By Bruce Kepley
In the mid-1990s, I started and ran a business that trained workforces on specific computer software. Large companies would hire us to come in and train their entire workforce to use the new tools the company had purchased.
It was interesting work and we were good at it, but a small segment of our business was even more interesting to me. Our industry called them “career-changers.”
These were individuals who wanted to do more than just learn a specific piece of software that they would use at their existing job. They wanted to retool their career for a newly emerging, more tech-savvy economy. The students wanted to become software developers or engineers.
Each of those students had a different personal story, but they were united in realizing that economic shifts represent opportunity for those who are willing to keep learning.
Along the way, I’ve shifted too. I moved away from workforce training, to career-oriented colleges. And I’m now the majority owner of MedQuest College, which is focused on health-career related occupations. But the students we work with today have much in common with those students I met 30 years ago.
The economic tides have shifted several times since the mid-90s. The dot.com bubble came and went. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 caused huge shifts in our national priorities and interests. Then, in 2008 we saw the beginning of the Great Recession.
What I saw each time was greater interest in education and higher enrollment at colleges like MedQuest. According to the U.S. census, enrollment jumped 29 percent at two-year colleges during the Great Recession.
Our current economic downturn is unlike anything any of us have experienced. The future is filled with many uncertainties. Unemployment has skyrocketed — and it’s hard to know how quickly those jobs can come back.
But this month, MedQuest and other colleges — proprietary, private and public — will be starting new classes. Those classes will be filled with students who see education as a path into a brighter future. At MedQuest in particular, the students tell us that by preparing for a career in health care they are choosing to be part of the solution in a time of uncertainty.
When responsible colleges see sudden growth in interest or enrollment, they worry about outcomes — will all these new students be both dedicated to finish and will there be jobs waiting for them when they are done? But my experience in previous downturns makes me confident that, in fact, education is part of the way we pull ourselves out of economic slumps.
For the high-school seniors who graduated this month, for the people who are watching health-care heroes and wondering how they can become a part of that critical industry, and for those who have suddenly experienced reduced hours, furloughs or layoffs, I recommend that you take a moment to explore higher education options. Whether you’re adding a new skill or credential, or revamping your career entirely, this may be the best time to act. That’s a way all of us can help build a better economy.