Initiative aims at closing workforce talent gap

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Rochester Institute of Technology’s latest offering expects to meet the demands of a changing job market. Launched today, RIT Certified aims to boost the economy and promote professional mobility in the region, nation and worldwide.

A panel discussion of key employers, local government leaders, economic development leaders, and higher education experts got RIT Certified off to a start. With a portfolio of alternative education courses, certificate programs and skill-based learning experiences, the unit targets those looking to enter the workforce, switch roles, maintain their current job or advance in their careers. The first set of programs will be available in the fall.

“We started this conversation about 18 months ago,” says Dennis Di Lorenzo, chief business officer of RIT Certified. “RIT has always been committed to Rochester and the region and workforce development and the economic development of the city. And this just really seemed like a natural evolution.”

Di Lorenzo, who joined the university last October, conducted an analysis of RIT’s portfolio and its alignment with the job economy. His team spoke with faculty and industry to better understand where curriculum matched skill needs. 

The RIT Certified leadership team includes Dennis Di Lorenzo, left, Thérèse Hannigan, and Ian Mortimer. (Photo: RIT)

Di Lorenzo, who has been a higher education consultant and dean at New York University’s School of Professional Studies, found that the community wanted to solve the skill and talent gap in the region, attract new businesses and offer training and development opportunities to employees.

“There was acknowledgment that I think the local community was a bit apathetic and disillusioned, just because there wasn’t as much training and development out there for them to gain access to work,” he notes. “But there was this great desire for higher ed to come together with government, to come together with employers, to come together with nonprofit, focused on that work. RIT is very well-positioned to be the convener of all of those groups.”

The unit offers a mix of courses, drawing on RIT’s strengths and its partnerships with area employers. For instance, in its Arts and Design offering, students can become proficient in virtual production and digital artistry using traditional skills and latest technologies. Courses in behavioral health, respiratory therapy and pre-nursing connect to the demand for these professionals. 

“RIT Certified is a key partner to employers, ensuring better measures to assess talent as they recruit, so they can hire individuals who hit the ground running from day one,” says Ian Mortimer, vice president for enrollment management and associate provost for RIT Certified.

Cybersecurity, another RIT core strength, enables learners to enter or advance in the field, while health care administration, law, and technology and engineering also extend applied education possibilities. RIT Certified has its eye on high schoolers as well, a cohort that is viewed by many as one with high potential, who can explore industries. Lengths of each program vary.

“What we’re really trying to do is break down the skill outcomes of each certificate program and area, concentrated on a set of roles and jobs,” Di Lorenzo says. “And depending on those skill outcomes, it could be three months, it could be six months, it could be a year really aligned with what the curriculum should be to get the individual where they need to go.”

Students will self-select into programs through open enrollment, with some sponsored by employers. RIT Certified also plans to incorporate an element of career guidance so students can identify courses that fit their strengths. Students can participate in RIT Certified on a course-by-course basis.

“We are committed to providing relevant, flexible, and accessible educational pathways to work,” said Thérèse Hannigan, RIT Certified’s chief learning experience officer.

Community colleges in the region do offer training and certificate programs. However, RIT Certified tackles workforce development with the infrastructure of a four-year degree institution, says Di Lorenzo, who credits community colleges for teaching a foundational core curriculum. 

Employers often consider four-year degree programs as a feeder for entry-level professional jobs but would like to upscale current talent without a graduate degree, he says, or move an employee further along in a career with new skills.

“I think four-year institutions have an obligation to bring that knowledge and that expertise and those resources to a larger population that may want to pursue alternative education just for that next job, not for a full investment in career at a particular moment in time,” Di Lorenzo says.

Though job openings dropped to 11.4 million nationwide at the end of April, they still remain high, according to the latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Layoffs are at a record low, workers remain scarce, and employers are struggling to find appropriate talent.

Employment in the Finger Lakes region, which includes Monroe County, was 568,600 at the end of April, compared with 546,000 a year ago, according to New York State data. The unemployment rate was 3.1 percent, down from 5.4 percent in April 2021. 

RIT Certified hopes to improve the situation even further and increase access to talent. It expects to use an outcomes-driven approach to measure impact with various indicators—from the number of students who apply to whether skills made a learner more effective in their role.

“Success is really going to be, did we contribute to a growing job economy in the region?” Di Lorenzo says. “Are the students coming out of (RIT) Certified at different levels of the workforce actually contributing successfully into that workforce?…If we’re impacting them at the different points in that (employment) journey, then I think we’ve done something good.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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