The last 25 years have seen seismic shifts in the US workforce with technology, globalization and the sharing-economy all combining to change how, when and why we work. These changes have sparked renewed debate about the role of education in workforce preparation and the relationship between education and continued employment. Recent initiatives by the US government – such as the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act – signal growing interest in alternative approaches to education at all levels, including postgraduate education.  

Changing Job Requirements

At one time, a bachelor’s degree was a sure path to securing and maintaining a high-paying job. Today however, workers are increasingly required to learn new skills and adapt to new technologies in order to keep their jobs. Simultaneously, the demand for degrees in the workforce has also increased greatly over the last 50 years. The distribution of salaries reflects this high demand. Employees with a formal education make more money than those who receive only training through their jobs. They are also less likely to be employed and work in industries enjoying the highest growth. In Germany, Finland, Belgium, and Ireland, those with formal education make twice as much as those who receive on-the-job-training.

 

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Even jobs that once enjoyed special, protected status are requiring employees to continue their education post-graduation. Teachers for example, once certified for life, are now required to continue their education through courses and workshops. That is, if they want to keep their certification. A teacher with a bachelor’s degree eventually earns enough hours in continued education to earn a master’s degree.

In some cases, employers will offer access to more specialized training. This may be done in the form of workshops or seminars. The company usually pays the employee’s fees and expenses for attendance to these training sessions. But, even in these situations, the employee does not see as great an increase in income as he would with a formal education. In some cases, he or she has to move to another job in order to receive higher salaries for the training received at his previous workplace.

Higher Education & the Changing Nature of Work

Employees increasingly recognize that they need to engage in postgraduate education to keep their jobs. During the course of the average career an individual now changes their career seven times. While the WSJ thinks this is an overestimation, it is evident that turnover in the workforce has gone up significantly in the past few decades.

The Great Recession of 2008 only increased the transient nature of employment today. Fifty years ago it was normal for someone to start their career with one company and stay with that company for the rest of their career. Today, the new normal is to change companies and even jobs every two years.

The growing pace of job changes are increasingly demanding more highly-skilled, versatile and adaptive workers. This increased demand has coincided with the growth of online studies and other alternative education offerings, as people looked for ways to expand their skills sets. Today, a bachelor’s degree is a jumping-off point, not a destination.

For the first time in history non-traditional students – students who are generally 25 and older – outnumber traditional college students. They are the majority in most postgraduate programs or make up close nearly 50% of the student body.

Higher Education in the 21st Century

Universities around the nation are adapting to the demands of the workforce and its students. In 2014, Inside Higher Ed estimated that 7.1 million students took online courses that year. Universities are also offering hybrid programs where students take part of the course online and part of it in person. The President of Northeastern University – Joseph A. Aoun – recently led the charge for hybrid education in his article for the Harvard Business Review that hybrid jobs require hybrid education. Finally, Northeastern University is the first university to enter the educational bootcamp space with its unique data analytics bootcamp Level.

Other more established alternatives include Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered through providers such as Coursera and edX. Courses range from search engine optimization to public speaking and communication skills. These courses offer online certifications that are increasingly recognized by employers nationwide.

The coming years will only see accelerated growth of alternative educational offerings in tandem with increasing recognition of the role they play in postgraduate education. Staying relevant in today’s workforce demands that you are always learning.