Home Contributors Fairfield Rebecca L. Watts: Competency-based higher ed can boost Connecticut’s economic recovery

Rebecca L. Watts: Competency-based higher ed can boost Connecticut’s economic recovery

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As the Connecticut Governor’s Workforce Council pointed out in its recent Strategic Plan, “It is now clear that many of the jobs lost in this crisis will not return. The economy is set to take a different shape, accelerating the changes that had been unfolding prior to the crisis.”

Information technology (IT) provides a salient example. While in Connecticut and the nation at large the demand for qualified IT professionals is not new, the pandemic has heightened the significance of technology in nearly every aspect of our lives. As states continue to compete for highly sought-after businesses in this changing world, the caliber of Connecticut’s IT workforce is pivotal.

Forbes magazine recently reported that 2020 “broke all records when it came to data lost in breaches and sheer numbers of cyber-attacks on companies, government, and individuals.” It is estimated that cybercrime will cost the world $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, with new vulnerabilities that emerged from shifting to a remote workforce requiring a growing cadre of professionals to advise and prepare businesses and organizations to protect their data and operations.

This past summer, for example, an email hacking incident exposed the information of 484,000 Aetna health plan members. In recent years, Connecticut municipal governments and school systems, as well as businesses, have faced cyber-attacks.

The gaps in Connecticut’s workforce – which can also be described as future opportunities – are apparent. IT – one of the highest-growth sectors – now has 6,000 open computing jobs, according to the Workforce Council, with future demand expected to double. In addition, the website CyberSeek, which tracks the talent gap, reports more than 3,000 current unfilled positions in Connecticut in cyber-security alone.

At the same time, national data suggest that as the pandemic continues, more people are looking for ways to boost their career-advancement potential. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that at predominantly online institutions, graduate student numbers increased by nearly 10% last fall from the previous year, and growth has continued by 7.4% this spring. Even as those numbers tick upward, some may be left behind.

As Connecticut’s outstanding higher education institutions respond to the need, the additional option of online competency-based education expands options for prospective students who seek to earn a degree aimed at employment or advancement, while also working full-time and juggling family responsibilities.

Competency-based education measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time spent in a classroom. Such degree programs are aligned with workforce imperatives and are highly adaptable, allowing education and industry partners to create and refine high-quality learning pathways that leverage technology effectively and are tailored for the future of work.

Connecticut enrollment at Western Governors University (WGU) has more than tripled during the past five years, especially in the high-demand field of IT. For many of the more than 2,000 Connecticut-based WGU students and alumni with busy lives, this model is the only way they can achieve a college degree and continue to advance in their careers without interruption.

As Gov. Lamont’s Workforce Council noted, “Cultivating and investing in diverse talent can unleash innovation, economic growth and stronger families and communities. We’d like to push the restart button and find ways to support this talent and begin to eliminate the obstacles that have excluded so many.”

The online, competency-based higher education model is a way to help retain and expand homegrown IT talent in Connecticut – an attractive prospect for local businesses and industry.

Rebecca L. Watts serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that currently serves more than 800 Connecticut students and has more than 1,300 alumni in the state.

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