“We are in this industrial hub and we are very concerned about people, knowledge, skills, and abilities,” said Holly Moore, the executive dean of the Georgetown campus. While the college feels pressure from employers “to train up this workforce,” she said, their students “don’t have the time or luxury to go to a four-year college” and often “don’t think of themselves as learners.”
Barriers to education—time, money, self-doubt—are real. But simple jobs are vanishing, and a rising dependence on technology in virtually every field demands more learning. A worker who wants to move from constructing buildings to maintaining them (“maybe the physical nature of what they do is wearing on their bodies,” said Moore) must confront gleaming structures with operating systems invented in the past five years. Building maintenance, she said, is “a highly scientific field” for which South Seattle now offers a new degree.
Even as colleges strive to blend relevant learning with proof of employability, they are challenged by trade associations and private companies offering curricula not yet on campus. Udacity, which in 2014 turned its focus to tech training, last October offered a Nanodegree in self-driving cars; the company reported 11,000 applicants for 500 spots.
In this new economy, education may also have an expiration date. That’s why, said Jason Tyszko, the executive director of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, employers have “less and less confidence” in traditional degrees. They want narrow credentials.
That’s what Coletta Teske found in 2015 when, after taking three years off in a decades-long career as a technical writer, she couldn’t find work. Never mind that she had a college degree and had written software manuals, even books. “Nobody looked at my resume,” she said. “No feedback, no offers for interviews, nothing.”
After a year of searching, Teske took free online classes through IBM’s Big Data University. Classes were difficult, but short; within a month she completed four. “I got a badge and I shared it on my Twitter account, and people came out of the woodwork,” she said, adding that, “having IBM’s name on there was important.” Teske, based in central Florida, is getting technical-writing jobs again, including some from Microsoft.
Obviously, credentials help middle-aged and older workers freshen up resumes. But they are also useful to younger workers. A March 2017 survey by the Rockefeller Foundation noted that half of recent college graduates are not using skills they learned in college at work, and 86 percent are learning new skills outside of college.
It’s too early to know if skipping college and earning credentials instead will provide a viable career path. Companies want to hire people with specific abilities, but also want the foundational skills that colleges supposedly deliver. And they’re often unsure how to evaluate nontraditional qualifications.