WGU Nevada Chancellor: Relevancy in IT crucial for workforce success
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Since Western Governors University (WGU) Nevada opened its digital doors in the middle of 2015, the online university, which specializes in workforce development, has seen enrollment grow to more than 3,300 students, making it Nevada’s fastest growing higher education institution.
Since its launch, Dr. Spencer Stewart, chancellor of WGU Nevada, has guided the university in its effort to expand access to higher education for working adults in Nevada.
With that in mind, the NNBV spoke with Dr. Stewart about the workforce development needs in Northern Nevada and what role WGU Nevada plays in addressing them.
NNBV: WHY IS ACCESS TO HIGHER EDUCATION FOR WORKING ADULTS IN NEVADA SO IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW?
Stewart: When I think of workforce development, I can’t think about it without also thinking about the future of work, which is a weighty topic right now across the country, and globally. Because it really focuses on not just how are we preparing working learners, but in what areas are we preparing them? I think now, the ability to up-skill and retool and continually learn will have such a premium on it for any individual, now more than ever, as industries continue to rapidly change.
If you think about one’s working lifespan, on average, today’s working learner may have upwards of six to seven different occupations within their working lifespan. And it’s figuring out the relevant literacies and competencies that can make someone successful across all of the different job types — career types — that individual will have. And so it’s incredibly important for the education and higher ed. systems to continually think about, and put the student first. And that involves adapting, as well. This is not just one of the two parties adapting. This is both parties, the learning community as well as the teaching community, adapting to this new reality.
NNBV: WHAT DO YOU SEE AS KEY WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT NEEDS IN NORTHERN NEVADA?
Stewart: Manufacturing, telecommunications, general business management … and then on the healthcare side, nursing, allied health, they all show significant growth over the next five years. And in these areas, there’s opportunity for employment in Nevada. There certainly is an employment gap between the number of qualified individuals who meet those positions.
NNBV: WHAT ROLE DOES WGU PLAY IN CONTRIBUTING TO WORKFORCE NEEDS here?
Stewart: WGU has four academic colleges: business college, college of IT, college of health professions, which is primarily nursing, and our teacher’s college. And so if you look at those four academic colleges, I think they align quite nicely with where Northern Nevada is endeavoring to go as it continues to diversify its economy. As we look at the programs within our business college — marketing, management, logistics — as we look at our college of IT — data analytics, network support, cloud security, computer science — these certainly are needed competencies and skillsets for any community to thrive. And for businesses to expand and businesses to relocate to Northern Nevada, we’re making sure that there is a skilled workforce.
As it relates to the two other academic colleges, certainly having a thriving elementary and secondary educational system is key to attracting talent to the community. As the Washoe County School District develops so to does the larger community. How the Washoe County School District performs certainly become a very tangible asset for businesses considering expansion and other businesses out of state considering relocating.
And the quality and perceived strengths of any region’s healthcare system … having adequate and high-quality healthcare professionals is equally important.
NNBV: HOW DOES WGU LEVERAGE PARTNERSHIPS WITH LEADERS IN THE TECH INDUSTRY TO ENSURE Northern NEVADA IS AT THE FOREFRONT OF IDENTIFYING WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT IN THE FAST-GROWNG TECH SECTORS?
Stewart: I think relevancy, particularly in the IT domain, is absolutely critical given the fast pace of change that this industry is experiencing. Relevancy between the skill-set and competencies needed in this domain and its subdomains and what’s being taught to students in their undergraduate or graduate work.
In any industry or education domain there will be a lag with what is at the forefront at that field and what is being taught in classrooms. To decrease that relevancy lag, it’s making sure that those at the forefront in industry are constantly engaged in the refinement and development of our curriculum. That is how we are leveraging the industry relationships that we have — not just in Nevada, but across the country. As our faculty are constantly working with industry leaders to shape and make more relevant what our students are learning.
NNBV: IS IT TRICKY FINDING A BALANCE BETWEEN ADDRESSING NEEDS IN THOSE AREAS AND ALSO THE MORE TRADITIONAL BLUE COLLAR JOBS?
Stewart: I came across an article that suggested coding is today’s blue-collar job. It reminded me that “blue collar” is relative. It’s being aware of how quickly industries are changing and how to best equipped students to be successful. Something that is getting much attention at a state and national level is how do we educate individuals when AI will displace and in some ways make certain job functions obsolete? Human-AI interaction is key. One of the discussion points where there is consensus is on leveraging what we bring as humans to the workplace. And the development and continual refinement of soft skills that will continue to set us apart from any advances in the AI space. Advances that will integrate with how we as businesses can operate and continue to operate.
NNBV: WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE TO WGU BEING NEVADA’S FASTEST-GROWING HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTION?
Stewart: I think there are so many interrelated factors. One of those factors is that we have attempted to remove existing constraints that prevent individuals from advancing educationally, earning that credential. It is putting students at the center of all of our decision-making, and determining how to make their experience as friction-less and as enjoyable and as rewarding and as beneficial as possible, with the goal that they will acquire the necessary competencies and literacies to succeed in the workplace and to be marketable in the workplace. And that unbounded student obsession, I believe, is lending itself to WGU Nevada’s enrollment growth and graduate growth.
Northern Nevada’s smaller markets expect economic stability in 2021; issues could slow future growth
While much of the economic attention in Nevada has centered on Las Vegas and Reno, the Silver State’s smaller markets and rural communities are in varying degrees of rebounding from the COVID recession.