How higher ed can help us cope with the ‘great resignation’

Universities are rethinking their “customer base,” expanding beyond four-year undergraduates and graduate students
By: | August 24, 2021
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Judy D. Olian, president, Quinnipiac University

Judy D. Olian, president, Quinnipiac University

Forty-one percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their resignations, according to a recent Microsoft study. The report also found that 54% of Gen Z workers, those aged 24 and younger and making up nearly half of the global workforce, are also considering giving notice.

Pundits and economists warn of a “great resignation” that will reshape the workforce, and it may already be upon us. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that nearly four million Americans walked away from their jobs in April 2021—the most in a single month since the agency began tracking the statistic 20 years ago.

The Microsoft study, which was based on surveys of over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, confirms that the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic. Flexible work is here to stay, high productivity levels are masking an exhausted workforce, the competitive labor market is resulting in readily available higher salaries, and people now are reevaluating what’s important in life, having been closeted—perhaps enjoyably—with their loved ones over the last 16 months.

As a result, hiring, training and skill development needs have hit crisis levels for employers trying to retain their talent. And higher education is playing a critical role in upskilling and reskilling the American workforce to support career changes, while also stemming the fall in our nation’s rate of innovation. Post-COVID, Bloomberg’s Innovation Index has dropped the U.S. out of the top 10 most innovative countries in the world.

What a rapidly transforming economy needs

As a first step, universities are rethinking their “customer base,” expanding beyond the traditional focus on four-year undergraduates or graduate students. As few as 16% of college students today fit the so-called traditional mold: 18 to 22-years-old, financially dependent on parents, in college full-time, and living on campus.

Many universities are creating short, sharply focused learning modules tied to digital certificates and badges to address the needs of a rapidly transforming economy where skills can quickly become obsolete, even for recent graduates. Meanwhile, employees returning to the office after the pandemic are finding a changed workplace and job requirements more dependent on digital skills and AI than the workplace they knew.

Businesses are adapting accordingly as customers in every industry are morphing into digital consumers. This skills gap was featured prominently in a recent National Security Commission report on AI that calls for a new National Defense Education Act to fund the teaching of digital skills through subjects such as math, computer science, information science, data science, and statistics. Adding to the urgency is China’s stated ambition to surpass the U.S. as the world’s AI leader within the next decade.

Universities such as Quinnipiac are already developing a wide range of digital credentialing programs across disciplines, including cybersecurity, data analytics, digital marketing, AI, software engineering, blockchain and robotics, and a variety of leadership programs for virtual environments. It must be part of higher education’s mission to encourage and enable lifelong learning and become a partner not just for graduates’ first job out of college, but also for subsequent job moves throughout their careers.

A blossoming of digital badges

Participation in remote courses and the acquisition of digital badges have soared during the pandemic because employees and HR departments alike are focusing on bridging the skills gap. In fact, the digital badges market is expected to grow over 22% annually from 2021-26, according to Mordor Intelligence.

Digital credentialing also closely aligns the content of certificates, badges and other measures of achievement with employers’ biggest skill gaps. For example, George Mason University collaborated with the Greater Washington Partnership to design a digital technology credential built on specific technology skill needs of the region’s employers. And People’s United Bank worked with Quinnipiac to create new certificates tailored to its in-house training needs, focusing on online selling, online customer service, managing time, and managing virtual teams given the shifts to remote work and digital service provision.

The payoff for employers to invest in current employees is obvious and could not be more urgent as businesses nationwide struggle to fill open positions and to stem the “great resignation.” It takes less than $10,000 to reskill an employee for an upgraded or alternative position, according to Lighthouse Research and Advisory, versus the average cost of employee turnover which is 33% of the position’s salary, according to Work Institute research. Investing in upskilling employees has the added benefits of increased employee retention and morale. LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Trends report found that 94% of employees would stay longer at companies that invest in professional development.

Continuous obsolescence is a reality that can be rebuffed with a steady flow of short, targeted learning opportunities delivered in engaging formats. Skill renewal is also a strategy to combat employee disillusion with careers that feel stagnated.

Colleges and universities are no longer just a four- to six-year chapter in a person’s life. We are becoming closer partners to states and employers in positioning economies, businesses and individual employees for long-term competitiveness, innovation and skill renewal. We may also become the much-needed booster that can reenergize employees’ careers and combat untimely resignations.

Judy D. Olian is president of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.