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September 12, 2022

CT colleges, businesses partner on tech training as higher-ed embraces non-degree programs

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Kelli-Marie Vallieres, the state’s chief workforce officer, said the Lamont administration’s focus is on having business input on college programs and curriculums.

With tech job postings in Connecticut nearly doubling in the last year, the Lamont administration is looking to significantly scale up the state’s workforce in high-demand fields like cybersecurity, software development, video game design and data analytics.

The state earlier this summer announced the launch of seven new technology education programs at Connecticut’s public and private colleges that were developed in conjunction with businesses, including tech consulting firms Infosys and CGI, which have established downtown Hartford beacheads with plans to add hundreds of local jobs.

The programs are being underwritten by the recently-formed $10 million Tech Talent Fund, which is administered by the Department of Economic and Community Development.

What’s unique about the effort is its focus on non-degree certificate and credential programs that aim to train workers in skills most in-demand among employers.

Such certificate and credential programs have been increasing in popularity at some colleges across the country, especially as enrollment among traditional four-year students continues to drop, forcing schools to recruit new demographics in need of training.

Most of the growth in such programs is coming from public colleges, which conferred 48% more certificates in the 2019-2020 academic year (698,100) compared to a decade earlier, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In 2019-20, about 72% of certificates were awarded by public institutions, NCES statistics show.

Last year, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, which oversees 12 public community colleges and four state universities, launched new certificate programs with Amazon and Google that offer training in topics like cloud computing, data analytics and IT support.

“One of the things I’ve tried to do is change the nature of credentialing,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a recent interview with the Hartford Business Journal. “The credentialing courses we’ve been putting together aren’t being put together by us, they are being put together based on what companies say they need and they help us put together the curriculum.”

While the number of credential courses and certificates offered by public colleges is increasing, higher-ed experts say such programs won’t replace traditional four-year degrees, which have significantly increased in cost over the years raising affordability concerns.

Rising higher-education prices have come into sharper focus in recent weeks following President Joe Biden’s controversial executive order to eliminate up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

“The reality is, the rhetoric about not needing a degree is overblown,” said Quinnipiac University Provost Debra Liebowitz. “Maybe, it’s true that with a certificate you can get a foot in the door in some places, but we are not about to do away with the need for a degree.”

'All about data'

Debra Liebowitz

The new tech certifications range in topic from an advanced cybersecurity badging program being launched by Quinnipiac University to a new accelerated software development course at the University of Hartford. The University of New Haven is developing an embedded game design and simulation development program, while the University of St. Joseph (USJ) in West Hartford is launching a degree concentration in data analytics.

“Today, it’s all about data. Data is the new oil,” said Tom Calabrese, associate professor in USJ’s Department of Mathematical Science. “The ability to find value in the data for companies is huge.”

Tom Calabrese

Calabrese, who has 22 years in the teaching business, was recruited by USJ to help develop the data analytics program tailored to the needs of Greater Hartford employers. The university has teamed up with global tech consulting firm CGI, which hopes to mentor and eventually hire some of those students.

The certificate program will include four courses taken over an intensive six-month period that will give students skills needed to fill jobs such as a data analyst or data scientist.

About 10 students will take part in the program’s launch next year, with the hopes of having classes with more than 50 students in the next five years, Calabrese said, adding that demand for tech jobs “will be off the charts” in coming years.

According to the Business Higher Education Forum (BHEF), tech job postings in Connecticut have already increased dramatically. The report said that in June 2022, Connecticut employers across IT and business services, health care, advanced manufacturing and life sciences posted 11,424 unique job listings across 20 software development-related occupations, a 44% increase from the same time a year earlier.

Educational and government officials agree that such partnerships would not be possible without the private sector’s strong support and advocacy.

Kelli-Marie Vallieres, the chief workforce officer for the state of Connecticut, said that “everything that we’re doing in Connecticut around workforce development is informed by our businesses.”

“If you look at the governor’s workforce strategic plan, it is pretty holistic in putting businesses in the forefront to determine need,” she said. “We really need to take a systematic approach to be able to build a system in which businesses are engaged with all levels of education at a foundational level and that they have the processes in place to develop the curriculum that’s needed.”

CGI – which employs 88,500 people worldwide, including 161 in Connecticut – is helping USJ develop its data analytics program, according to Steven LaCroix, the company’s vice president of consulting services.

Steven LaCroix

LaCroix said it’s his hope that the company will provide “four to five internships” to USJ students, and that those interns turn into full-time hires. CGI is currently looking to fill at least 30 to 40 data engineering positions in Connecticut, he said.

Caution in the digital world

As some colleges increasingly embrace certificate programs, some questions have been raised about their long-term impact.

For example, some higher-ed experts have raised concerns that narrowly-focused certificate programs could limit students’ potential job opportunities, and that employers could use them to offload the costs of training their own workforce onto public colleges backed by taxpayer dollars.

Liebowitz, the Quinnipiac University provost, said she sees pros and cons in the rise of certificate programs.

Certificates, she said, could be a stepping stone to a traditional degree, and more affordable and flexible for some students.

However, the proliferation of certificate programs can present challenges for prospective students to sort through which have real value.

In addition, Liebowitz said, federal financial aid and employer tuition programs often do not cover certificate programs.

“The pace of changing technology means that we need to renew our skills and stay current in ways that we haven’t had to before,” Liebowitz said. “It’s a changing world, and driving people toward tech-related occupations where there is incredible demand, I think, can help catapult some of these programs to be successful and can move us in the right direction.”

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