In 2008 the nation was in the midst of what would become the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression, with rampant unemployment. At the same time, wind energy was very exciting. The entire industry was ramping up, promising to be a very apt employer. Our wind-rich state had no training programs to create workers for this new industry.

Oklahoma City Community College saw this gap and worked with local wind energy experts to create the state’s first wind turbine technical program, providing both the opportunity for Oklahomans to be marketable job candidates and also a desirable workforce for the industry.

Oklahoma now ranks among the top 10 states for wind energy production, and projections put Oklahoma on the fast track to second in the nation.

OCCC’s wind turbine technical program is just one of many examples of continuing and adult education programs around the state that work to fill gaps in workforce skills.

Corporate Learning at OCCC works with industry and the workforce to create training for the ever-evolving job market. Programs like eMarketing Essentials, Green Energy, Oil and Gas Accounting and Social Networking for Business offer a number of opportunities to add skills that strengthen one’s current job or provide resources for making a career switch.

Changes In Economy Change Business Practices

As the economic climate changed over the last four years, businesses have really had to buckle down, refine processes and reduce waste.

“Businesses and organizations are requiring employees to do more with less,” says John Claybon, a consultant with Corporate Learning at OCCC.

He says skills and certifications in project management and other soft skills are very big.

“People who have a lot of communication, leadership and problem solving skills are in high demand,” Claybon says.

The University of Tulsa is working with engineers to beef up soft skills and make them more ready for management roles.

Within three to five years of entering the workforce, engineers are generally put into a management position of some sort, says Pat Hall, associate dean of TU’s Continuing Engineering and Science Education program. Engineers are very high performers, she says, but most have no management, leadership experience or training at all.

“Engineers are people who are very smart, but they need soft skills,” Hall says.

Three nights a week for eight months, engineers learn communication, management and leadership skills.

“They learn how to be a leader and understand their team,” Hall says.  

Getting Experience Through Continuing Ed

Often those who do not have job experience can become attractive to future employers or for promotions in their current positions with a boost from continuing education.

Southern Nazarene University offers a Master of Business Administration degree tailored to meet the needs of working adults.

“The experience you gain is way more important than the paper, but the paper is what people look for,” says Cheryl Soerensen-Tuck, marketing and enrollment manager for graduate business programs at SNU.

The MBA in Health Care Administration, she says, has become particularly valuable, as employers have needed people who can understand health care reform and stay abreast of policy changes.

The MBA program takes 22 months to complete and is broken into six-week classes that are taken at night.

“It’s not just reading and taking a test. It is hands-on activities,” Soerensen-Tuck says. “They are actually doing the job.”

The way the classes are structured strongly encourages student interaction. Students are also learning from each other and sharing their experience from the industry they work in, she says.

Additionally, students in some cases are able to cash their work and life experience in for college credit by writing a paper about the experience.

Catering to the Adult Student

Continuing education programs are trying to make education more convenient for working adults through opportunities like leveraging valuable work and life experience as well as online courses and flexible programs. Further moving these classes away from the traditional lecture model and into hands on lab style to provide a more valuable experience.

“Most working professionals like to have hybrid or online courses because it allows for flexibility,” says James Pappas, Ph.D., vice president of University Outreach and dean of the College of Liberal Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

OU’s College of Liberal Studies offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in a number of formats.

As unemployment rates soared and the job market became increasingly competitive during the economic downturn, simply having a degree was important. As a result, Pappas says about 60 percent of people in programs in the College of Liberal Studies at OU have started a degree at some point and are now trying to finish it.

Pappas says degrees that offer a broad range of application for students after graduation are very popular. The bachelor’s or master’s degree in Administrative Leadership, he says, gives students skills to work in a variety of industries and areas.

Mind The Gap

Continuing and adult education programs at colleges and universities keep abreast of employment and training gaps and create programs that meet the needs of both students and industry.  

When the College of Liberal Studies at OU has identified a gap, a demographic study is conducted to see what is happening within that gap to determine if and how relief could be provided through a continuing education program.

Pappas says this process recently revealed the need for a program in prevention science. There was a movement of people with clinical degrees who wanted to be a part of prevention, not just treatment, he says. The school developed an online Master of Prevention Science degree to give the training needed for people to specialize in this area of health care.

Likewise, these programs work directly with employers and industry to find out what they need in a workforce. OCCC created a speech pathology assistant program as a direct response to need for help with speech pathology in K-12.

Energy Shield

Oklahomans have been largely protected from the recession due in large part to the booming energy sector. Almost all colleges and universities with continuing education programs have some course of training, instruction or certification to build skills for Oklahoma’s energy industry.

Cross discipline programs at TU can help people who’ve worked in banking or accounting get an understanding of petroleum engineering. People who work in petroleum engineering can get a basic understanding of geology.

“It helps people switch jobs or helps them learn more about what they need to know in their current position,” says Hall.

OU has worked with the petroleum and energy business to create training programs that are not degree-based. Conferences and courses in oil well blow-out, gas compression and corrosion control provide workers skills and information they need to do their job.

OCCC’s wind turbine program gives students a number of certifications and skills that are widely applicable, particularly in safety.

“When someone has enough safety credentials, employers want you and don’t care what else you know,” says OCCC’s Claybon.

Fill The Gap

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama pointed out the need to fill skills gaps. He urged institutions to educate the nation’s unemployed to fill the numerous jobs that were open as a means to ending the nation’s high unemployment rate.

In Oklahoma, the job market is wide open for those in nursing.

“In Oklahoma, if you are a truck-driving nurse you have your ticket written,” says Dustin Pyeatt, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Labor.

The top certifications in demand in Oklahoma are in health care and commercial driving, according to numbers provided by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. Jobs in repair, sales and accounting also have large numbers of openings.

Continuing and adult education programs position people to take advantage of these gaps. Colleges and universities are making these programs more and more accessible for working adults.

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