Filter by Category
Filter by Category

CoffeeBreak Conversation: Dr. Marie Cini, CAEL

CoffeeBreak Conversations Logo

Our blog series, CoffeeBreak Conversations, is meant to be read in less time than it takes you to enjoy a cup of your favorite break-time beverage. We'll be interviewing members of the career and education technology ecosystem and sharing their different perspectives, experiences, and predictions for our industry. Stay tuned!

In this installment of the series, we spoke with Dr. Marie Cini, President of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).  CAEL, is a non profit organization that works in partnership with postsecondary institutions, employers, government and communities to enhance learning opportunities for adults around the world.

Want to nominate someone for a CoffeeBreak Conversation? email us.


You head up an organization that has the adult learner at the center of its focus and you yourself have a great deal of professional experience, supporting the career needs of the adult learner. In your experience, how has the importance or focus of career changed for the adult learner?

I started my career with adult students about thirty-five years ago, and it seemed like it was a much simpler time. The belief was, if an adult student just earned a degree, they had an on-ramp to a career. And, there was a belief that most adult students already had a job, and maybe even a high-level professional job, but they just had to top it off with their degree. We thought that employers didn't want to have their employees get a degree and then leave.

I can remember being in adult higher-ed units, running programs for adults, and we had no career services. None—for the reason I stated. Now, it's a whole different story.  In fact I think employers have become really enlightened. One of the things that I'm seeing is that employers are using career services and tuition as benefits. Increased educational opportunities are actually viewed as a retention tool.

Employers will now pay for degrees to keep employees for four to six years. They are driven by the idea that keeping employees for several years in return for tuition assistance is a win-win.

But thirty- five years ago, many people thought that they could spend their career at one employer—and we have moved so far beyond that. Employers, especially with a full employment economy, are trying to keep employees for a year or two years, three years is terrific. So, the pace is just completely different.


We used to hear that people might change jobs more than 8+ times within the same career pathway during their professional lives.  Now as the average life expectancy grows and people are staying in the workforce longer, combined with evolving categories of jobs requiring new skill sets, people are not just changing jobs often but are now changing careers more frequently as well. This seems to really be creating true lifelong learners. What advice would you give to higher-ed institutions who are supporting these learners?

I give this advice all the time, and that is, higher ed really has to change their model. You have to be flexible, you can't assume that people will come to you and do the traditional four years as an undergraduate, living in a residence hall,  and then they come back for a master's degree. You know, we're going to be seeing needs for episodic education, and that could be a certificate, it could be a course. People are going to need new bits of learning consistently throughout their lives because of the points you just made. People will change jobs and they will need new skills. But they'll also change whole career fields and they'll need new skills. And sometimes the career fields themselves will change, forcing the change. Jobs are going to go away. Automation will make entire fields go away. And it's a smart university that builds a relationship with their students and creates a value proposition that says, "I can be there for you and give you just-in-time learning, just in the amounts you need, when you need it. Be our “partner for life". That's the model that universities need to build, so that they can remain relevant in our world.


Adult learners are savvy consumers of these educational opportunities. And in many reports, you see numbers anywhere from 79% - 86% and even higher saying career is the #1 driver. What do you think the expectation for these learners is, in terms of career support, especially for the non-credit programs?

I think you're seeing it with the coding bootcamps, even traditional aged students are in these the year after college, they're learning skills and really getting a jump on their professional development and job placement. I think that more and more students are looking not just for the degree. They want to know “will I get a good job at the end of this experience”, regardless of whether it's a degree or a certificate or a non-credit offering.  Students are putting a lot of money into these programs. They are asking, “will it pay off at the other end”? And they're looking at that, increasingly, as securing a good job.


I'm thinking about what you're saying; obviously the students want a pay-off. What about the institutions, are they thinking about career having an impact on key drivers, such as enrollment, persistence, and other critical metrics?

Oh my gosh, yes. So while my life has been devoted to adult students, I have a great nephew who is a senior in high school. And I've been going with him to visit colleges. And I was amazed. Every university we went to, and he's a really bright kid, so we visited Some high caliber schools—Every time they'd start their presentation, they would talk about their placement rate. You know, "ninety-five percent of our students have a job in their field within six months after they graduate from here".

