Sparks fly as a Kirkwood Community College student completes a weld in an Accelerated Welding class. PHOTO JOHN BEYER
By Dave DeWitte
Adjusting to the lifelong learning preferences of millennials is just one of the many ways the state’s largest provider of continuing education is adapting to the Corridor’s changing needs.
Many older observers might assume that the young, digitally-savvy workers would naturally prefer to learn online. But research Kirkwood has conducted with the Gen Y and Gen Z students show that’s only part of the picture, according to Kim Becicka, vice president of Continuing Education and Training Services.
“Millennials and Gen Z are a growing cohort for us,” she said. “They have accepted lifelong learning as a necessity.
They want to see value, but they also want to get an experience out of it – they want to participate.”
Participate, yes; spend all day, no. Ms. Becicka said Kirkwood’s research found that millennials like shorter classes – just an hour or two at most – and prefer them on evenings or Saturdays to taking daytime classes.
Kirkwood has plenty of experience with this trend. It enrolled 67,095 students last year in 6,900 continuing education courses, leading all community colleges in the state. The numbers have grown 21 percent since 2010, including a 2.3 percent increase from the 2016 to 2017 academic year.
“What we’re seeing is the whole concept of lifelong learning is growing and will continue to grow, because we’re in an era when you constantly have to learn on the job, not only to keep yourself competitive, but to meet the changing needs of the organization,” Ms. Becicka said.
Some of the top trends Ms. Becicka sees influencing continuing education are:
- Demand for short-term credentialing classes that last from one to 16 weeks, including students who work toward a credential like the AWS (American Welding Society) Welding Certificate, K-12 Coaching Certificate, or a locally recognized certificate such as Kirkwood’s Customer Service Professional certificate. The certificates are often completed in a few months, and frequently enable the holder to land a new job or advance to a higher-paying job with their existing employer without the time and financial commitment of completing a degree program.
- Hybrid courses that combine instruction and work experience. “Students are learning it in the classroom, but we’re partnering with employers to give them that experience,” Ms. Becicka said. The hybrid courses can help minimize the amount of classroom time by offering part of the curriculum online, adding to the scheduling flexibility for busy students.
- Growth in apprenticeship programs, which are structured in coordination with employers. “That’s a model that combines on-the-job training with related classroom instruction,” Ms. Becicka said. “Nationally, there’s a big push right now.” She said the interest in apprenticeships has rippled out from the building trades to include health care, information technology and manufacturing. They are also becoming more popular in financial services, culinary arts and professional services.
Kirkwood has largely been successful in offering lifelong learning opportunities because of strong partnerships with Corridor employers, Ms. Becicka said. They serve on its advisory committees and Industry Sector Boards, providing input on how to structure its programs.
With the tightest job market in many years, Ms. Becicka said many employers are more focused on providing training opportunities through Kirkwood and building an internal career pathway that helps both retention and recruitment.
“If I can career-pathway people to higher positions, I can open lower positions to get more applicants,” Ms. Becicka said. “We are seeing the trend of more employers offering that training and doing it through us.”
Demand for online instruction continues to increase steadily, Ms. Becicka said, however in most cases, Kirkwood does not develop the online curriculum. With so many online courses already available, Kirkwood typically partners with third-party vendors of online classes. Kirkwood provides the technology for the students to take the courses, and provides those who pass with a documented transcript.
Kirkwood has developed some online curriculum of its own to meet specific needs in the Corridor, Ms. Becicka said. It usually confines those efforts to unmet needs, such as a certification training for wastewater treatment operators that is widely used.
Many students take Kirkwood classes for continuing education units needed to maintain their professional licensure, in fields ranging from school administration to nursing. Professional recertification needs also drive demand for continuing education classes. Many of those continuing education credits can be transferred to academic credits toward a Kirkwood degree.
Beyond the broad scope of classes Kirkwood offers to help students in their careers, the college provides a large and growing number of classes students take for leisure and enrichment. Fitness, culinary arts, and do-it-yourself classes are perennial favorites.
“Our glass-blowing classes always fill up quickly,” Ms. Becicka said.
And while those classes may not lead to professional certification, she said some students are inspired or informed by their own advancement in those classes to begin businesses in fields such as photography or catering.