RIT and UW-Madison study high-tech workforce

RIT combines workforce development and education research

Ben Zwickl and Kelly Martin

A study exploring how high-tech employees learn to develop competencies relevant to the workplace is the focus of a collaboration between Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

RIT will receive $650,000 from the National Science Foundation to support its role in the project led by Ben Zwickl, assistant professor in RIT’s School of Physics and Astronomy, and Kelly Martin, assistant professor in RIT’s School of Communication. They are collaborating with an education-research team led by Matt Hora, professor of adult teaching and learning at UW-Madison, to identify how and when students and employees learn transferrable skills that are critical for success in school, life and work. They will also explore how a sample of educators and employers value and cultivate these skills.

Twenty-first century competencies tend to be transferable skills like problem solving or communication rather than trade-specific, such as welding or using Excel, explained Zwickl. “The contrast between 20th and 21st century competencies is usually meant to highlight that economies and social networks are less local and more global,” Zwickl said. “In the 21st century, the main asset is using technology and knowledge to generate designs and solutions rather than the physical strength to build and manufacture.”

The employee of today needs to continually learn and adapt to less stable and more disruptive innovation in a rapidly changing world, he said.

The 21st century competencies identified in this study are collaboration, communication, problem solving and self-regulated learning—or proactive, self-directed processes, such as goal setting and monitoring self-performance—that allow students to acquire or improve their abilities.

Zwickl and Martin will study how entry-level employees possess these skills in the photonics, information technology, advanced manufacturing and energy industries. They will interview and survey employers, employees, faculty and students in four regions with a large technical workforce—Denver, Houston, Seattle and Raleigh, N.C.

“In our earlier grant, we looked at optics-focused skills in the Rochester region, but in this project we wanted to investigate skills that could be identified as essential across all STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions,” Martin said. “These four 21st century skills appear routinely in workforce reports, alumni surveys and academic research as vital for employees’ success and include soft skills and technical skills.”

The study will investigate whether the set of competencies are cultivated in postsecondary classrooms and through workplace training, and how those training practices are impacted by regional labor markets, the global economy, state-level support of higher education and region-specific sociocultural issues.

Researchers will seek educators’ and employers’ positions on workplace competencies. They will assess student and employee experiences with education and training and the transition from school to work, and cross-sector partnerships that bridge gaps between higher education and STEM industries.

“This study moves beyond short surveys of employers to gather in-depth insights through focus group interviews with the people that use the skills, including both employees and employers, and those involved in education, such as workplace trainers, students and faculty,” Zwickl said. “We will capture the unique features of each STEM field and geographic region, which could guide workforce development decisions that are better aligned to particular communities.”

The project is a follow-up and expansion of the RIT’s on-going study on photonics and optics workforce education research.

“Our research group is positioning itself to be a national leader in integrating workforce development with education research,” Zwickl said.

Zwickl and Martin are members of RIT’s Science and Mathematics Education Research Collaborative in the Center for Advancing STEM Teaching, Learning and Evaluation, or CASTLE, and the Future Photon Initiative.


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