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Why Minnesota colleges and universities are getting into the certificate business

St. Catherine University
MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun
Eight years ago, Wells Fargo decided to test an intergenerational certificate program with St. Catherine University in St. Paul. The pilot worked so well that the bank created a formal partnership with St. Kate’s.

At Wells Fargo, many employees craved additional training and professional development. Baby boomer workers wanted to update their leadership skills, while younger professionals were itching to gain the necessary expertise to move up. A master’s degree was either duplicative or too daunting. What to do?

Eight years ago, the bank decided to test an intergenerational certificate program with St. Catherine University in St. Paul. Based on the school’s master of arts in organizational leadership, the certificate program at Wells Fargo would allow the different generations to learn from each other while honing their skills in communication, ethics, leadership and more. And they wouldn’t even need to leave their workplace.

The pilot worked so well that Wells Fargo created a formal partnership with St. Kate’s to regularly offer its certificate program to employees. So far, 90 Wells Fargo staff have earned the leadership certificate, says Philomena Morrissey Satre, who served as vice president of the bank’s diversity and inclusion consulting practice.

The certificate has been a popular benefit for multiple reasons. “For many boomers, they hadn’t been to college in a really long time, and they just wanted a bit of extra learning to enhance and develop their leadership skills,” Satre says. “The three classes give everyone a good taste. Everyone has an additional tool in their toolkit, and some go on to the full master’s program.”

The program isn’t just altruistic for Wells Fargo. The bank benefits from its investment in the certificate program, which is free to employees. Staff members enhance their skills and prepare themselves for bigger challenges or new roles; it’s also an excellent retention tool. “We have a better organization because they’re excited to stay and work at Wells Fargo and continue to grow their career,” Satre adds.

For employees looking to develop new skills, refresh existing ones, change careers or move up, a certificate program is an excellent way to achieve those objectives. Many involve taking two to three courses. either on campus or at work, giving participants practical, current information and skills that they can apply immediately on the job. That’s the goal at the University of St. Thomas when the school designs its certificate programs, says John McVea, academic director of the executive MBA and health care MBA programs.

Just-in-time education

“Certificates are the biggest trend in business education, because people want just-in-time knowledge,” McVea says. “The idea that you go away and study for three years and then come back and figure out how to apply it—those days are gone. What can they do with this on Monday morning? If there isn’t a clear answer to that, we have to ask why are we teaching this at this time?”

Colleges and universities across Minnesota offer certificate programs to fit many industries or fields. And if there isn’t one available, many schools will create curriculum to suit. Some certificates launch young workers into careers in technology, manufacturing or health care, while others keep current employees up to speed in rapidly changing areas like digital marketing or data management.

Employers and students benefit from a highly competitive education market with a plethora of options, from online courses to classroom work offered by local, regional and national schools. That means institutions of higher education are constantly working to fine-tune their programs to fit what employers and employees require and desire.

“When it comes to practical executive education or certificates, the programs must be really focused and deliver value for students,” says McVea. “With so much competition, schools have to make sure their courses are distinctive, focused on a particular group and deliver value.”

Digital-world skills

The certificate style of learning assists many employers, who are scrambling to find enough entry-level workers with technical or community college credentials. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has 2,300 members, and the lack of skilled workers is one of their top concerns. In a chamber survey of nearly 300 members, 74 percent reported having difficulty filling open positions with skilled workers, says Stacey Stout, director of education and workforce development.

“We have a significant amount of in-demand jobs that don’t require an advanced four-year degree. We have really started to see that these certificates or two-year programs are important to our members,” Stout says. “We want to encourage high school students to look at options for their future that will benefit our businesses and economy, but will also help them complete a program that leads to meaningful employment.”

Non-degree programs like certificates are especially crucial as new technology and business models continually up-end industries. Everyone from green employees to seasoned executives with MBAs can benefit from a certificate program to stay current and apply their learning to implement new ways of operating, says Nora Anderson, executive director of executive education at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management.

“Change in business is moving at a very fast pace. Keeping up-to-date is top of mind for companies and business professionals,” Anderson says. She points to herself as someone who earned an MBA about a decade ago. Though she studied marketing, social media marketing didn’t yet exist. “Imagine not talking about that now. Senior leaders with an MBA from 10 to 15 years ago don’t need to go back and get another degree, but they need to update their skills so that they move to their next position at their company.”

