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Westchester Businesses Take a New Approach to Continuing Education

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In the COVID-19 era, continuing education plays a larger role than ever for companies trying to adapt quickly and come up with new ways of doing business.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in continuing-education programs in Westchester has risen significantly as local colleges and universities grapple with the new workforce needs of the county’s institutions and employers. Many unemployed and underemployed workers are eager to get the new skills, certifications, and degrees that will help get them back into the local economy.

“Continuing education will evolve to meet the needs of people who will need to change careers,” says Dr. Marsha Gordon, president and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester. “Many of these employees, in areas like hospitality, will have to find new careers — there is no doubt about it. People will have to find new areas of opportunity.” Local colleges and universities are poised to “develop programs so that people can learn new skills fairly quickly,” and they are doing just that, she adds.

At Manhattanville College, student demand is high for professional certifications in areas like project management and cybersecurity. Overall graduate program enrollment has also grown during the pandemic. Photo by Sirin Samman

When the pandemic slammed into the county early last year, the Workforce Development Committee of the Westchester County Association (WCA) worked closely with local hospitals, colleges, and universities to identify critical positions that needed to be filled and get more front-line healthcare workers, as well as students and recent graduates, into those jobs.

Now, Jason Chapin, director of workforce development at the White Plains-based WCA, is working with the committee to prepare and train people for jobs as the economy looks to open up again. People who are hunting for jobs “should be getting the certificates and degrees that employers require now,” he says. “We want people to be ready now, not when the first wave of hiring occurs.”

Westchester boasts 15 colleges and universities, with a total of about 70,000 students, Chapin says, adding, “That’s a huge talent pool.” With about 29,000 students, Valhalla-based Westchester Community College (WCC) is what he calls the “biggest player in town.”

“One-third to 40 percent” of these college students in the county are first-generation immigrants, he says, noting, “that’s a huge part of our talent pool.”

But a lot of people who are seeking training for new jobs “are struggling with support issues, such as childcare, housing, and transportation,” Chapin adds, so he and the committee are working with such groups as Nonprofit Westchester, the Child Care Council of Westchester, United Way, and the Housing Action Council to help meet those needs.

Healthcare is the largest sector in our region, but it’s not just nursing and other patient-care jobs that people should be thinking about. Non-medical jobs within the healthcare sector will also be in demand, including those in information technology, food service, security, analytics, sustainability, and human resources, adds Chapin.

Photo courtesy of BCW

“Continuing education will evolve to meet the needs of people who will need to change careers. Many of these employees, in areas like hospitality, will have to find new careers — there is no doubt about it.”
— Dr. Marsha Gordon President & CEO, Business Council of Westchester

For healthcare companies involved in patient care, “they’re just trying to do the basics that are really important — they are so overwhelmed,” says Kerry Flynn Barrett, a human resources consultant and former vice president of human resources at Northern Westchester Hospital, in Mount Kisco. “It’s all about infection control, infection control, infection control.”

A lot of that training and educational work is done internally, Barrett says. “[Healthcare institutions] have fully approved policies and procedures that are very specific,” she explains.

Hospitals are also moving employees around internally, to keep them on payroll and on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, she says, citing the example of an administrative assistant for a newly idle elective-surgery physician who may now be working at a nursing station to help handle the barrage of phone calls from anxious families of COVID-19 patients.

Barrett also has clients who are in areas related to healthcare, such as insurance. These companies want to know “how they can provide continuing education to help employees do their best work while working remotely. That type of training and education is really important to them,” she explains. This may involve training on how to maintain appropriate work habits while working remotely, including Zoom etiquette, she says. (No, it’s not okay to take a Zoom call in bed in your boxer shorts.)

Photo by Sirin Samman

“[Employees who have been laid off or who did not finish college] are not necessarily going back for a four-year degree. They may be thinking: What can I do in three months, in six months? Updating their technical skills, short- and long-term, seems to be a high priority for students now.”
— Dr. Laura Persky, Associate Dean, School of Professional Studies, Manhattanville College

“We’re seeing a need for professional certifications within a degree,” says Dr. Laura Persky, associate dean of Manhattanville College, in Harrison, and head of its School of Professional Studies. For example, students may want to get certified as being fluent in the project-management framework known as Agile, or they may want to earn certification in a cybersecurity program.

