of the pandemic to connect in person, which only added to the atmosphere of camaraderie that flourished  throughout the event.

While CAEL’s legacy is deeply rooted in higher ed, its pioneering focus on adult learning has made linking learning and work an organic element of its mission since day one. As pathways that connect education and employment are increasingly important to adult learners, CAEL’s mission becomes all the more relevant. At the same time, as awareness grows about the importance of this mission, there are new opportunities for engagement. Enter Earl Buford, who joined CAEL as president earlier this year. In his welcoming remarks at his first CAEL conference, Earl shared his perspective of CAEL’s legacy and how it connects to a future of continual collaboration wherever and whenever education and employment intersect. Below are his prepared remarks.

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Good morning. It's a pleasure to be with you in San Diego! All of us at CAEL are thrilled to be back with so many of you in person and delighted to welcome those joining us online. This is our first-ever conference to be held both virtually and in person. And it represents the highest number of registrations ever purchased -- nearly 1,000 of you will be with us this week. So whether you’re here with us in this room today or following online, we’re grateful you are present and so appreciative of your support.

I’d also like to thank our conference sponsors, especially Strada Education Network and our local partners: National University and the San Diego Workforce Partnership. Without all of your support, this week wouldn’t be possible.  

And of course, without our members, CAEL wouldn’t be possible, so a special thanks to all of you who are part of CAEL’s community. Our membership growth continues; it is up nearly 50 percent since 2019, including a nearly 20 percent increase over this past year. Those growth rates are unheard of for a membership organization. We’ve been working hard to add even more reasons to join, too, introducing new members-only content, professional development and other exclusive events for the CAEL community, and special pricing on all CAEL solutions and services. Please check out caelCONNECT, our membership engagement platform, for the latest details.

Back to the conference format: I was thinking that when CAEL first introduced livestream conference options a few years ago, it must have seemed like a convenient amenity – maybe even novel. Then the pandemic happened. Practically overnight, "nice to have" became "must have." 

I know the rush to online engagement often occurred under duress. But it's also proof that we can be agile and that we can implement systemic change. One of the few silver linings of the pandemic is that it has forced us to reassess how we can meet learners where they are – from online classes to virtual advising to new solutions for helping people navigate the intersection of learning and work.

On that note, I'd like to acknowledge my new role as president of CAEL, which I joined in April. For those of you who don't know me yet, my background is in workforce development. In the past, maybe that background would have seemed like a departure from CAEL's intimate knowledge and close work with postsecondary education. But now more than ever, CAEL lives at that intersection of learning and work I mentioned. Because if you want to meet adult learners where they are, that's where you'll find them.

When postsecondary credentials convey work-relevant competencies, they make those intersections a lot easier for adult learners to navigate, with a broad impact that extends in all directions from these intersections. Because well-aligned credentials are the difference between career mobility and stagnation … the difference between an education provider's relevance and irrelevance …  the difference between a company's growth and decline. 

They’re the difference between a community's economic expansion and contraction, and they’re the difference between equity and disparity. 

To put it more succinctly, they’re the difference between our collective success and failure. 

We won’t find success working within siloes. Nor can the journey of learning throughout life be limited to one-way roads. Workforce changes are accelerating. The shelf life of skills is shortening. Learning is no longer a linear, all-or-nothing odyssey. It’s a journey made up of multiple trips. Therefore it requires a network of highways where postsecondary credentials and workforce experience merge to mold seamless conduits of career and academic advancement. Because as the lines between these worlds blur, we are tasked with getting the best of both.

This is good news for the CAEL community. Having worked with employers for more than 20 years, I can tell you they are motivated more than ever before to partner with postsecondary education providers to deepen connections between learning and work. I think most of you can attest that the feelings are mutual. The missing link is an intermediary that can bring them together. That's a role CAEL embraces in its everyday business, and it’s one we will highlight during this conference.

For example, our new Workforce Talent Solutions track is dedicated to how postsecondary educators are working with economic and workforce developers to ensure students are equipped to become the skilled workers employers need to fill rewarding positions. You'll hear from the Federal Reserve Banks of Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Cleveland; Opportunity America; Midwest Urban Strategies; the San Diego Workforce Partnership, Equus Workforce Solutions; and NextEra Energy.

And this morning's keynote session features Dr. Keith Curry, president of Compton College. Known as a "college makeover artist," Dr. Curry will share how partnerships among colleges and universities can help transform their work to support adult learners and equitable student success. 

