(Fizkes via Shutterstock)
(Fizkes via Shutterstock)

As the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic appear to be waning across the country, a promising workforce trend is taking hold. Individuals of virtually every job description, having reassessed and reevaluated their preferences and priorities during the past year, are evaluating the characteristics of their jobs from a fresh perspective. And many – increasingly in unprecedented numbers – are seeking change.

In a recent survey of 2,000 workers commissioned by Prudential Financial Inc., a quarter of respondents said they planned to look for a new job post-pandemic, with many citing work-life balance issues as among their top concerns. Half the respondents reported feeling that the pandemic had given them more control in deciding the direction of their careers.

Dubbed “The Great Resignation,” close to 4 million people in the U.S. already quit their jobs in April; that is the highest number for a single month since 2000. And as people evaluate how best to move from where they are to where they’d like to be professionally, they’re often looking to academic coursework to help them progress.

Higher education degrees and credentials can be the conduit to a new and better job, and flexibility in pursuit of additional qualifications, whether in a new field or to advance on a current career path, can be an essential component of achieving one’s goals. 

The economy will require expansive, collaborative efforts aimed at job training and workforce development. Innovative approaches to postsecondary education provide a key long-term strategy for workforce investment and labor market recovery. These approaches are most effective when focused on skill-based mastery, at an affordable cost, with a flexible schedule that allows learners to stay employed while earning a degree. 

Competency-based education measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time spent in a classroom. Pioneered in 1997 by nonprofit, accredited Western Governors University (WGU), each student individually progresses through six-month terms at an affordable, flat-rate tuition. During the term, students can complete as many courses as their schedules allow and as soon as they can prove they have mastered the material. 

In each of WGU’s four colleges – business, health professions, information technology, and teaching – competency-based degree programs align with workforce imperatives and are highly adaptable, allowing education and industry partners to create and refine high-quality learning pathways. This innovative learning model is complementary to the many excellent traditional higher education options in Connecticut, expanding opportunities to fill existing gaps.

WGU also partners with local community colleges on credit transfers for their graduates, and with local businesses to support human resource objectives and expand access to higher education for their employees. These initiatives support efforts to retain businesses and employees in Connecticut, so both can thrive.

As an example, nurses comprise the largest occupation within the healthcare system in the nation and in Connecticut. The Connecticut Center for Nursing Workforce reported in 2019 that Connecticut can expect almost half of its current workforce to retire within the next 10 to 15 years and warned that the state does not have the number of nurses within the 35-50 age category needed to fill those positions.

Nearly 15% of people earning bachelor’s degrees in nursing in the United States last year graduated from WGU. These motivated learners include students like Sarah Williams, a 38-year-old working mother of three, for whom WGU was the only realistic option because of her other family and work responsibilities. WGU Master of Science in Nursing student Stephanie Tomaino also has said that her ability to continue with her studies while working full-time in the cardiac ICU of Hartford Hospital during the pandemic would have been impossible without the flexibility of the WGU model.

For many of the nearly 800 WGU students and 1,455 alumni in Connecticut, this model is the only way they can simultaneously achieve a college degree and continue to advance in their careers without interruption. More than 150 Connecticut students earned WGU degrees in just the past year.

Higher education, as well as employers, needs to meet people where they are as we all settle-in to our altered world and transforming workforce. Individuals will be carefully analyzing their employment prospects and possibilities, making their evaluation through a very different prism.

It is clear that economic recovery, for families as well as communities and states, will be influenced by the choices that are made around kitchen tables as well as in board rooms. Connecticut’s prospects may well be determined by how well the possibilities match the new priorities.