New Programs Address the Growing Talent Shortage

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Monday, March 20, 2023
By Raghu Santanam
Photo by iStock/gorodenkoff
Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business trains learners in critical in-demand skills through an initiative called AZNext.
  • Almost 90 percent of employers face or expect to face skills gaps, while 50 percent of all workers might need reskilling by 2025.
  • In the AZNext program, adult learners from underserved populations are trained in high-demand fields such as cybersecurity, tech, and manufacturing.
  • Collaborations with industry partners and other schools on campus are key to the program’s success.

Across every industry sector today, the conversation is about the shortage of talent. According to a 2020 McKinsey Global Survey on workforce needs, nearly nine in ten employers say their organizations either face skill gaps already or expect gaps to develop within the next five years. Reskilling and upskilling programs are imperative for employers as they attempt to alleviate labor and talent shortages.

Universities have a great opportunity to educate the workforce to meet business demands. By tapping into institutional knowledge and engaging with public, nonprofit, and private-sector stakeholders, schools can meet the needs of an ever-changing economy and ensure the economic health of the communities they serve. Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe has been helping to fill the talent gap with custom education programs for adult learners. Since 2018, programs like the Starbucks College Achievement Plan and the Uber educational program have provided options for more than 48,000 learners.

At ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, we are responding to talent shortages by creating robust workforce development partnerships and expanding our executive and continuing education portfolio. One of our most ambitious efforts is the Arizona Workforce Training Accelerator Partnership for Next Generation Jobs program, or AZNext.

This public-private partnership is designed to turn out more skilled workers in IT, cybersecurity, and advanced manufacturing roles. The goal is to create sustainable, long-term infrastructure for workforce training in Arizona and beyond.

Origins of the Program

AZNext was built out of previous initiatives at ASU. Previous to my role as the senior associate dean of executive education, corporate partnerships, and lifelong learning, I had been leading a team of information systems faculty in partnership with Cognizant Consulting as we developed a certificate program for the digital business consulting field. As this partnership flourished, my colleagues at ASU Knowledge Enterprise began identifying further opportunities for addressing the skills gap.

We applied for and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to fund the Digital Workforce Apprenticeship Partnership at ASU. Later, we secured 8 million USD as part of the Department of Labor’s One Workforce Grant Program, which is designed to train workers for jobs in high-growth industries and sectors. This funding laid the foundation for AZNext.

Applying for grants of this size is a time-consuming process that cannot be undertaken at the last minute. In our case, we took between three and four months to put together our application, and we relied on a good project manager to keep track of all the moving parts. Because the grant was so large, we needed to identify multiple corporate partners and get them to sign letters of support. We also needed to prepare a budget with input from individual stakeholders and show that we would be able to fully meet all the grant requirements.

Options for Learners

Since we secured funding, we have focused on the two key purposes of AZNext: giving learners the skills they need to succeed at every career stage and providing employers with access to a skilled workforce. We continuously look for ways to offer flexible development options to learners who want to start careers in technology but might not have degrees or prior formal training.

We deliver our programs through a variety of modalities: boot camps, internships, train-to-hire programs, apprenticeships, hands-on learning, and simulated work experiences. Many learners are intimidated by the idea of jumping into technology careers, so we start off with easy classes that get them comfortable before delving into more technical topics.

Among our biggest priorities is upskilling the unemployed and underemployed, especially among underserved groups such as women, minorities, and veterans.

Drawing from our existing curriculum, we create focused, intensive courses that align with industry needs and provide students with high-demand skills that are immediately usable on the job. And in every course, we invite industry experts to share their experiences, ensuring that everything we teach is relevant and gives learners a realistic view of how their coursework translates to the workplace.

Among the biggest priorities of AZNext is helping the unemployed and underemployed, especially among underserved groups such as women, minorities, and veterans. One way we do this is by removing barriers to education for these populations. For instance, we remove the barrier of cost. We offer the training for free, and we provide most of it virtually so learners don’t have the expense of commuting.

We also have programs that specifically target some of these groups. As an example, we work closely with the Arizona Coalition of Military Families to offer training to veterans who are interested in tech and manufacturing. We’ve recently launched the five-week AZNext Business Readiness for Veterans Program, which was created “for vets, by vets.” Experienced business leaders, most of whom have served in the military, act as instructors to help translate the language of the military into the language of business. By emphasizing select functional areas and activities, the program expedites service members’ transitions into professional environments.