During lunch today, you'll be treated to a truly one-of-a-kind keynote address. Acclaimed poet Thea Monyeé will deliver a message she wrote just for this occasion. Thea has been featured on HBO, BET, and the Oprah Winfrey Network. 

Tomorrow's keynote will feature Dr. Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance and an expert practitioner in forging partnerships that sustain a productive alignment among colleges and employers. And our conference co-sponsor, Strada Education Network, will lead a keynote panel reviewing funding strategies for creating social impact in our national education-to-employment space. 

On Friday, I will join Jennifer Mishory, chief of staff at the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) at the U.S. Department of Education, and Abby Snay, deputy secretary for the future of work at the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency in another keynote session. We'll be focusing on how government policy impacts adult learner success, including how to leverage funding opportunities, engage employers in pre-apprenticeship programs, and forge public-private partnerships that strengthen postsecondary education and meet workforce needs. 

 Are you starting to sense a theme? One way to shorten the distance between us and our goals is to join forces with more people who share that goal. That’s been the focus of our work all year, and it will be our focus going forward. That means all of you are part of our focus going forward. So I'd like to share a few highlights of what we’ve accomplished together this year as well as some updates about what's to come.

In July, we began testing a developmental version of Connected Pathways, which will become a national career-exploration system. Funded by a U.S. Department of Education Grant, the online platform will be personalized, scalable, and adaptable so that underserved learners around the country can use it to make informed decisions about their educational and career pursuits. Connected Pathways, which will be available at no cost to users, will launch next year. 

On a similar note, in June CAEL announced a partnership with SEMI, the industry association representing the global electronics manufacturing and design supply chain. Recent supply chain challenges have thrown a spotlight on just how important this industry is. One challenge to realizing its full potential for the U.S.  -- and the global -- economy is the state of its talent pipeline. We’re working with SEMI on an interactive platform to educate and empower our country's women and minority candidates for career advancement within the industry. The platform will help connect underrepresented candidates to available jobs today, while also addressing long-term industry personnel needs with an equity lens. Grants from Strada Education Network and the SEMI Foundation are making this work possible.

On a broader perspective, this summer CAEL also became an advisor to the National Governors Association's Workforce Innovation Network, which helps facilitate innovative state-level policy solutions that improve employment and workforce outcomes. 

Turning to more localized initiatives, in late 2020 we celebrated the successful conclusion of our first Inclusive Development Network. The IDN included five regions around the country united by a commitment to prioritizing inclusion and equity to better serve the workforce and economic development needs of underserved populations. With funding from ECMC Foundation and JPMorgan Chase & Co., we helped these communities build equity-focused partnerships that integrated multiple resources, including diverse educational experiences, into equitable economic opportunity for their adult learners.

Equity was also the nucleus for work we completed with the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. We helped appraise academic programs throughout the state for their ability to prepare underrepresented minority and low-income students for growth occupations that offer quality salaries.

In Virginia, we wrapped up a grant-funded project with the New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Development Board and nine of the commonwealth's community colleges. The project applied credit for prior learning, or CPL, to help build a talent pipeline of skilled workers for value-added industries. CAEL provided each college with our diagnostic tool, Adult Learner 360, CPL policy reviews, and professional development. The results were outstanding. During the two-year partnership, the colleges saw a 69 percent increase in CPL issued for adult learners. The project underscored both the importance of CPL and the effectiveness of Adult Learner 360.

Speaking of Adult Learner 360, thanks to grants from Strada Education Network, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Charles Koch Foundation, we are in the midst of research and design of a modern Framework for serving adult learners. The Framework will emphasize dynamic links between learning and work, new forms of credentialing, and much-needed equity imperatives. It will also focus on overcoming barriers that deter adults from enrolling in postsecondary education and completing credentials, certificates, and degrees that lead to increased earnings, jobs, and economic mobility. In the process, the Framework will update CAEL's principles for effectively serving adults, which underlie Adult Learner 360's diagnostics and data analysis. Look for an announcement about the Framework findings early next year.

The Latino Adult Student Success Academy was another dynamic partnership that CAEL was privileged to lead to a successful conclusion this year. During the three-year initiative, which was funded by The Kresge Foundation, Ascendium Education Group, and Greater Texas Foundation, CAEL partnered with Excelencia in Education and Strada Education Network to work with 15 colleges and universities from eight states. The Academy helped these colleges and universities assess and enhance their support for Hispanic adult students. In addition to Adult Learner 360, CAEL provided technical assistance, especially around disaggregating data analytics, which are critical to serving target populations. 

