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In the new economy, lifelong learning is mandatory

How to do it? Choices range from apps on your phone to advanced degrees, and everything in between.

Lifelong learning is no longer optional — it’s mandatory. According to many experts, a new economy is emerging that will include more technology and automation and will require higher levels of knowledge and skill. Ironically, as technology becomes more prevalent and remote working becomes more common, “people skills” — things like communication, teamwork, and problem solving — will also become increasingly important.

The COVID-19 pandemic has likely hastened these changes, potentially leaving behind many people who lost their jobs in the last 15-18 months. Change will continue to permeate the workplace, and it is unlikely things will go back to the way they were. So continuous learning and upskilling will be required for ongoing protection against obsolescence.

In this emerging economy, it is more important than ever that curriculum and learning outcomes are connected to what employers are saying they need. Educators must continually monitor the job market for in-demand occupations and emerging skills and partner with employers to adjust current offerings and create new ones.

From self-paced training to more structured approaches

How will people upskill or reskill to participate in this new economy? Learners have many choices, and more are continually being added. They range from apps on your phone to advanced degrees, and everything in between. There are a myriad of self-paced training options available, and while they have their place for learning many tasks, a more structured approach to learning may have larger and longer lasting benefits.

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For those with the time and resources, bachelor’s degree completion as a part-time student is an attractive choice, especially since the evidence still indicates that in most cases individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn about $25,000 more per year on average than individuals with just a high school diploma. There are a variety of options for degree completion. Some students choose a self-designed path that allows them to focus on their areas of interest and incorporate previous courses and life experiences. In other cases, students may choose a more defined path that teaches in-demand skills and competencies.

Bob Stine
Bob Stine
But other options exist for those who aren’t quite ready to pursue a degree. Specialized certificates can be earned by taking four to five classes in just a semester or two. In a growing number of cases, several of these certificates can be “stacked” to earn a degree either at the undergraduate or graduate level. For many adults, this is a more convenient and affordable way to build their knowledge and skills and perhaps eventually earn a degree.

Bootcamps are another relatively new type of credential that prepares students for work in the new tech economy. Bootcamps, which are shorter, more intensive dives into higher tech fields, continue to grow in popularity among both students and employers.

Updating or expanding skills

As they face the future, many professionals don’t need another degree, but find they need to update or expand their skill set to stay competitive. For them, short, affordable courses and certificates that teach in-demand skills is the right option.

To be useful, these types of offerings must be designed with adult learners — people who have jobs, families, and other obligations to manage — in mind. These folks represent the vast majority of learners in higher education across the country and will continue to form the backbone of the workforce in the future. That means offering courses and programs in some combination of online, short format, evening, weekends, or other options to make them accessible.

Higher education has often been thought of as a stodgy, slow-moving ivory tower disconnected from “real life.” At the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing and Professional Studies, we are intent on disrupting that mindset by continually innovating and offering courses, credentials, and degrees in formats that provide what people need, when they need it, to succeed in the new economy.

Bob Stine is interim dean of the College of Continuing and Professional Studies at the University of Minnesota.

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