When Marc Austin assumed leadership of George Mason University’s Continuing and Professional Education (CPE) in 2019, the higher education “skills gap” was a trending topic nationally. Universities like Mason were recognizing the advantage of stronger relationships with industries as tech companies like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google and Facebook were directly engaging colleges to specifically design academic programs focused on the skills that aligned with their new technologies.
This year, that trending topic has become a national imperative as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates the nation’s shift toward a digital economy, exposing and widening the gap between the skills employees have and the skills employers actually need.
Austin’s time at Mason has been largely focused on this specific challenge—first as the executive director of new ventures and now in his expanded role as the executive director of CPE.
“In CPE, our number one job is to support Mason colleges in developing and delivering typically noncredit professional certification for entry-level and middle managers looking to advance their careers,” Austin said. “And we’re increasingly focused on serving dislocated workers with degrees. Our aim is to help them fill a skill gap that improves their eligibility for a career switch. The demand for Mason to provide this kind of ‘upskilling’ is definitely on the rise.”
For more than 35 years, CPE’s objective has been to bring the university to professionals seeking to advance in their careers, and it’s a goal that fits squarely within Mason’s mission.
CPE engages nearly 3,000 students each year. Mason’s schools and colleges deliver the academic content, and CPE manages enrollment and fiscal management, marketing and communications—and now digital credentialing.
“Providing access to excellence is an important Mason value that is promoted through continuing professional education programs that are offered at a low cost and provide recognition with industry-valued microcredentials,” said Provost Mark Ginsberg. “CPE provides a valuable benefit by supporting area professionals as they propel forward their careers while also facilitating the continued upskilling of our region’s workforce.”
CPE is helping Mason address the skills gap from multiple perspectives.
“One way to do this is to have employers be clear about what they are looking for, but we can also be more transparent about what we do,” Austin said. “Mason does a great job of getting our students prepared for their careers, but we need to make sure that employers understand what skills are embedded within our programs—and we can do that through credentialing.”
In Spring 2019, the Volgenau School of Engineering launched a digital technology credential designed to help liberal arts and nontechnical students build in-demand “digital” skills, based on input from regional employers like Northrop Grumman, Capital One and others.
CPE is finalizing a second credential with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Department of English. The new credential is backed by the Center for Public Safety Excellence, one of the nation’s largest public safety industry associations, and will offer technical writing skills for frontline emergency workers.
In summer 2020, Austin led a working group that explored how to introduce micro-credentials to Mason, resulting in the new Micro-Credentials at Mason program that was introduced to the university community starting in the fall.
Micro-credentials are smaller units of learning that reflect a student’s skill development and achievement embedded in one or more courses. They have the added benefit of highlighting the less transparent skills mastered within a course, and offer Mason faculty an opportunity to innovate and augment their curricula with applied skills.
“Mason’s micro-credentialing effort brings our faculty closer to our industry partners and opportunities to engage and incorporate emerging industry use cases and applications for the principles and theories they are teaching,” says Liza Wilson Durant, associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at the Volgenau School. “This industry engagement also leads to connections between industry technology needs and our faculty expertise, which may fuel new research endeavors for both students and faculty.”
The micro-credential working group is planning a series of webinars and small group discussions designed to help the university community understand how to create micro-credentials in alignment with curricular and professional needs.
“In a digital economy, learning has to extend beyond the traditional bachelor’s degree program,” said Austin. “Our core ambition is to continue to make higher education accessible to people who already have degrees. We want to extend Mason excellence across a lifetime of learning.”