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Collaborate or Close? Universities’ Challenge to Overcoming Digital Talent Gaps

By Dr. Gale Tenen Spak, Former Associate Vice President for Continuing and Distance Education at New Jersey Institute of Technology (Ret.)

Gale Spak

The message of George Mason University’s President Gregory Washington was clear. He asked his audience to take notice of what awaits them in the future: the dire need for job creation due to the virus and looming effects of automation. As universities, we can position our professional and economic development initiatives in ways that both create wealth, and better equip job seekers in our communities. We can accomplish this through new programs and partnerships.

Tens of millions of people are still without jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while even worse, The World Economic Forum estimates that over 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines. How do we make a meaningful dent in these numbers?

In contrast, the tech industry has grown significantly during the pandemic, and the digital skills gap has widened despite historic unemployment numbers. The shift to remote work has led to a large demand for tech companies and their services, which has not only left an unprecedented strain on their employees, but on their depleting resources as well.

New Workforce Specific Programs

The advancement of digital technologies has created an opportunity for both learners and universities. Displaced workers and those fearful of being replaced now have the ability to transition to new and growing fields, regardless of their higher education credentials. Universities can reach out to a wider audience of adult learners, and have the ability to make content customizable. Collaborating internally across different departments and connecting with colleagues to learn more about their work also are some other things that can readily be done to get the conversations started. Establishing new educational and training programs is another but takes a significant amount of time and energy, yet can bring life-changing value to members of the community, while also generating a new source of revenue for the college.

Collaborations and Partnerships

While technology continues to change, the demand for technology skills continues to grow. Partnering with 3rd party educational and training companies strengthens what might be described as an emerging global educational “supply chain”. In a way similar to how supply chains operate in the business landscape to produce a specific product to the final buyer and reduce costs for a business, educational supply chains can be formed among a university and an external supplier of digital content. The difference being that in education, the product is high quality digital curricula for the learner. If a university doesn’t have the capacity to create new programs on their own, outsourcing them to a trusted provider may be worthwhile. For example, digital boot camps in cyber or coding can be a valuable addition to a school’s non-credit offerings; teaching in-demand skills, and creating pathways to degrees and careers.

Higher education is in a unique and timely position to address both the unemployment and skills shortage. As the world changes and people learn new skills for survival, higher education must follow, by innovating and heeding President Washington’s advice while it’s still possible.

Related Links

  • Commission on Economic & Community Engagement
  • Commission on Innovation, Competitiveness, & Economic Prosperity
  • Council on Engagement & Outreach
  • Economic Development & Community Engagement

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