Collaborations On and Off Campus

To make sure our workforce development programs are responsive to market demand, we continually engage with industry partners to learn what corporate stakeholders want. In particular, AZNext has made deep dives into employer needs in IT, cybersecurity, and advanced manufacturing industries. Through our collaborations with the Arizona Technology Council, AZNext has more than 50 industry partners, and that number continues to grow.

We meet extensively with our advisory board to gain unique industry insights, quickly respond to emerging trends, and validate the curriculum before delivering it. Board members include executives from our partner organizations, as well as representatives from community groups such as Chicanos Por La Causa, Fresh Start Women’s Foundation, and Year Up Arizona. We also have members from economic groups such as the Arizona Commerce Authority and the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. Their input has enabled us to be very intentional in how we shape the learner journey.

Collaborations with other schools on campus are equally important to the success of AZNext. We believe that interdisciplinary instruction allows students to see a complex problem from multiple perspectives and solve it holistically. For example, we are working with ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences to train AZNext participants in cybersecurity, and we are planning a program in biological data science.

We are collaborating with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering to bring together employers, workforce development networks, economic development organizations, and industry partners to address the skills gap in this area. We’re also planning to partner with the ASU Polytechnic campus, which is home to some of our top engineering programs. This will be the hub for advanced manufacturing education where project-based curricula and hands-on learning are already taking shape with employers such as Honeywell Aerospace, Pilgrim Aerospace, PADT, Siemens, Raytheon Missiles & Defense, and TPI Composites.

Goals and Challenges

The AZNext program has been growing steadily since we launched. Since the beginning of the new year—after the recent layoffs in the technology sector—we have seen an uptick in participants. Our goal is to serve more than 3,000 learners during the four years of the grant period.

We measure our performance by how many of our participants we place in full-time jobs, part-time jobs, and apprenticeships. We’re still gathering data on outcomes for our newly trained learners, but so far, the impacts on their career growth have been very positive.

To make sure we are developing programs that address employers’ demands, we lean on our advisory board to keep our curriculum relevant.

One of our many goals is to build a workforce development model that can be scaled and implemented across the U.S. By offering training virtually, we can reach individuals no matter where they live and offer them pathways into in-demand careers. As we increase the number of learners we serve, we will need to expand the number of corporate partners we bring in, so we will seek out more industry partnerships.

But as we grow, we face three particular challenges. Ironically for a workforce development program, our first and biggest challenge is finding enough dedicated professionals to support our own efforts. Right now, we have about a dozen staff members and more than 15 professors working with AZNext in various capacities. Ideally, we would add two or three more staff members and bring in more professors as needed. As the program scales, we will need case managers to help ensure that the learners who complete the certificates are progressing through their careers and getting the guidance and advice they need from our office.

Our second challenge is making sure we are developing programs that address employers’ rapidly changing demands. We have leaned on our advisory board members to augment the expertise of our faculty, and this approach has been effective in keeping our curriculum relevant. Our team has already put in more than a thousand hours meeting with employers one-on-one.

Our third challenge is encouraging a paradigm shift in the way companies hire and convincing them to embrace new models of experiential learning, such as apprenticeships. Many of our corporate partners are already seeing success through these methods, and their testimonials help assure other organizations of the benefits of AZNext. It takes time for organizations to change their hiring processes, so we view this as a long-term challenge.

The Role of the University

Universities have always provided learners with a mix of theoretical and practical knowledge, which means there has always been some overlap between college and career prep. But today’s widening talent gap means universities need to spend more time giving learners hands-on experiences. The future of higher education rests on the ability of universities to bridge the gap between the needs of employers who are looking for competent workers and the needs of workers who are looking for efficient ways to acquire new skills.

Schools must offer an assortment of options that provide students with the skills and credentials that will make them valuable to employers. At ASU, these include degree programs, executive education courses, certificate programs, stackable credentials, workshops, and self-paced online courses.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs Report, 50 percent of employees around the world will need reskilling by 2025. At W.P. Carey and ASU, we are working to anticipate this demand by reimagining what education looks like and offering pathways to learners at different points in their career journeys. Universities and corporations must work together to create the talent pipeline necessary to secure future economic prosperity.

Raghu Santanam
Senior Associate Dean of Executive Education, Corporate Partnerships, and Lifelong Learning, and Professor and McCord Chair of Business in Information Systems, W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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