In 2021, people officially got fed up with work. The Great Resignation, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic conditions, and a long-simmering dissatisfaction, spread across the U.S., with over 47 million people quitting their jobs—23% of the workforce. A new report by the ed tech company Cengage Group shows that, one year later, the great resigners have a strong desire for reskilling and upskilling programs—an opportunity for higher ed.
“Colleges who offer flexible, shorter term and cost-effective ‘micro-credential’ opportunities will win out in today’s market,” said Cengage CEO Michael Hansen. “Colleges who offer courses tied to employer needs and at affordable costs will capitalize on the high demand and in turn help the workforce and economy make a comeback.”
The report is based on a survey of 1,200 people over 25 who quit their job and found a new one between May 2021 and May 2022. Its results were clear: opportunities to advance are crucial. A higher percentage of respondents cited feeling “stuck” in their role as the primary reason for leaving their job than cited inadequate compensation. The number one reason that resigners chose new jobs was because the company had a clear path to career growth.
The report showed that, in order to advance, resigners are looking for online learning opportunities. Two-thirds of resigners reported taking an internet training course to improve their job prospects, and 89% think that it helped them get their new job. Two-thirds said that employer-sponsored training was an important factor in choosing their new job, and nearly all of those whose new employers offer those opportunities were planning on taking them.
These shifts reflect a deeper change in the relationship between work and education.
“We’ve moved away from that 1980s-style one and done: first I’m going to go through my education, then I’m going to get a job,” said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, a senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition. “People are consistently learning new skills to stay up to date with their current jobs and needing to learn new skills as they consider moving into different roles or a different industry.”
In order to meet new student needs, schools have been creating more flexible structures, with returning learners in mind.
“Colleges are aware that the traditional 16-week semester, three to four courses, doesn’t work for everyone,” said Dr. Maria S. Cormier, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. “There’s a recognition that colleges need to think differently about how they deliver their programs, whether that’s modality, length of time, [or] implementing more stackable credentials.”
Higher ed institutions and employers should forge closer partnerships, the report argued.
“The cybersecurity sector currently has 700,000 job openings. If an enterprise mapped out the skills necessary for an entry-level role and worked with an education provider to curate a corresponding education track, with specific courses and/or certifications for those baseline skills, they’d be able to fill their entry-level openings much faster than waiting for a 4-year graduate,” Hansen told Diverse by email.
The report also recommends policy changes that could make these sorts of programs easier for students to pay for, including expanding the Pell Grant to cover short-term and online programs. Colleges can also be creative, said Bergson-Shilcock, in figuring out how to use public funding to help learners pay for short-term credentials. She cited Portland Community College, which used SNAP employment and training money, and Pima Community College, which used Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding, as examples.
However, Bergson-Shilcock warned that not all online courses are necessarily worthwhile.
“Online learning is very much the wild west,” she said. “Our methodology for defining high quality in learning hasn’t caught up with the technology that we have available.
Good online courses, Bergson-Shilcock said, have close connections to the real-world applications of the skills being taught, clarity about which skills and credentials are going to be acquired, and excellent instruction, with teachers who know the subject matter and how to create good coursework for adults.
They also have to have a person-to-person element.
“Most people don’t learn best from doing an online course independently,” she said. “They need social support around it. It can look like having a group of peers that you have an in-person meeting with once a week or like having a set of instructors, guidance counselors, and navigators that you can bounce things off. It needs to be more intentional and purposeful than just sending someone a link to an online course and saying ‘Now, go forth and learn this all by yourself.’”
And ultimately, the learning experiences have to result in better outcomes for students.
“Too often, these short-term certificates get presented as a silver bullet,” said Cormier. “These programs, they have to lead to better wages, they have to lead to long-term careers. If it’s not aligned with the labor market, I think colleges should be cautious.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.