In the 10 years prior to Covid, enrollment in college degree programs declined 11%.  This number is true across a wide  range of higher education institutions:  2 and 4-year schools, urban and rural settings, small and large colleges, universities with large endowments and community colleges struggling to make ends meet. This downward trend was projected to continue into the foreseeable future and then Covid hit. 

 Suddenly, students and parents wondered why they were paying 10’s of thousands of dollars in college tuition for virtual classes from home and part-time students suddenly lost the jobs that made attending school possible. Displaced Covid workers suddenly had the time – if they were lucky enough to be on unemployment – to re-evaluate life choices and parents burned-out from home schooling reimagined a work life that integrated more easily with family responsibilities.   

The steady decline in college enrollment took a precipitous dive during the pandemic. Colleges that were already seeing declines, suddenly faced 40% drops in degree-seeking students overnight.  Old-school ideals were no longer valid and changes in how higher education must service their customers suddenly came to the forefront.  The Future became the Present and without  acceptance of this new reality, many schools were in danger of closing.

Societal upheavals and changes in education and workforce training that had been incubating for over a decade suddenly burst into the reality of a Covid world. Plus, the skills gap that had been an issue for employers was exacerbated by disruptions in training programs. With a strained supply chain, advanced manufacturers experienced more demand for experienced workers with New Collar job skills like programming and repairing robotic systems, designing in CAD, or operating 3D Printers.

Covid as an Impetus for Innovation

Extraordinary circumstances force humans to innovate. If necessity is the mother of invention, then adversity is the father of innovation.  Covid has proven to be just such an impetus for creative solutions to new, as well as existing, problems in the post-pandemic reality. When people are dying it is easier to throw caution to the wind and ideate without constraint, whether to solve a new problem or to address a more systemic issue that has been percolating.  

 Education, in general, and workforce training, in particular, had been in a period of change for a decade or more.  Covid just provided the impetus needed to re-imagine the possibilities that could transform how people learn and gain skills for living in the 21st century. 

Innovation in Workforce Training

As in every other period of extreme adversity, humans again innovated to solve problems during Covid.  Suddenly, education and workforce training for advanced manufacturing is able to break through inertia and resistance to the change that visionaries knew was coming.  Clinging to old concepts cannot solve the extreme situation of a pandemic, and so colleges and workforce training programs have invested in new models, as well as updated tried and true programs that had been abandoned in the pursuit of degrees.

Certificates and Digital Badges

College administrations are turning toward offering more short-term, degree-specific programs that are geared for industry’s in-demand jobs. True Digital Badges adhere to international standards developed by the OpenBadge community to verify the integrity of the badge being issued.  Employers and school admissions offices can be confident that procedures were followed in issuing the badges so that they have confidence that the student has in fact earned the micro-credential.

Progressive schools like MIT and Harvard have embraced certificates for many years, and the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Harvard is considering offering a certificate version of its famed MBA to provide more flexibility for students both in time and money.  MIT has a robust online certificate program that includes a strong program in additive manufacturing.

Increasingly, employers are embracing skills-based training.  In 2020, IBM’s Ginni Rometty led a White House Workforce Task Force that resulted in an Executive Order for all U.S. government agencies to include skills assessment over degrees where appropriate.  Since the Federal Government is the nation’s largest employer, the shift in hiring mindset will have strong impact on other employers.



Apprenticeships have trained workforce successfully since the guilds in the Middle Ages. Although registered apprenticeships through the U.S. Dept. of Labor and labor organizations in each state are still functioning, the jobs they offer are often traditional trades jobs and have desperately needed updating for 21st century digital careers. 

IBM has long been a proponent of apprenticeships for IT skills and forward thinking organizations like America Makes [the national 3D Printing accelerator], the Center for Workforce Education and Innovation at Youngstown State University, and the Urban Institute created an apprenticeship framework for 3D Printing technicians at the U.S. Department of Labor.  Thanks to this framework displaced restaurant workers moved over to 3D Printing during Covid at Fab Lab Hub, LLC, a 3D Printing contract service provider in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the company expects to expand starting in Fall 2021 with the availability of trained workforce.  

In the region there are about 1,000 jobs open now and into the next few years for technicians with 3D Printing training.  To help fill that gap, the national New Collar Network is offering digital badges through states’ Eligible Training Provider Lists and connecting employers to the Youngstown State University program. More apprenticeships in fields that are being disrupted by digital technologies are coming to life and more are needed. 

Although it is sad that it took adversity to make change happen quickly, this is often the case in the human experience.  Once the wheels of true innovation start to roll on a large scale, it is hard for society to go back. That’s when transformation happens.  

Author: Sarah Boisvert, Author & Founder, The New Collar Network (@NewCollarNetwrk)