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Staffing shortages in healthcare could make stackable credentials real, as Cengage, InStride, and Penn Foster ramp up online certs in allied health. Also, the Biden administration’s latest move to encourage apprenticeships.

The Job
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A weekly newsletter about the intersection of education and work. By Paul Fain

Online and Stackable

Companies appear to be more interested in hiring workers without college degrees for high-demand fields. That could be a good thing, depending on your perspective.

Yet tracking is a concern, as many of the nation’s biggest labor crunches are for lower-wage roles. Shunting large numbers of younger, diverse Americans without degrees into dead-end jobs is hardly a fix for income inequality and stagnant social mobility.

The best way to prevent this scenario could be through stackability. This concept is where students get their foot in the door for a career by first earning a certificate or industry-recognized credential. Those credits later count toward a degree, which learners can earn while working—ideally while being subsidized by their employer—and then move into higher-paying roles.

Stackability doesn’t exist in any meaningful way, however, in part because time-pressed workers tend not to return to college. Likewise, the higher education business model is stingy about awarding credits for nondegree credentials and other forms of prior learning.

Even so, staffing shortages in healthcare and IT are so severe that some observers think stackability could begin moving from chimera to reality in coming years. Some states are working on how to help entry-level employees move up with more education. Healthcare in particular is showing promise, as companies ramp up education benefits for their employees and a growing number of established players in online education expand their portfolios of customized healthcare credentials.

InStride, which administers workforce education benefit programs, is seeing bifurcated demand for subdegree credentials in healthcare.

“One side is to allow learners to fill high-demand roles quickly,” says Michelle Westfort, InStride’s chief university officer, pointing in particular to medical assistants, surgical technologists, sterile processors, and pharmacy technicians. “The other allows learners to use a certification as an intermediate step to a degree, especially while they balance work and part-time study.”

Mapping Skills: Penn Foster also has moved more into this space. A distance education company with a long history of focusing on underserved students, it offers everything from online high school programs to bachelor’s degrees. Penn Foster merged last year with Carrus, a large online healthcare-training provider.

Misty Frost, CEO of Penn Foster/Carrus, says some healthcare roles are well suited to stackable paths. To help make that happen, the company offers an “employer-inclusive” version of online healthcare credentials.

“We map both the skills that the certifying bodies are looking for, in addition to using job listing data to map any missing skills that employers are seeking,” says Frost.

The resulting credential programs are offered in modules, so learners acquire the specific skills they need most.

“Certification bodies are understandably focused on the technical skills needed for the specific certification standards,” Frost says. “Employers are very interested in human interactions and ensuring employees are ready to work with coworkers, clients, and, in healthcare, patients, on day one.”

Skills mapping and tailored programming also are big parts of the draw for InStride’s healthcare employer partners.

“The certifications for in-demand healthcare roles are highly regulated, for good reason,” says Westfort. “Those circumstances call for a much higher degree of customization and curation.”

InStride is seeing an increasingly strong appetite among hospital systems to fund subdegree training.

One reason is that some large systems are posting big revenue losses due to shortages in roles such as surgical technologists and sterile processors, which support the operating room, a primary moneymaking part of hospitals. Likewise, the industry’s shifting workforce increasingly leans on medical assistants, often a high-churn job.

To help meet this need, the company works with hospital systems to create “on-ramps” for their hardest-to-fill roles, by mapping required skills and providing access to university partners that can provide both online learning (for scale) and the coordination of clinical work.

The best approach, according to InStride, solves for acute labor shortages while also supporting career progression for employees by offering subdegree programming that stacks into bachelor’s degrees.

‘Inflection Point’ for Workforce Education

Cengage is betting on growing, sustained demand for nondegree, skills-based learning in healthcare and IT.

The global education technology company, which had roughly $1.4B in revenue last year, is making substantial investments in Cengage Work, one of three core business units it created under a recent realignment.

“To continue to grow our reach and support more learners, we’re investing millions into our Cengage Work business to expand infrastructure and operating capabilities to better harness data and analytics and track learner outcomes,” says Michael Hansen, CEO of the Cengage Group. He adds that the company is developing “new partnerships with large employers to fill critical skills gaps in areas of high demand such as allied health and cybersecurity.”

Cengage Work includes the company’s extensive online course and certification portal, ed2go, and the Infosec Institute, a cybersecurity training provider Cengage acquired in March. 

The division offers more than 65 programs across healthcare. Students can earn many of the certifications in six to nine months. Among Cengage’s most popular programs in allied health administration are medical billing and coding and certified medical administrative assistant. On the patient care and technician side, top programs include pharmacy technician and certified clinical medical assistant. These tracks are offered online, typically with clinical experience or externship opportunities.

Employee retention is a focus for Cengage’s healthcare partners. And that increasingly means supporting workers who earn new credentials and then move into higher-paying jobs within a hospital system.

