Policy Savant Panel: Preparing workers for jobs and professions of the future

Utah is fortunate to be served by a number of capable think tanks/policy institutes. Periodically, UtahPolicy.com will pose a question to them on important and timely policy issues. Here’s the first installment with responses from The Gardner Policy Institute, Utah Foundation, Envision Utah and The Sutherland Institute.

This Week’s Question: As a result of the twin crises of COVID-19 and its economic damage to Utah, what changes will occur, or should occur, or what trends will be accelerated in preparing workers for the jobs and professions of the future?


GPI DESB logo opNatalie Gochnour, director, Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, University of Utah

COVID-19 created a rapid acceleration of trends already in play. Remote learning is one of these trends, and I expect public and higher education to take the best of online instruction and make it an even more vital part of student learning.

The trend that people aren’t talking enough about is how the acceleration of online education will combine with other factors, such as the need for rapid up-skilling and re-skilling for those displaced by the virus, to open up new opportunities for a competency-based rather than “seat- time” education model. Under the competency model, students progress when they’ve mastered the material, rather than advancing only when the semester or term ends. Competency-based learning addresses the age-old challenge in education – people learn at different rates.

Interestingly, Utah has a leg up on this transition because of Western Governors University (WGU). Co-founded by Utah’s former governor Mike Leavitt and headquartered in Utah, WGU pioneered competency-based education and offers degrees at scale. In 2019, 38,256 graduates earned degrees, up 27% from 2018. It’s the real deal.

I expect Utah in coming months to fashion a stronger relationship with WGU because of the benefits it provides to workers and the Utah economy. WGU already has affiliate relationships with eight states and the District of Columbia. COVID-19 makes a more formal relationship between Utah and WGU an even more likely and positive reality.

utah foundation logoPeter Reichard, president, Utah Foundation

Prior to 2020, technology was already enabling a steady movement toward tele-education. That trend has suddenly, rapidly accelerated. Even as the current crisis ebbs, tele-education will remain with a stronger foothold than ever before. Meanwhile – despite the current economic challenges – many quality jobs remain unfilled due to a lack of qualified employees in fields from construction to engineering.

The move to tele-education holds promise and peril. At the K-12 level, there is the potential for new frontiers in educational choice, allowing families to better tailor curricula to their children’s unique needs and interests. At the post-secondary level, there is the potential for tele-education to open a wider variety of educational opportunities to a wider audience at a lower

cost, boosting access and educational attainment. We may even find ways through tele-education to adapt offerings to fill high-demand jobs, which would serve both students and employers well.

On the other hand, there is the peril that, due to different ways of learning or different levels of access to technology and broadband, some people will be left behind. There may be the temptation to use tele-education where a hands-on approach is needed. We should take advantage of the great experiment in tele-education now underway to determine what works and what doesn’t, and for whom. We should also identify and close gaps in technology access, both geographically and economically. More broadly, we should nurture and improve upon efforts to boost educational attainment, particularly among low-income and first-generation college students, as well as adult learners.

envision utah logoAri Bruening, chief executive officer, Envision Utah

The pandemic and its economic impacts highlighted the need to focus on improving education outcomes for all Utahns. The lion’s share of job or income loss has been concentrated among Utahns without education beyond high school, who are also disproportionately people of color. While many of these jobs are coming back, some will not, as the pandemic has also fast-tracked the long-term trend towards fewer family-sustaining jobs for those without post-secondary education. In other words, our post-pandemic economy will likely demand that we help more Utahns have education and training beyond high school.

Additionally, when in-person learning closed last spring, students whose families had the means to access technology, work from home, or even have a parent stay home full time fared far better than students without these means (and they will likely fare better if they need to distance-learn this fall).

These disparities predate COVID-19, but the pandemic highlights the need for solutions:

· We must help Utahns access family-supporting jobs through education and training — both for working adults and for students, especially people of color.

· Students must be made aware of all the post-secondary options available to them. And they must have avenues to fund their post-secondary training.

· We must make teaching a more attractive profession. Utah is in the middle of a teacher shortage that is likely only to worsen, but within our school systems, no policy or program impacts student achievement more than teachers do. If teachers are well supported and well trained, and if we can attract our best and brightest into the profession, we can better help every child get a great education and empower every student to pursue education after high school.

The pandemic created many challenges, but with the right, strategic improvements in education, we can meet them.

southerland institute logoRick B. Larsen, president & CEO, Sutherland Institute

The trend in workforce preparation post-pandemic should be toward more affordable, accessible, and equitable skills training, especially for people left behind in the American economy.

Major players in the private sector (Google, Microsoft), higher education (ASU Online, Purdue Global, University of Arizona Global Campus) and state public-private collaborations (Talent Ready) were already moving to reimagine workforce preparation in the 21st century before the pandemic. The educational and economic impacts from COVID-19 – the need for more affordable education options and the urgent move toward remote work and learning – should accelerate immediate interest in these innovative workforce efforts. Added urgency for these innovations also comes from the rise of China as America’s primary international economic rival.

COVID-19’s economic constraints on public budgets and private investment, along with our divisive, polarized national politics – where obstructing an opponent seems to be valued more than winning policy victories – are the limiting factors to this workforce trend. The economy will improve over time, but can we rise above short-sighted political tribalism for the sake of our own prosperity, along with that of all races, ethnicities, genders, and economic classes in America? If we can, the jobs and professions of the future are ours for the taking. If not, they will gravitate toward nations who prioritize state social control above equality and freedom.