Business Matters

Digital certification to prepare graduates for tech-driven world

George Mason University is among the first universities in the region to launch a digital certification program, which will ensure that all students—regardless of their major—have the digital skills needed to compete in today’s workforce.

The digital technology credential is being championed by the Greater Washington Partnership (GWP), a civic alliance of CEOs in the region, through its Collaborative of Leaders in Academia and Business (CoLAB) Consortium, a group of 12 universities and 14 leading companies who work together to position the Capital Region as a leading global hub for innovation. The curriculum will allow undergraduate students to develop the skills they need in today’s technology-driven economy while creating a broader talent pipeline for employers throughout the region.

The program emphasizes data analytics, visualization and cybersecurity, and is set according to standards defined by employers from across the region. The plan, which merges the humanities and social sciences fields with computer science, could become a national model for regional collaboration between universities and businesses.

“Our top priority is to make sure our students leave Mason prepared to thrive in the workforce,” Mason President Ángel Cabrera said. “No matter your major or career path, technology is necessary in every field, and everyone will need some level of skill and expertise here.”

Liza Wilson Durant, a professor and associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement within Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering, said she’s been pleasantly surprised by how many humanities majors have already signed up. She envisioned others soon following suit, both at Mason and elsewhere.

“Companies realize that people who can write and speak and who understand cultural context and policy are vital to the success of the companies,” she said. “They see the need for students with this knowledge. But if [the students] can’t work around an Excel spreadsheet, or if they can’t analyze data, [companies] can’t effectively employ them. So, we’re on the right track here by merging these two concepts.”

Mason was already well equipped to meet the specific standards that regional employers were looking for. The Department of Statistics within the Volgenau School of Engineering already offers a data analysis minor and needed only to add a cybersecurity element to one of the five mandatory classes necessary for eligibility for a generalist credential.

Because it already had many of the necessary elements in place, Mason will become the first of the participating regional universities to bestow digital credentials to its graduates. Four students will have completed the program in time for this year’s upcoming Spring Commencement on May 17. Currently, there are 10 students enrolled in the program at Mason and roughly 200 enrolled in the data analysis minor, said Michelle Marks, Mason’s vice president for academic innovation and new ventures.

“I think it shows how Mason is poised to innovate faster than most universities,” Marks said, “and that—when our students graduate—they are ready for successful careers and are job ready.”

Virginia Commonwealth University has also launched the program, and American University, the University of Richmond and Virginia Tech will launch their programs this fall.

Durant said the process began several months ago after regional employers decided they weren’t seeing the necessary kind of skills, knowledge and abilities in the talent they were hiring. They specifically cited deficiencies in cybersecurity, data analytics and machine learning.

The partnership came up with the idea of a credential that would serve as an affirmation of the specific skills that employers were looking for. That endorsement will give students preferential treatment for hiring consideration, internships and mentoring opportunities, as well as invaluable face-to-face time with company executives.

Future plans include making the generalist credential available online for working professionals seeking contemporary skills, and building out a specialist credential for students who already have an extensive background in engineering and computer science.

“I think this approach that we have is unique, it’s new, and I think it’s going to be very popular,” Durant said.

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