When I was in college, no one talked about that. It was the old, "look to your left, look to your right, after the first year only one of you will still be here". And so, we've gone from, "we're education, take us or leave us", to "if you come to us, we will make sure you're successful and we will get you that job that you're looking for"  What a different mindset now. It's very interesting to see how that's shifted.


At CAEL, you are in such a unique position where you have visibility into how higher-ed. institutions, employers and workforce economic development organizations are either working together or what their separate challenges are. Putting on your prognosticator hat, what trends and opportunities do you see from each of these groups in the areas related to career advancement and do you think that there's more cooperation and collaboration between these groups? I think historically, my perspective, and this may or may not be accurate, is that they may have felt as though they were separate entities and now it seems they may be more collaborative.

You're exactly right.  They were quite separate, and it's interesting because even within CAEL, while we have worked in all three of those sectors, we have reflected the reality out there. Our three sectors internally didn't work together very much. And so, our higher-ed team might be working on a project and our employer group could be working on a project and our workforce development group might have been working on a project—and they would have similarities, but the groups were not really talking very much. That's changing rapidly. Those separate groups are going to combine and integrate efforts both within CAEL and externally. We have to reflect what's going on, out in the real world, if you will.

I think more and more, you're seeing regions really think about the future, the economy, what industries they have, what industries they want to attract, the kinds of skilled labor force they need, the education they need and what their universities can do to help meet those needs. It's interesting to me that workforce boards and employers would tell universities what they needed In curricula, but there was this sort of politeness. Like, "we can't ask you to change, university". But now we're seeing that we have to ask universities to change. They have to really come and meet learners where they are.

At CAEL, we're excited about this  because we're one of the few organizations that actually works with employers, workforce boards and higher-ed. And we see a really strong role for us to play as the conveners and the intermediaries. We know how to talk across all of those units, we've got experts in all three of those sectors within CAEL. And the more they can all talk with one another and integrate, the better for the adult learner and the adult workforce out there.


That's great! It seems when that's accomplished, all three groups (higher ed., employers, workforce development organizations) benefit, but most importantly, as you said, the learners are benefiting a great deal.

We have to be thinking seriously about career development across all three of those sectors. Whether it's to have a good talent pipeline for your company, and to keep your folks learning and developing and growing; to retain them, you need to be thinking about their career development. And so universities are jumping on that bandwagon and it's not just about the first job. Increasingly, universities are thinking about ways to help educate individuals throughout their lives.

And for a regional workforce board, or a mayor's office, in order to have a healthy environment, you need people who can move up in their careers. Nobody wants to get their first job and stay there, they want to move up to higher level jobs. So I think career development is critical for us all to think about.


We've been interviewing you today for our Coffee Break Conversation, I'd love to know if you could have a coffee break conversation with anyone, doesn't matter if they're fictional or real, current or not, related to any topic, who would you choose?

Wow. That is a good question, and you have thrown me off because I wasn't expecting that. It would have to be, I think, Eleanor Roosevelt. I am just always fascinated by her and what she did at a point when you weren't supposed to be a president's spouse have your own mind. And she did so much for just general people, and thought about all kinds of issues, education, women's rights. So, I think it would be fun to have more than fifteen minutes with her. But I'll take a fifteen minute coffee break with Eleanor Roosevelt!


Thanks Dr. Cini! Maybe it would be a large cup of coffee, so you can have more than fifteen minutes! Thank you so much for your time and as I mentioned earlier, we're looking forward to seeing you at the CAEL Annual conference!

 Stay tuned for our next CoffeeBreak Conversation, featuring another very special guest!


A Recap of #CareerEverywhere
5 Things I learned at the UPCEA Regionals

About Author

Lisa Philpott
Lisa Philpott

Related Posts
Who Are Our Consumers, and What Are They Looking For? uConnect Facilitates Conversation on How to Better Meet the Needs of Today’s Students
Who Are Our Consumers, and What Are They Looking For? uConnect Facilitates Conversation on How to Better Meet the Needs of Today’s Students
Ways to Fight for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Higher Education
Ways to Fight for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Higher Education
New Research from Entangled Solutions Analyzes the Career Navigation & Guidance Product Landscape
New Research from Entangled Solutions Analyzes the Career Navigation & Guidance Product Landscape