The summer is ending and for parents, this time of year is bittersweet. Kids are back in school, and our children will tackle new challenges. A fascinating thing about school during the past couple of decades, though, is that the standard progression has changed.
It used to be that we expected that students would progress through the grades to high school. Many would go on to a community college or university to continue their studies. A few might get an advanced degree. But we expected that by people’s early 20s, they would leave school behind, work a career and perhaps start a family.
The business world has accelerated, though. Companies may shift their business model once a decade. For example, Netflix has gone from being a DVD delivery service to a streaming service to a production studio in just 25 years. The skills required to succeed at work are changing just as rapidly.
As a result, it takes more consistent learning to keep skills current and to be ready for the next wave of opportunities. Community colleges and universities have adapted to this environment in Texas. There are many ways to go back to school that don’t require a huge commitment or even a first-day-of-school picture.
One interesting approach is what are called microcredentials. These are short courses that may be a couple of days or a few weeks long that aim to teach a particular set of knowledge and skills. That might include a focus on new technologies, but it might also involve the people skills that enable someone to be an effective manager or leader. At The University of Texas at Austin, there are programs in engineering, business, and human dimensions of organizations that can provide key skills to prepare for new positions. At Texas A&M University, Project MOOPIL has extensive training for teachers to help them address the needs of students who are also learning English. Rice University also has an extensive list of programs that include computer and data sciences and engineering leadership. In fact, last year, UT Austin, Texas A&M and Rice served more than 100,000 learners who returned to school.
Instead of getting a full-blown degree, these microcredential courses lead to a certificate or digital badge that can be added easily to a résumé or posted to a social media profile. Many companies are now offering a benefit to send employees to these programs to ensure that their people hone their skills. After all, as Henry Ford said, “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”
This lifelong learning is also a great way to keep out of the work doldrums. Every time someone acquires significant knowledge and skills — whether they seem directly relevant to a current job or not — that person tends to see the world differently. That opens new opportunities to engage with colleagues, customers and clients who could have gone unnoticed before. It can also lift motivation when a job is not providing new challenges.
Perhaps most importantly, if your kids are still at home and in school, there is something wonderful about sitting down to do some homework alongside them. We often tell students that they have to become lifelong learners, but there is no better way to drive that lesson home than for your kids to see it with their own eyes. Going back to school should not be just for kids anymore. We can make a more educated Texas as long as opportunities like these are taken advantage of.
Art Markman is the vice provost of continuing and professional education and new education ventures at The University of Texas at Austin.