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CAEL Pathways Blog

Q&A With CAEL Staff: Bridgett Strickler

Bridgett Strickler joined CAEL in 2023 as vice president of strategic partnerships, bringing a wealth of experience and expertise in the education and entrepreneurial spaces, including leadership and research roles at The Graduate! Network, Greater Louisville Inc., and Education Matters Southern Indiana. She co-created and served as co-principal investigator for Bridging The Talent Gap, also serving as co-principal investigator for
Data That Move Us.

Bridgett Strickler Headshot

What are some details about your prior role at TGN?

I joined TGN in 2016 as Director of Network Engagement after having led two programs in Louisville, Kentucky (Degrees@Work through Greater Louisville Inc.) and Southern Indiana (Education Matters Southern Indiana) that were focused on adult degree attainment. When I started at TGN, I brought with me a unique employer and employee engagement initiative known as Bridging The Talent Gap, which I co-created with Dr. Dan Ash, founding executive director of Metropolitan College in Louisville, Kentucky. My most recent role at TGN was Chief Strategy Officer, where I led both the Bridging The Talent Gap work and Data That Move Us, TGN’s longstanding research documenting the education journeys of adult Comebackers. [“Comebackers” is the asset-based term TGN coined decades ago for describing the critical some-college-no-degree population of adult learners.] I am so proud of the work that our small and scrappy nonprofit team achieved, and I stand on the shoulders of a few legends in the movement, including TGN co-founder Sallie Glickman; founding Executive Director Hadass Sheffer; and my fabulous mentor Kathy Zandona. Because of their commitment to adult learners, and Earl Buford’s vision for strategic partnerships, I am privileged to see the collective work of TGN thrive inside CAEL. 

What’s the most important thing someone who isn’t familiar with TGN should know?

At the heart of TGN's philosophy of adult learner engagement is institution-agnostic career navigation through a methodology that includes appreciative advising (shoutout to our friends at Florida Atlantic University’s Office of Appreciative Education). Institution-agnostic career navigators are practitioners who work in their communities to assist adults through the complex journey of re-engaging with their education goals. We say “institution agnostic” because navigators are not recruiters for a particular program or institution, and they typically sit outside the walls of a college or university. The approach is fully learner centered and has delivered amazing results. 

What makes you most excited about the TGN CAEL partnership?

Well, there are two things that really stand out to me: First, I am over-the-moon excited for TGN’s network of navigators to become part of the CAEL community. They will bring a fresh, new perspective to CAEL’s vibrant membership, and they will benefit from the vast resources and professional development activities CAEL offers. For more on how to join as a TGN@CAEL member, please reach out to the CAEL membership at membershipservices@cael.org

Secondly, I can’t wait to see where Bridging The Talent Gap goes from here – in the past TGN discovered many partnership opportunities for employers and learning providers but had limited capacity to act on those discoveries. Now that we’re here at CAEL, there are authentic solutions to these partnership opportunities – e.g., building career pathways, crosswalking employer training to credit, building platforms that connect individuals to learning and training opportunities, and more. 

How would you compare/contrast the TGN and CAEL missions/membership models?

The main difference between the membership models is that TGN did not work directly with higher education institutions. We worked with practitioners in the field who are working on behalf of adult learners. But make no mistake, our missions are totally aligned! Both organizations have the goal of creating upward mobility for individuals on the margins of the economic mainstream through postsecondary learning. The nuance there is that TGN historically has focused on the some college, no degree population and helping those individuals complete their college degrees. Over the years, though, that focus evolved to include other types of credentials as well. 

Speaking of comparing and contrasting, as a co-creator of Bridging The Talent Gap, which uses parallel surveys of employers and employees, how does Adult Learner 360 resonate with your professional approach/mindset about using data to support adult learners?

Naturally I love the idea of marrying the institutional perspective with the voice of the learner to gain a more complete understanding of the campus environment, and gain actionable insights into how to improve. With Bridging The Talent Gap, CAEL now has a sort of “Working Learner 360” tool to utilize with other important stakeholders in the Industry-Education-Workforce Ecosystem including businesses and their employees. Of interest, one of the most significant and consistent findings is the disconnect between what employers say they offer in terms of learning benefits and what workers understand. Even in well-branded tuition assistance programs offered by large national companies, less than 45 percent of the workforce is likely aware that the benefits exist. But of those who don’t know about the benefit, more than 80 percent say that they would like more information. So that disconnect is a huge opportunity both for employers and their workers.  

As the lines continue to blur between learning and work, it seems the future – at least a successful one – depends on strategic partnerships. What is your take on why they are vital to educators, employers, and, most importantly, adult learners and workers?