“[Employees who have been laid off or who did not finish college] are not necessarily going back for a four-year degree,” she says. “They may be thinking: What can I do in three months, in six months? Updating their technical skills, short- and long-term, seems to be a high priority for students now.”

Photo by Sirin Samman

As for what specific skills are in currently demand, Persky says companies are looking for workers who have “the ability to be tech-savvy, to adapt,” as well as proficiency in “change-management and innovation.”

Although short-term education may be the priority, Manhattanville’s overall graduate program enrollment has also grown. “We were all pleasantly surprised that graduate enrollment was up in the fall,” Persky says. “People have been willing to continue or even start new with online classes.” Classes are mostly synchronous, which means live, online in real time, she says. “People are interacting with each other; it’s as close to an actual classroom as possible.”

At Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, “we saw applications slow to a crawl for a couple of weeks,” when the pandemic first hit full-on, in March, says Adam Castro, vice president of admissions. It began to bounce back in April, “and now we have a really successful freshman class, and our new student graduate program enrollment is significantly larger.”

Photo courtesy of Pace University

“There is an increased demand for certifications in industry-specific skills, such as construction management, graphic and web design, and paralegal studies.”
— Susan Donahue, Executive Director, Talent Development and Continuing Education, Pace University

In the fall of 2018, Mercy had 906 freshmen and 989 in the fall of 2019, followed by a spike to 1,021 for fall 2020. On the graduate level, the numbers are 622 for 2018, 710 for 2019, and 786 for last year.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” Castro says. “We were worried that the COVID-19-influenced application slowdown would persist even longer and lead to lower enrollment.”

Similarly, New Rochelle’s Iona College saw a 15% spike in year-over-year new student enrollment in the fall of 2020, says Diana Costello, director of communications. Iona has also launched a new Bachelor of Science degree program in nursing to help meet the growing demand for registered nurses.

Local firms have reached out to Pace University to collaborate on professional-development curriculums for employees. Photo courtesy of Pace University

At Mercy, adult learners have been most affected by COVID-19, “perhaps because of work and family challenges related to the pandemic,” Castro notes, adding that it’s also interesting to see how the pandemic, as well as social justice issues, like the Black Lives Matter movement, has affected the classes students are choosing. “On the grad side,” he says, “we doubled enrollment in mental health counseling. That says a lot about the pandemic and what people are seeing and experiencing in quarantine.”

Similarly, the number of Mercy graduate students seeking psychology coursework has tripled, he says. There has also been a notable new interest in the fields of school counseling, marriage-and-family counseling, and human resource management. Among undergrads, “interest in criminal justice, psychology, and business entrepreneurship really grew,” says Castro.

Another field of study having a potential resurgence is real estate. Andrea Marais, associate dean of strategic marketing and enrollment at Fordham’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies, notes, “Our applications for our graduate programs in real estate have significantly increased. We have seen a 46% increase in applications for the spring semester, which is not surprising, as this often happens in a down market. People decide to use their time to expand their skillsets and increase their marketability.”

Photo courtesy of Pace University

Marais also notes an increase in applications for the school’s post-baccalaureate pre-med and pre-health programs. “The big unknown is whether their applications will turn into actual students,” she says. So many factors are at play — the economy, the physical health of the country, the unemployment rate. But education is always a good investment, and we think that 2021 will be a good year for graduate and adult education.”

Westchester Community College, which is part of the State University of New York system, “is always monitoring and analyzing labor-market data to ensure alignment with workforce needs,” says Teresita Wisell, vice president for workforce development. Like community colleges nationwide, WCC has seen a dip in enrollment in the wake of COVID-19. “But we’re seeing more adult students,” who are defined as ages 25 to 64, Wisell says. In fact, the proportion of adult students shot up 28% in the fall of 2020 compared with the previous fall.