The company says more than 250K people will use Cengage Work this year to gain employable skills or to complete required training. 

The Kicker: “Education has reached an inflection point as learners are consistently opting for shorter, flexible, workforce-aligned education,” Hansen says.

Federal Movement on Apprenticeships

The White House last week launched the Apprenticeship Ambassador Initiative—a national network of more than 200 employers and other organizations who have signed on to create hundreds of new registered apprenticeships.

The initiative is the latest in the administration’s sustained push to grow and diversify apprenticeships, including both the industries and people they serve. Over the next year, participants in the new initiative have agreed to:

  • Develop 460 new registered apprenticeship programs across their 40 industries.
  • Hire more than 10K new apprentices.
  • Hold 5K outreach, promotional, and training events to help other business, labor, and education leaders launch similar programs.

Given that the number of apprenticeships in the U.S. remains relatively small, that wouldn’t be a tiny increase. Last fiscal year, about 27K U.S. programs were active and 241K new apprentices entered the system.

  • About 93% of workers who complete registered apprenticeships gain employment and earn an annual average starting wage of $77K, according to the Biden administration.

The new effort also emphasizes programs that are designed with career growth in mind and connect into traditional higher education, particularly associate degree programs at community colleges—such as a new apprenticeship program focused on electric vehicle infrastructure jobs jointly run by Siemens and Wake Technical Community College

“Apprenticeships. Community colleges. Education and training. Together, they are our most powerful engines of prosperity,” said Jill Biden, who hosted the launch event.

Employers and Labor Step Up: The apprenticeship initiative dovetails with a number of other federal efforts, including the Good Jobs Challenge and the Talent Pipeline Challenge, which seeks to prepare more Americans for high-demand roles in the broadband, construction, and electric vehicle sectors.

Organizations that are participating—employers like IBM, government agencies like the Texas Workforce Commission, and labor orgs like the North American Building Trades Union—span a wide range of industries, but there’s a heavy focus on in-demand roles in healthcare, manufacturing, construction, tech, and financial services.

Aon, a multinational professional services firm, also has signed on—and re-upped its commitment to invest $30M in creating 10K apprenticeships nationwide by 2030.

The company has been a leader in expanding U.S. apprenticeships, since launching its program in 2017 with just 26 learners. Aon has gone on to create 1K apprenticeships in greater Chicago, its U.S. headquarters, while pulling together a network of employers across six other cities and regions.

As the program has grown, one of the biggest challenges has been getting the word out to would-be participants, says Shay Robinson, public affairs manager of Aon’s Global Eco-Systems & Apprenticeship Program. Community colleges have been particularly helpful in sharing the opportunities with their students, she says.

“As we continue to grow the network, our challenge will be ensuring future talent is aware of these opportunities in each apprenticeship city.”

Read more over at Work Shift. —Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

Childcare Crisis

The childcare workforce is recovering more slowly than other sectors, and is down 88K jobs or 8.4% since the pandemic began, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. Federal relief funds have saved an estimated 3M childcare spots. Yet the industry’s hiring woes likely will worsen, the report says, as full-time childcare teachers are paid an average of $14 per hour, less than half the wage of kindergarten teachers.

Quality Programs

State eligible training provider lists are meant to ensure that workers who qualify for federal job training assistance are choosing from high-quality programs, Anne Kim reports for the Washington Monthly. Yet the lists represent an “archaic approach to workforce development—’train and pray’—where workers enroll in training programs that may or may not match up to the jobs available or impart the skills that employers want.”

Funding Reform

Higher education reforms pushed by large philanthropic foundations in the early 20th century were focused on efficiency, noncompetition, and vertical integration, according to Ethan W. Ris, an assistant professor of higher education administration at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the author of Other People’s Colleges. Ris discussed his book in an interview with Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed

CS Education

Google announced a new $20M commitment to expand computer science education through support for national and local nonprofit groups that reach underserved students, as well as those who help governments and educators implement computer science education plans. The announcement cited CodePath’s work in Chicago and Atlanta, and a teacher education project at the City University of New York.

Skills-Based Hiring

Opportunity@Work is adding workforce AI technology to Stellarworx, its skills-based hiring platform. The nonprofit group said more than 130 employers are using the platform to find and hire workers without four-year degrees. The new partnership with SkyHive Technologies will make skills-based matching on Stellarworx more granular and dynamic, while helping to counter biased algorithms in hiring.

Nickel and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, died last week at 81. Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, hotel housekeeper, nursing home aide, and in other low-wage jobs while researching the 2001 book. She quickly found it took more than two jobs to make ends meet, The New York Times reported. In recent years Ehrenreich sought to help the working poor tell their own stories.

Do you think stackable credentials, at least in healthcare education and maybe in IT, will become a reality for a respectable number of students? Thanks for reading. —@paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.