Editor’s note: Ruth Watkins is president of the University of Utah.
The coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the crucial role of higher education institutions in ensuring the economic vitality of our states. Our ability to move swiftly to assist in the economic rescue and recovery of our communities is likely to be a positive outcome of this unprecedented time — an opportunity that, if we embrace it, will also position academia well for the future.
In Utah, as elsewhere in the country and the world, the pandemic has upended many aspects of life, education and work especially. Within a span of a few weeks this spring, students, staff and faculty at colleges and universities across the country enacted drastic conversions to remote instruction in order to continue to engage in teaching and learning.
The shift was not as easy for industry. While many businesses successfully made a rapid transition to new ways of working, it has been neither a straightforward nor a seamless path to continued operations for all. Unemployment numbers reveal the depth of this profound economic disruption. About 66,000 Utah residents, for instance, were unemployed as of August, the most recent data available, and an improvement from a peak of 150,000 this spring.
At the University of Utah, we are working to aid in restoring economic vibrancy through reskilling and upskilling these displaced workers and helping them adapt to changing workforce needs. What’s needed now are more nimble, dynamic links between university programs and curricula — short-term certificates, one-year graduate programs and even baccalaureate programs — and the emerging needs of our industries. Listening and adapting to employers’ needs does not compromise broader aims of preparing educated citizens who can think, write, solve problems, innovate and be entrepreneurial; these voices can guide us in designing high-quality, short-term programs as well as traditional degree offerings.
Some in our community may be surprised that the University of Utah is actively working to offer short-term credentials. We have long focused on the bachelor’s degree as an entry credential and in master’s and professional education beyond that. But the pandemic has sharply brought into focus the need for a strong, lifelong learning vision that includes providing shorter-term credential programs, some credit-bearing and some not.
In pursuing this path, we strive to deepen partnerships with such companies as CareerStep, Pluralsight, Adobe, Trilogy Education Services and DevPoint Labs to offer industry-relevant courses for workers who want to quickly reskill and upskill. The university also received approximately $905,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding through Learn & Work In Utah, a state program, to enhance our certificate and noncredit programs for displaced workers in specific health and data fields.
Individuals who need to quickly get back to work, as well as industries in our area that need workers and talent, are embracing the program.
We are offering certification programs that equip workers to pursue careers as medical assistants, pharmacy technicians and medical office managers. We also are offering short courses in cloud computing, data science, programming languages and project management; and bootcamps for user interface and experience design, web development and cybersecurity.
Our vision is backed by data. A survey conducted earlier this year by Silicon Slopes — a nonprofit organization that supports Utah’s startup and tech companies — found that nearly 60% of employers responding said training is the most important step unemployed individuals could take to become better job candidates. And a similar percentage of employees expressed interest in developing related skills.
This highlights the importance of partnerships like those between the university and companies that offer skills training, as another way to support Utah residents during this time of economic hardship.
Students who have not yet entered the workforce also will benefit from these programs. Our 2020 graduates experienced a disruptive college-to-career transition as they saw strong professional prospects recede as unemployment skyrocketed and industry demands shifted. Limited professional opportunities are likely to persist through 2021 for this year’s college seniors, particularly those whose degrees do not have a clear career trajectory — such as those in humanities and social sciences fields.
Graduates in these fields have talents valued by industry, from writing and critical thinking skills to knowledge of culture and diversity. At many institutions, these fields include high percentages of students of color. At the University of Utah, for example, 23% of our spring 2020 graduates in humanities and the social sciences were students of color — a group that includes students who identify as Asian, Black/African-American, Hispanic/Latinx, American Indian, Pacific Islander or as belonging to two or more races. Latinx students comprised 15% of the bachelor’s degree recipients in these two colleges.
As growth areas emerge — from gaming and technology product design, to sales and data analytics — graduates in the humanities and social sciences may be ideally suited to supplementing their degrees with short-term credentials that enhance their strong abilities and meet industry needs.
Recognizing that, we are building a bridge from university degrees to emerging industry needs and growth areas.
I anticipate we will continue to refine what we’ve learned about how to ensure the University of Utah is a smarter, more efficient institution in the post-pandemic world. Perhaps the most powerful opportunity for a smarter university, though, could come through stronger and more nimble partnerships with industry.