Keep Ahead of Higher Ed, the Professional Development Competition for Associations

Associations have always been the first place members turn when thinking about professional development. But, as economic and technological changes increase the demand for new skills and knowledge, colleges and universities see a market need and they want in. Meet the new professional development competition for associations: higher education.

“If higher education is going to thrive in the century ahead, it’s time to think of college not as a life stage or a credential, but as a lifelong community for lifelong learners,” said two University of North Carolina (UNC) administrators in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Seeing a decrease of corporate investment in professional development, these academics believe “colleges are well-positioned to step into the gap.”

What about associations—aren’t they stepping into that gap? “As far as I can tell, [associations] do not yet seem to be offering much of a voice in the public conversation about the growing skill (and knowledge) gap and the critical need for effective lifelong learning,” said Jeff Cobb, co-founder of Tagoras. Cobb made that point five years ago, but, unfortunately, in many industries, associations are still missing from the conversation. However, voices in higher education are making themselves heard.

Northeastern University’s president said:

“It’s time to stop thinking of higher education as an experience people take part in once during their young lives—or even several times as they advance up the professional ladder—and begin thinking of it as a platform for life-long learning.”

At UNC, Northeastern, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and other universities, administrators are experimenting with new professional development programs targeted at recent graduates and seasoned professionals.

Coming to an industry near you: higher education bootcamps

Bootcamps have sprung up all over the country. Approximately 18,000 students graduated from coding bootcamps alone last year. In comparison, about 61,000 students graduated from an accredited U.S. university with a computer science degree.

Companies are creating new jobs so quickly that worker supply can’t keep up with demand. Until recently higher education wasn’t developing programs fast enough to train these workers, so for-profit bootcamps stepped in to fill the gap. Students at these bootcamps tend to be older and most already have an undergraduate degree. Bootcamps are less expensive ($11,451 on average) and less time-consuming (12.9 weeks) than graduate programs.

Universities are starting to partner with bootcamps or create their own versions. For example, Northeastern runs an experiential analytics bootcamp. The curriculum was designed in collaboration with employers. Northeastern talked to hiring managers to understand which skills they required and prioritized. Employers and industry experts are invited to lecture, participate on panels, and sponsor labs and experiential cases.

Other universities are considering bootcamps for high-demand skills like accounting, project management, and healthcare. A University of California at Berkeley administrator said, “There are a lot of potential paths we can take to replace university degrees with more stackable competencies.” Sounds like digital badges—a concept many associations are also trying out.

professional development competition for associations

Opportunities to lead where higher education falls short

Associations have an advantage over higher education: because the leaders of your industry or profession are members of your association, you’re already positioned to lead collaborative efforts to develop new educational initiatives, such as stackable credentials. The chief innovation officer at Southern New Hampshire University recently lamented the lack of such cooperation among colleges:

“…in pursuit of the holy grail of the ‘stackable’ credential, colleges are plowing ahead, innovating in siloes…Institutions of higher ed are notoriously bad at collaborating with one another and scaling the impact of what we do for all of our students.”

Colleges aren’t changing their curriculum quickly enough to meet market needs. Ryan Craig, managing director of University Ventures, an investment firm focused on the higher education sector, said:

“Lower-level course curriculum hasn’t changed; most departments offer the same lower-level courses they offered 20 or 30 years ago. Meanwhile, upper-level courses continue to be dictated by faculty research priorities, which operate independently of labor-market demands.”

He said this growing skills gap has given rise to the emergence of “last-mile training providers” who teach the technical skills employers need. Once again, because of existing relationships, associations are well positioned to ‘own’ this last mile of training and professional development.

Associations can work with members—the ones who do the hiring—to identify the skills needed by employers. You can develop stackable credentials (or digital badges) that show a person’s evolving mastery of the competencies required for positions in your industry or profession.

If your association has chapters or affiliated state associations, they can help deliver programs (bootcamps and/or online learning programs) that focus on training people for jobs in that region.

professional development competition for associations

Establish relationships with students before graduation

Colleges are working to build partnerships with employers so students are better prepared to enter the workforce. Many arrange internships for students so they have opportunities to apply the knowledge and skills they’re learning on campus and develop relationships with potential employers.

Here too associations are already in the position to coordinate and promote association-affiliated internship programs. Instead of having to work with dozens of employers, a college’s career services office could instead work with one association to place students in internships.

Associations can also help member companies develop an educational outreach program like the one Boeing has with the engineering programs at several universities. By partnering with universities, Boeing is investing in the education of their future workforce.

Usually when students graduate from college, they must navigate the job search process on their own. Associations could help students assess their readiness for employment, provide training for in-demand skills, and help place new graduates in entry-level positions at member companies.

Traditionally, associations haven't offered these professional development services to members and students. But as the world around us changes, associations have the opportunity to lead their industry’s efforts to train both new and seasoned professionals.

Continuing Professional Development
Digital Badges
Higher Education
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