In today’s rapidly changing global economy, companies must constantly evolve to remain competitive. Despite inflationary constraints and fears of a recession, organizations are slowly emerging from the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and The Great Resignation — both of which remain a disruptive force — with a renewed focus on supporting their employees. One way they are executing on this focus is through learning and development (L&D) programs that help employees achieve their career goals, while simultaneously addressing organizational talent and skills gaps.

Higher education has also experienced its own market-driven transformation. Online learning is now an ubiquitous part of many students’ academic journeys, increasing access to education and economic mobility for millions of learners. Private-sector companies are taking note of this shift and increasingly partnering with universities and/or their education technology (EdTech) partners to upskill and reskill their workforces through career-connected online education.

With 94% of employees interested in staying longer at companies that invest in their learning, employees want to advance their careers by furthering their knowledge and skills. Quite simply, they are interested in working at the “best places to learn” and the “best places to earn,” which don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The Value of Career-connected Online Education

Online learning has grown exponentially over the last decade. What started as a pathway for primarily nontraditional students to return to the classroom, now has become a widely used modality for learning. Research shows that learners are looking for faster, flexible and more affordable education options to gain new skills that are immediately applicable in the workplace. In fact, these learners want to leverage their education to achieve meaningful career aspirations, from earning a promotion to changing career tracks.

The idea of a four-year degree being the only pathway to a career is no longer applicable as many students can’t afford the time or resource commitment. More institutions are now offering modularized learning pathways that meet the needs of learners, employers and the labor market. These new options include shorter degree and certificate programs as well as incremental micro-credentials with specific and demonstrable learning outcomes. Offering these programs in an online modality only makes sense to reach all learners interested in career success.

More broadly, the concept of career-connected education means institutions of higher education are building a “right to left” education model, starting with the needs of the labor market and working backward to design programs that meet those needs. This approach requires institutions and employers to understand where market gaps exist and then work together to close them. It also means identifying and addressing talent and skills gaps within organizations and tailoring academic programs with specific career tracks to meet short- and long-term organizational goals.

EdTech Connects Universities and Employers

Employers looking to address these challenges in the market may not know where to begin. Third-party EdTech companies often serve as an important conduit between employers and universities by leveraging their existing learning networks along with their extensive market research capabilities to understand labor market trends. Many of these companies are building L&D platforms tied to employer-sponsored education benefits that are expanding career pathways for employees and meeting the market-driven needs of employers through career-connected online education. Partnerships must utilize the expertise of each stakeholder group to shape the workforces of tomorrow.

As organizations explore ways to enhance recruitment and retention of employees, an effective L&D program is mission-critical to the work of any company. Employees want more opportunities to grow as professionals and lifelong learners. Employers must see themselves as partners with institutions of higher education, and EdTech connectors, to enable this learning — helping to close talent and skills gaps in their own organizations as well as in the broader labor market. Organizations that work to address these pervasive challenges will undertake a much-needed service for their own success and for the benefit of society.