“We have pivoted to fully remote, short-term, workforce-training programming, which reaches a broader audience of learners,” she says.

Photo courtesy of Mercy College

“On the grad side, we doubled enrollment in mental health counseling. That says a lot about the pandemic and what people are seeing and experiencing in quarantine.”
—Adam Castro Vice President of Admissions, Mercy College

Students are particularly interested in degree programs that can lead to in-demand jobs, Wisell adds. After she lost her job at Lord & Taylor in Eastchester in March, for example, Iliana Camilo was able to secure a state Department of Labor scholarship that allowed her to enroll in the Clinical Medical Assistant program at WCC. “I got a full scholarship,” says Camilo, 33, who lives in Yonkers. “I will graduate in May and then be eligible to take the state exam.”

Other in-demand programs include cybersecurity, health-information technology, X-ray technology, and respiratory care. There is also growing interest in short-term certification programs in healthcare and IT, including “Python, Data Science, CompTIA, and data visualization, as well as programs in short-term skills training in Microsoft Office,” explains Wisell.

Mercy College saw a spike in enrollment for its now incoming freshman class, and graduate student numbers are also up. Photo courtesy of Mercy College

WCC is also seeing a rise in interest in entrepreneurship, Wisell notes. Attendance at the college’s annual Grow Your Business Conference for entrepreneurs, in November, was up more than 50%, and the event was expanded from one day to three. Additionally, the college is reaching out to form partnerships with local businesses. For example, WCC has a new certification program in medical coding and billing that it runs in partnership with Westchester Medical Center.

At Pace University’s Talent Development and Continuing Education department, “there is an increased demand for certifications in industry-specific skills, such as construction management, graphic and web design, and paralegal studies,” says Susan Donahue, executive director, talent development and continuing education. In addition, corporate partners have reached out to Pace for “dedicated professional development curriculums on building fundamental business skills for their employees, such as negotiation skills, financial analysis, and contract management.”

Photo courtesy of WCC

“We have pivoted to fully remote, short-term, workforce-training programming, which reaches a broader audience of learners.”
—Teresita Wisell, Vice President for Workforce Development, Westchester Community College

“A lot of local government agencies and corporations and hospitals are good about sending employees for continuing education,” says the BCW’s Gordon. “Here, at the BCW, for online conferences and other professional development, we are very open to employees doing that from home.”

In many fields, ongoing continuing education is a given. Twice a year, Grant Schneider, a management consultant and president of Armonk-based Performance Development Strategies, LLC, teaches a human resources course at Fordham University in the Bronx that helps HR professionals prepare to take an exam for certification from the Society for Human Resources Management. It is nearly always paid for by their companies, he says.

Accounting firm Marks Paneth transformed its in-person continuing-ed program (above) into a virtual one during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Marks Paneth, LLP

In the field of accounting, “you’re required to take a certain amount of continuing ed,” says Christopher Cacace, partner-in-charge of accounting firm Marks Paneth LLP’s Westchester office, in Purchase. “Most of that is done in-house, and all of it is now done remotely. We have a training room at our office in the city, and we now have the ability to broadcast it to all of our offices.”

“For us as a tech-and-IT service provider, it’s always important to keep our tech staff continuously educated,” adds Robert Cioffi, COO and cofounder of Yonkers-based Progressive Computing, which has about 30 employees who provide outsourced information-technology services for small and midsize organizations. “Even pre-COVID, we believed in continuous education for all.”

Photo courtesy of Marks Paneth LLP

“[In the field of accounting,] you’re required to take a certain amount of continuing ed. Most of that is done in-house, and all of it is now done remotely. We have a training room at our office in the city, and we now have the ability to broadcast it to all of our offices.”
—Christopher Cacace Partner-in-Charge, Westchester Office, Marks Paneth LLP

Once the pandemic hit, Cioffi adds, “We said that we may have more time on our hands, so let’s strengthen our muscles so that when business does return, we’ll be ready for it.”

That mindset seems to be the prevailing one when it comes to continuing education in Westchester today.