How Associations Can Lead on Education

Associations have the infrastructure to help remake the education industry, according to a new white paper. What's lacking is the will to promote that fact.

Associations are forever being scolded that they need to run more like a business. But what if they already are?

That might be the case when it comes to education. In a recent white paper titled “The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm,” Spark Consulting’s Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, and Alcorn Associates’ Shelly Alcorn, CAE, argue that associations have the educational infrastructure structure and industry connections that will be required to respond to the rapid shifts in secondary education. With the size of college debt leaving many learners skittish and many companies embracing microcredentialing, associations have an opportunity to fill the gap.

Problem is, they say, associations don’t promote their capabilities on this front, which leaves the rising for-profit education industry—or corporations in general—in a position to snap up a market that associations should own.

I think associations are the best secret going.

“We do a good job with this, and nobody knows,” says Alcorn. “Associations have been unfortunately obsessed with the idea of membership for so long that they are not seeing the fact that one of the reasons why those membership streams are drying up is those people aren’t making it into the profession in the first place.”

In the paper, Engel and Alcorn lay out the various ways associations can play a major role in training. They have access to employers, who are often looking for skilled labor that doesn’t necessarily require a secondary degree; they have experience providing credentials and certifications, which may have more immediate relevance within an industry; they can provide relevant training more quickly than the two- or four-year degree process; and they can connect with students who don’t fit traditional definitions of students.  “Association professional development programs have been designed from the beginning to be completed by people who are working full time and who have significant other responsibilities,” they write. “Associations don’t expect our audiences to put their entire lives on hold for multiple years while they attend in-person classes for months at a time.”

So what’s standing in the way? For one thing, a cultural assumption that a secondary degree is the only meaningful path to a decent-paying professional career. But Alcorn and Engel argue that there’s plenty the association community can do to make a case for themselves. In the paper, they point to a handful of associations that have ramped up and broadened their education efforts. The HR Certification Institute, for instance, created a credential for newcomers in the industry but not necessarily HR professionals; state CPA societies in Maryland and Ohio emphasized training in soft skills and skills students needed; the National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses provides stepping stones for its members to climb the next rung in the nursing ladder. All of these efforts are still within the associations’ mission, but expand the community and find ways to betters support it.

“They’re not completely throwing over the old stuff, but they had to say, ‘We need to start thinking a little bit differently about who we’re serving and how we’re serving them, and the forces that are affecting our industry, and position ourselves not just be looking ahead for next year’s programming,’” Engel says. Adds Alcorn: “Each one of those associations had to acknowledge that there was a broader constituency that they weren’t tapping into, and they had to look at the at the actual dynamics inside their professions and industries.”

Simply recognizing the problem and its potential is one easy way to start. That’s especially true of associations that do work internationally, particularly in countries that have little interest in membership but are eager for training opportunities. (This is one theme of MCI Group’s recently released Global Engagement Index, a document I had an editorial hand in.) The white paper suggests that many associations already have a grasp of the employment environment and career paths in their industries—what’s left is to build a strategy and delivery system around it.

And also, Alcorn and Engel told me, a will among association leaders to adapt their mindset enough to make education as much a tentpole of their model as membership and the big annual conference. The clock is ticking—for-profit organizations will happily take over the kind of niche education that associations specialize in if associations themselves don’t pursue it, Alcorn says. (As an example, last week I received a PR email from Amazon trumpeting its nursing training for employees in its fulfillment centers.)

“I think associations are the best secret going,” Alcorn says. “You can have an impact, and it’s time to embrace some optimism. The kind of member loyalty that you have always said you wanted to create? I don’t know of any better loyalty than ‘They helped me get a job, keep a job, and get a better job.’”

For more on this, check out last week’s edition of Association Chat, during which Alcorn and Engel spoke at length on the topic:

What do you do at your association to expand the reach of your education and training? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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