Yet tracking is a concern, as many of the nation’s biggest labor crunches
are for lower-wage roles. Shunting large numbers of younger, diverse Americans without degrees into dead-end jobs is hardly a fix for income inequality and stagnant social mobility.
The best way to prevent this scenario could be through stackability. This concept
is where students get their foot in the door for a career by first earning a certificate or industry-recognized credential. Those credits later count toward a degree, which learners can earn while working—ideally while being subsidized by their employer—and then move into higher-paying roles.
Even so, staffing shortages in healthcare and IT are so severe
that some observers think stackability could begin moving from chimera to reality in coming years. Some states are working on how
to help entry-level employees move up with more education
. Healthcare in particular is showing promise, as companies ramp up education benefits
for their employees and a growing number of established players in online education expand their portfolios of customized healthcare credentials.
InStride, which administers
workforce education benefit programs, is seeing bifurcated demand for subdegree credentials in healthcare.
“One side is to allow learners to fill high-demand roles quickly,” says Michelle Westfort
, InStride’s chief university officer, pointing in particular to medical assistants, surgical technologists, sterile processors, and pharmacy technicians. “The other allows learners to use a certification as an intermediate step to a degree,
especially while they balance work and part-time study.”
Penn Foster also has moved more into this space. A distance education company with a long history of focusing on underserved students, it offers everything from online high school programs to bachelor’s degrees. Penn Foster merged last year
with Carrus, a large online healthcare-training provider.
, CEO of Penn Foster/Carrus, says some healthcare roles are well suited to stackable paths. To help make that happen, the company offers an “employer-inclusive” version of online healthcare credentials.
“We map both the skills that the certifying bodies are looking for, in addition to using job listing data to map any missing skills that employers are seeking,” says Frost.
The resulting credential programs are offered in modules, so learners acquire the specific skills they need most.
“Certification bodies are understandably focused on the technical skills needed for the specific certification standards,” Frost says. “Employers are very interested in human interactions and ensuring employees are ready to work with coworkers, clients, and, in healthcare, patients, on day one.”
Skills mapping and tailored programming also are big parts of the draw for InStride’s healthcare employer partners.
“The certifications for in-demand healthcare roles are highly regulated, for good reason,” says Westfort. “Those circumstances call for a much higher degree of customization and curation.”
InStride is seeing an increasingly strong appetite among hospital systems to fund subdegree training.
One reason is that some large systems are posting big revenue losses due to shortages in roles such as surgical technologists and sterile processors, which support the operating room, a primary moneymaking part of hospitals. Likewise, the industry’s shifting workforce increasingly leans on medical assistants, often a high-churn job.
To help meet this need, the company works with hospital systems to create “on-ramps” for their hardest-to-fill roles, by mapping required skills and providing access to university partners that can provide both online learning (for scale) and the coordination of clinical work.
The best approach, according to InStride, solves for acute labor shortages while also supporting career progression for employees by offering subdegree programming that stacks into bachelor’s degrees.