University expands certificate programs to bridge employee skills gap

Rachel Christian

In early 2013, USI conducted focus groups in the Vanderburgh County area to find out what skills companies thought employees were lacking.

The data showed many employers needed professionals with stronger “soft skills” – skills like interpersonal communication and leadership.

“Over and over again through different surveys and focus groups, employers say that critical thinking, communication and problem solving skills are very important,” said Mark Bernhard, Division of Outreach and Engagement director.

Even though these skills are in high demand, college graduates often lack them because higher education focuses more on the technical aspects of a field rather than the personal and human components, Bernhard said.

USI saw an opportunity to help bridge this gap by expanding its offering of certificate programs.

The Division of Outreach and Engagement plans to add 25 new certificate and workshop programs over the next few years. The office launched four new programs this fall and plans to add three more in the spring.

Expanding the certificate programs is one of six initiatives funded by the Lilly endowment grant, a philanthropic organization that awarded USI $3 million last year.

Entering a certificate program isn’t the same as enrolling in a class. An individual doesn’t need any prerequisites or a degree to begin the program.

Someone entering these certificate programs may already have one or more college degrees, but they or their employer have identified an area in which they could benefit from additional education, Bernhard said.

When a program begins and how long it lasts varies, since certificate programs aren’t bound by the start of the fall or spring semester. The certificate can take anywhere from two weeks to two years to complete, depending on the program.

Individuals can register for a program by calling the Division of Outreach, or going online to

USI also adapts skills and training from certain programs and customizes it for specific companies. The Office of Outreach developed these kinds of programs with Toyota, Flanders Electric, German American and others.

“Sometimes a company will send (its) folks to our program then tell us, ‘We need a lot more of our people to learn this particular thing. Can you customize this and bring it in-house for us?'” said Linda Cleek, executive director of continuing and professional education.

Cleek said the Office of Outreach and Engagement has refocused many of its offerings this fall in order to meet the needs of employers and employees.

“In the business world, the style or way of doing things comes and goes,” Cleek said. “So you have to refresh and retool the programs from time to time.”

Moving forward, Bernhard said USI will continue to look at the changing market to develop new certificate programs.

The Office of Outreach and Engagement is also looking into how they can offer current USI students, especially juniors and seniors, a chance to complete a certificate while they’re still in school.

The plans are in the discussion stage, and Bernhard said there are many details that need to be worked out, such as how students can participate in these programs and still complete a degree in four years.

“We’re looking into maybe adapting some of these programs so students could take them over the summer, or maybe on the weekends,” he said. “It would make them more marketable to employers after they graduate and enter the workforce.”