Despite the impact of the pandemic, 11 out of the 15 participating schools increased the average number of credits completed by Hispanic adult learners. In fact, they surpassed the average number of credits completed by non-Hispanic adult learners. But what is even more encouraging is how the Academy transcended the simple sum of its parts through a spirit of collaboration and data-driven discovery. Participants tell us the experience left their institutions with a culture of measurable, sustainable, and inclusive student success that promises to persist well beyond the cohort’s formal tenure. 

But why take my word for it? Let's hear directly from some of the participants in the Academy in a short video:

When we convene and connect stakeholders, we can transform them into force multipliers across not just education and employment ecosystems, but entire economies. These opportunities exist on every level, from local projects to national initiatives to the identity of CAEL itself. Just last month, CAEL officially became a part of Strada Collaborative, a unified nonprofit organization dedicated to the education-to-employment space that also includes Education at Work, InsideTrack, and Roadtrip Nation. Working more closely together amplifies our ability to support equitable education and employment pathways leading to social and economic mobility.

A growing membership and a stronger purpose for it ... Connected Pathways ... SEMI … the Latino Adult Student Success academy: These are just some of the ways we are cultivating common ground among a diversifying list of stakeholders. By doing that, we honor CAEL's legacy while building new opportunities. After all, CAEL's essence is rooted in equity. Advocacy for adult learners is advocacy for underserved learners.

It just so happens we’re about to announce one of those new opportunities. We’re still finalizing all of the details, but I can tell you that this will be a grant-funded project with the potential to expand our career pathway and DEI work to several regions over the next several years. This work will pivot on industry partnerships featuring education providers and employers within financial services and adjacent sectors. We will use this collaboration to redefine and amplify career opportunities that lead to economic mobility for all, with a focus on minoritized populations who are unemployed or working in frontline roles. Stay tuned for an announcement early next year.

Another way we’re building on CAEL's legacy of advocating for underserved learners is through credit for prior learning - CPL, also known as prior learning assessment, or PLA. By definition, CPL is a diversifying instrument, opening up new pathways to postsecondary credentials by validating the lived experiences of learners. 

Over the decades, our research has confirmed its many advantages, not only for students but for their institutions. Last year, our report “The PLA Boost” showed that receiving credit for prior learning substantially improved completion among Black and lower-income adult students. Unfortunately, it also found that these students were least likely to receive such credit. 

We explored this equity angle of CPL in more detail this year. Last month, we released a report based on our latest research that offers recommendations to help postsecondary institutions make CPL programs more inclusive. If you haven't already, I encourage you to download it from our website.

In view of CPL’s profound ability to shorten the distance between adult learners and their educational and professional goals, we are also preparing a national awareness campaign to higher education leadership to incorporate CPL as a catalyst for diversity and inclusion. That campaign will launch next year. In the meantime, here’s another short video we’ve put together to convey the importance of CPL for adult learners:

I want to close by emphasizing that even as we work to bring diverse voices together, it's important that we remain united -- united in a way that encourages different viewpoints, continuous learning, and continuous improvement that converge on adult learners.

With the value of higher ed under increasing scrutiny, we neither provide good answers nor good solutions for adult learners if we pit microcredentials against degrees, training against education, hard skills against soft skills, or theory against practice. It is the aspirations, needs, and totality of each learner's circumstances that should decide postsecondary pathways. That perspective is the difference between a zero-sum equation and a win-win solution.

It’s also what helps industry-education groups reach the transformational level of engagement that is the hallmark of coalitions like NACTEL and EPCE - two organizations that CAEL has worked with for decades. They don’t just bring together employers and education providers. They align what is traditionally divergent. Labor unions, management, and educators are working together to integrate workplace training and degree programs that form industry-validated credentials. The lines between education and employment may be blurring, but as they do, they're framing a pretty clear picture of how the intersection of learning and work can result in collaboration instead of collisions. 

I appreciate the opportunity to address you today. I look forward to meeting with you this week, both in person and online, and to the great work we’ll do together in the years to come. As I mentioned earlier, the future of CAEL is all about honoring our legacy while leading to new opportunities. You, the CAEL community, are both the foundational past that brought us here today and the bright future we strive for tomorrow. Please stop by the CAEL booth, chat with me during a reception, or email me at ebuford@cael.org. And please engage with us on social media with the hashtag #caelconf. Thanks again. I look forward to your company these next few days!

 

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