How Associations Can Benefit From the Changing Education Landscape

By: Shelly Alcorn, CAE

Today's professionals are looking for lifelong learning and credentials to advance their careers. With dramatic shifts disrupting traditional education models, associations have a shot at becoming major players in the education-to-employment landscape. Will they seize the moment?

If you read the news and study trends, you likely know that the postsecondary education system in the United States is undergoing massive disruption unthinkable just 10 years ago. Rising costs, shrinking availability, severe cuts in public funding, and new technology-based delivery systems have created a perfect storm in adult education. Specialization within trades and professions is rendering traditional collegiate curriculum-development processes irrelevant, meaning that students often arrive on the employment scene with already out-of-date skills.

These shifts present associations with an unprecedented opportunity: to become not only vehicles for postgraduate, career-focused education but also a recognized part of the education-to-employment landscape. It's now possible to create radical value for a new generation of members by building upon and maximizing core competencies associations already have in learning, certification, and social networking.

Cost and Quality

Critiques about cost and quality in higher education have reached a fever pitch. According to a 2012 report from McKinsey & Company, "Education to Employment—Creating a System that Works," more than 72 percent of college professors believe they are adequately preparing students for the workforce, while less than half of students and employers agree. According to the report, youth unemployment worldwide currently stands at approximately 75 million. By 2020, we're projected to have 85 million job openings unfilled due to workforce skills gaps. Meanwhile, total student loan debt in the United States recently surpassed $1 trillion, and many young adults struggling to enter the workforce feel they don't have much to show for it.

Even the most casual observer can't miss that something is wrong with the system. The good news: Associations can be part of the answer.

With traditional "feeder" systems from education to employment broken, associations can help connect the right individuals with the right careers. Millions of young adults are looking for a way to exit the current system, and associations can provide them with a fast pathway to the education they need to get a job that pays well in their chosen careers. Expanding current educational offerings to include courses in "soft skills" like conflict management and interpersonal communication can boost members' workforce readiness.

Generational Signals

Generational differences within this new educational paradigm are pronounced. A 2013 University of Michigan report, "Lifelong Learning: Generation X Illustrates the New Reality" [PDF], highlighted the fact that generation X is the first to fully embrace the need for lifelong learning. Members of this group show every sign of continuing their pursuit of targeted, quality education that will keep them competitive in the workforce.

More important, generation X embodies a larger cultural shift also being embraced by millennials. The traditional linear life path (school, college, career, retirement) is being rejected in favor of a more latticed approach. This flexible strategy weaves education throughout a life that may include delaying college for work opportunities, returning to school, seeking alternative educational paths, pursuing certifications and licensing, and experiencing multiple career changes.

For millennials, the rise of the "sharing economy" is beginning to make inroads into the employment sphere. Services like TaskRabbit, which allows people to either outsource household errands and skilled tasks or sign up to do those tasks for others, are already up and running. Fast Company recently described the upcoming, which will "enable collaboration between people who would not normally find each other" in order to bring ideas to life. Skills demonstration will be critical for millennials, who are increasingly presented with innovative employment options in what is being called the "gig economy."

As these workers continue to tie career advancement to lifelong learning, they'll need tangible rewards for their efforts—and that's where associations come in. Organizations that take the long view of the career needs of lifetime learners, along every stage of their work lives, will be able to keep them engaged and progressing.

Microcredentialing Surge

As the educational system in the United States evolved in the early 1900s, it adopted a model driven in large part by the industrial revolution. High school students needed to learn just enough to become productive workers on farms and in factories, while the privileged pursued "higher education" presumably to prepare them for business or other white-collar careers. In that environment, it was possible for educators to develop standardized, relatively homogenous curricula, and the diploma served as a signal of educational attainment that was generally understood by students, parents, and employers alike.

Today, educational content is both more widely available and more varied. The exponential growth of information, publishing capabilities, and content providers—along with the emergence of new technologies that make education available online in various new settings—has created an urgent need to develop measurements for education and skills attainment that are clear and well understood.

In the past, associations developed certification programs for a number of reasons, not the least of which was to correct deficiencies in the educational landscape. Establishing a body of professional knowledge is where many associations once held a competitive advantage. However, in today's climate, even certification is coming under fire for not being specific enough. Now it's time for associations to take the lead once again and ensure the microcredentialing movement is based on sound principles.

Certification programs are good, but to be suitable for microcredentialing they need to be broken down to focus on discrete skills acquisition. Special concentrations are also on the rise. For example, ASAE issues the CAE certification, but there may also be value in microcredentialing within the CAE structure that would allow for special concentrations in specific topics like governance or strategic planning that individual learners would choose to be credentialed in.


With the advent of microcredentialing and the move away from the diploma as the standard mark of educational achievement, associations will need to provide a credible way for people to demonstrate their achievement in their chosen specialties. One of the most promising strategies is the approach being pursued by Mozilla through its Open Badges project. Badges are being seen as a clear and easily understandable way to demonstrate abilities in specific skills. As Mozilla explains, "A digital badge is an online representation of a skill you've earned. Open Badges take that concept one step further and allows you to verify your skills, interests, and achievements through credible organizations."

The key to badging is the credibility of the issuing organization. Badges are going to be highly desirable in the future, and some observers believe they will become the de facto standard by which potential employees or business owners are rated by employers and customers. For example, imagine an employer is considering two job candidates. Candidate A's resume shows a bachelor's degree in communications from XYZ University; Candidate B's resume lists a verified "Badge Backpack" issued by Association XYZ that shows he has demonstrated competencies in press release writing, social media interaction, and graphic design. Candidate B's advantage in terms of specificity is clear.

Associations can't let anyone steal their educational thunder in the move to digital badging. Bite-sized, career-focused microcredentialing pieces are key. Online platforms like Mozilla's Open Badges can help them manage this new form of credential without reinventing the wheel.

Waking the Sleeping Giant

Taken together, these monumental shifts are harbingers of a radically different education-to-employment landscape, which requires a sober rethinking of an association's role in members' lives and in society as a whole. Serving current members is important, but it's a strategy built on the past and present. The future demands an intense focus on creating an enhanced and formalized role for associations to play in the lives of future members they haven't even met yet.

In the past, associations had the luxury of time. They waited patiently to sign up members who found their way to them through the education and employment system. With that system now in disarray and with competitors lurking, there's no time like the present for associations to assert themselves. Not only can they shortcut, and in some cases supplant, the current education system; they can also become robust career hubs for a new generation of members. The good news is that associations already have many core competencies in these areas to reframe, retool, and capitalize on.

What it will take is a comprehensive and curve-jumping approach that includes getting between the K–12 system and the employment landscape, taking the lead in redefining core competencies required for employment in the fields they represent, providing career guidance and access to industry- or profession-specific job boards, dominating the microcredentialing movement, legitimizing badging, and laying out clear pathways into communities for support and mentoring.

In addition, if associations can learn to use big data to get specific about where they see workforce shortages and are clear about how they intend to solve them, these organizations will have a much greater appeal to a new generation of members.

The association community is the sleeping giant that for-profit providers are praying stays that way. That's because associations can provide easy access to peers, colleagues, and employers who can help students, the unemployed, and veterans obtain a job, keep a job, or get a better one.

I don't know of anything that could create more loyalty from members of the new generation in the workforce than one simple idea: Everything they need to make their current career great and their next one possible can be found in their association.

Shelly Alcorn, CAE, is principal of Alcorn Associates Management Consulting in Sacramento, California. Email: [email protected]

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[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "The New Learning Hubs."]

Shelly Alcorn, CAE