CAEL believes that the adult learner/worker is at the center of what we call the Industry-Education-Workforce Ecosystem. The other stakeholders in this system are employers and industry groups; economic development organizations and chambers of commerce; mission-aligned funders; workforce boards and other workforce organizations; and postsecondary education and training providers. When you look at that ecosystem, I think what is fairly obvious is that each actor has a role to play and no one actor has everything that the adult learner/worker needs to succeed. The challenge for the adult learner/worker is that the actors in the ecosystem are typically very siloed, so the system is difficult to understand and crazy difficult to navigate. Through the power of strategic partnerships – say an employer that partners with a higher education institution to design work-and-learn programs or a higher education institution that leverages resources which are potentially available to students through workforce systems – we can break down silos and create well-functioning ecosystems that more effectively serve the folks at the center so that they, their families, and their communities can thrive. 

What do you think the greatest challenge is for employers, educators, and trainers in developing effective partnerships?

Oh gosh, I mean there are more than a few that come to mind – language differences between academia and business; hurdles inside institutions that mitigate against responsiveness to rapid change in the private sector; and even lack of political will on the part of both employers and learning providers. But one thing is for certain – and Bridging The Talent Gap has the data to prove – employers are seeking partnerships with institutions and other learning providers to solve their most pressing needs for talent. In fact, BTTG’s benchmark data set of nearly 4,000 employers reveals that only 13 percent of employers have a formal partnership with an institution or other learning provider, while 86 percent are interested. What a tremendous opportunity – and I would argue tremendous responsibility – we have to make a difference for working learners by playing the role of honest broker!

The some-college-no-degree population is a vital constituency within the adult learner and worker space. How does Data That Move Us support Comebackers?

Data That Move Us is a longstanding, longitudinal study documenting the education journeys of adult learners who leave college without a credential – who we refer to as Comebackers – who engage with a TGN navigator. Organizations who participate in DTMU utilize a common methodology and share their data twice annually with us. We, in turn, verify their records through National Student Clearinghouse and provide a progress report that those organizations use to measure their impact. It’s pretty cool! To read more about our research, check out our research report, The Comebacker’s Odyssey, published in 2021. And anyone wanting more information about DTMU or to get involved can read more about it HERE

Given TGN’s longtime use of data analysis to support adult learners, what are some trends that are especially important for the CAEL community to be aware of?

As mentioned above, TGN@CAEL practitioners are achieving amazing results with Comebackers. When these adult learners engage with TGN@CAEL practitioners, they are more than four times as likely to reenroll in college and more than 40 percent as likely to graduate. And their demographic profiles buck completion trends which is why we have always thought of this work as fundamentally about education  equity. From our unique data set of more than 30,000 adult Comebackers from all over the country, we have learned some pretty interesting things. For instance, a quick demographic snapshot reveals that Comebackers served by TGN@CAEL navigators skew female, are racially diverse, and are generally from low-income backgrounds. Reenrollment for this group peaks at age 39, and graduations peak at age 45, also indicating an older demographic than is assumed by typical adult reengagement strategies. 

How can CAEL and TGN do more together vs. apart to benefit individual adult learners, CAEL/TGN partners, and, on a systemic level, educators, workforce developers, and communities? 

I think there are many CAEL members who could benefit from becoming a TGN@CAEL member. TGN@CAEL members have access to TGN’s resource repository, which includes a lot of professional development resources for career navigators. I can imagine many of CAEL’s workforce partners being especially interested in learning more about this opportunity. And as CAEL’s membership base continues to grow and diversify, I believe there are many others, such as chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, and other nonprofits — not to mention higher eds – who will want to know more about TGN@CAEL. 

Since we’re heading into a new year, do you have any predictions for the future of adult learning or workforce development?

I’m not a fan of reading tea leaves [although I am one for a great “cuppa”]. So instead of saying to watch for how CLRs will impact adult learners (for more on that trend check out this new report from The EvoLLLution, CAEL, and Modern Campus) or how AI will impact employers and their working learner employees (think exponential ability to bridge talent gaps and close equity gaps if developed ethically), I’m going to go in a slightly different direction. As a fan of appreciative inquiry, I believe that words create worlds. So what does that mean for the future? It means that now more than ever, CAEL’s ultimate outcome – that all adult learners have an equitable opportunity for, and success in, obtaining credentials and skills that lead to well-paying, good quality jobs, increased earnings and economic mobility, and an improved quality of life – is more important and more achievable than ever before. And that is something that I think everyone reading this blog can get behind. Let’s keep talking about and working towards that future until it becomes our reality.


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