Most employees have the necessary skills to do their existing jobs, but they need a boost to move from doing to leading. Offering a certificate in project management or strategic leadership is a powerful way for companies to develop the talent they need, she adds. Certificates also fill gaps in a company’s existing workforce, so the business doesn’t have to hire new employees.

Increasing business analytics capacity

Take something like business analytics, which numerous companies struggle to manage, thanks to mountains of data produced weekly. “Companies now have access to this data about their customers, purchases and behavior, but the challenge is, how do we synthesize and analyze it so that business leaders can make decisions?” Anderson says. So they turn to a business analytics short course like Carlson’s to help their employees help them.

Aligned with its organizational leadership master’s, St. Kate’s offers a variety of certificates, including strategic management, ethics in leadership, information services and technology, and health care leadership. The master’s program content linkage gives students concentrated knowledge while allowing them to test the waters for graduate school. If they decide to enroll in a St. Kate’s master’s program, the certificate classes count toward the degree, says Amy Ihlan, an associate professor in the organizational leadership program.

“Certificates are a really overlooked option because people think they need to get a master’s degree or law degree or MBA—something more expensive with a longer commitment. Our certificates are a chance to think differently in some areas in a way that has an immediate impact on their employment,” Ihlan notes. “They are really flexible and a good option for people deciding whether graduate school is for them. They help people along in their professional development path.”

St. Thomas has certificate programs to fit all kinds, from programs in digital marketing to global business and strategic risk and responsibility. Students in each program take a blend of required courses and electives, completing between 12 to 18 credits to earn the certificate. St. Thomas has participants seeking technical skills studying alongside those aiming to add management capabilities to their analytical talents.

The university often gets creative, using new models like its professor/professional–taught certificate classes. They pair an academic, who teaches the theoretical side of a topic, with someone deeply experienced in real-world applications. “Students appreciate it, and they love it when the professor and professional don’t agree,” McVea adds.

Community partners

To expand employees’ or future employees’ skills, the chamber encourages businesses to partner with nearby colleges and universities. They will find ready partners at Minnesota State’s 37 community and technical colleges and universities, which offer nearly 1,000 certificate programs to develop the workforce businesses desperately need. Offerings are diverse. The most popular programs include these sectors: information technology, manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, energy and health care.

Minnesota State schools view their mission as preparing students of all ages for jobs or continued education at a four-year school, explains Rassoul Dastmozd, president and CEO of Saint Paul College. Certificates are a critical pathway for students pursuing the next level of education or a new career—and an attractive option because they are so flexible and short, including some that just require three credits, he adds.

The college serves students of all ages, with an average age of 28. That means most had a career or two before deciding to pursue more formal education, switch fields entirely or take on new responsibilities where they work. Many already have bachelor’s degrees and are looking to shift into new fields like cyber-security or supply chain management. Others are planning to start a business and enroll in the entrepreneurship certificate program to start their company off on the right foot.

“We are truly mission-centric,” says Dastmozd. “We deliver on our promise that when students start here, they can go anywhere.”

Certificate programs tend to offer very timely learning. That’s because many colleges and universities make it a high priority to keep their fingers on the pulse of what employers need, says Carmen Coballes-Vega, provost of Hennepin Technical College. They often turn to community advisory groups from different industries to stay apprised of trends and technologies. That way, the schools can adjust certificate programs to address businesses’ ever-changing needs.

“We have to be on our game with everything we do here to ensure that we’re meeting the technological needs of the future,” she adds. “It comes back to our mission to be nimble in what we do and what employers want our candidates to be able to do in the workplace.”

Twin Cities BusinessHennepin Tech offers 72 certificates in 28 different programs serving the metro area. Some of its largest certificate programs are law enforcement, nursing assistant, community paramedic and welding. The medical device plastics technology certificate is a popular credential for medical-device employees.

Many students stack certifications to build a broad base of knowledge, such as earning business certificates that help them run a family company, as well as technical certifications that give them deeper credentials in their field, Coballes-Vega says.

Many employers eliminated or scaled back their tuition reimbursement programs during the recession, so students more often are footing the bill for an MBA or other advanced degree. A certificate program is a much more viable financial option for many. And all parties get a big bang for their buck.

“With a short course, employees can get some new knowledge and skill and come right back to work to apply them right away,” Anderson says. “The company sees the impact, and it’s great for both employee and employer.”

Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities-based writer and editor and frequent contributor to TCB.

This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.

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