Workforce Education and Development celebrating 100th anniversary

Jim Carlson
October 07, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Workforce Education and Development (WFED) within the Department of Learning and Performance Systems (LPS) in Penn State’s College of Education is observing its diamond anniversary — 100 years — and its faculty would like to see the program shine for another hundred years.

“Not many programs can say that (100 years), but I think it’s just a very special time,” said Mark Threeton, professor in charge and associate professor of education (learning and performance systems). “I think the fact that we pre-date the College of Education is pretty monumental and I hope the powers that be can keep the program going above and beyond for the next hundred years.

“Anytime you can celebrate 100 years of anything, I think it’s so rare. I think it’s just really exciting … a lot of energy, a lot of positive things.”

'A noble mission'

WFED has met its charge of guiding and supporting its students, according to Wesley Donahue, professor of education and coordinator of workforce education. “We have a noble mission, for over 100 years we have been helping others achieve their goals,” he said.

Workforce educators teach students of all ages the skills necessary to succeed in technical fields and other areas that require definitive knowledge. Many students seeking a degree in workforce education and development have extensive career experience. Research shows that skills development and opportunity for professional and personal growth are important aspects of employee retention, especially among millennial workers.

LPS touts itself as “the most fun intellectual sandbox you’ll ever find to play in.” The WFED program promotes excellence, opportunity and leadership among professionals in its field, including professionals employed in secondary and postsecondary educational institutions, social services, employee organizations and private sector businesses. The program encompasses Career and Technical Education as well as Employee Training/Organization Development and Change.

Threeton said major achievements from within WFED include the introduction of the Professional Personnel Development Center, which provides preparation, online resources and in-service programming to prepare Pennsylvanians to meet professional standards as career and technical educators and administrators; the introduction of the Master of Professional Studies in Organization Development and Change program; and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Alliance, which is a customized professional development outreach program within WFED and prepares alliance members to be professional technical trainers, education coordinators and organizational leaders.

William Rothwell, professor of education (workforce education and development), also cited the professional development center in career and technical education. “Offering education to vocational teachers to keep their skills up to date is an important accomplishment of our program,” he said.

“We have a statewide scope that's unlike many other academic programs at Penn State. Secondarily, we've also helped people achieve certification as career and technical teachers and administrators such as principals of Career and Technology Education Centers and in some places, superintendent.”

Learning across the lifespan

Rothwell, who has been at Penn State for 28 years, said WFED deals with learning across the lifespan.

“When people graduate from school, we do deal with the work-based programs of career and technical education. But we also deal with the work-based programs in the employers’ location,” he said. “Once they graduate, they must still keep their skills current and up to date. And if they want to advance in their careers, they need new knowledge and skills to be promotion-ready. So, our program covers all of that.”


Students are shown working in vocational education at Penn State in 1938.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

Rothwell said the WFED program offers an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctoral degree, and is typically ranked highly in U.S. News and World Report. 

“Yes, our program should be a focus of attention right now because our mission is to help employees get and keep jobs. That's what we're all about,” Rothwell said. “But we're also probably the least visible program in the college because our mission goes to learning across the lifespan and thus beyond traditional kindergarten to 12th-grade education.”

Rothwell said many of the program’s students are older, and WFED is extremely diverse.

“At the doctoral level the average age of our students is about 35. Many have significant business experience in training or human resources or change management,” he said. “That's where many of them go back to when they graduate. Forty percent of them come from other countries. And we have a very large online program in organization development for World Campus that at one time was the fastest growing program World Campus had."

Over the last seven years, more than 2,300 master’s students have been enrolled in the workforce education program as full-time or half-time students, or on a course-by-course basis.

National and international reach

Many people who are interested in career and technical education also are aware that WFED is respected nationally and internationally.

“I believe that it is because the actual impact that the program delivers in practice in different areas of WFED, such as Career Technical Education, School-to-Work, Human Resource Development and Organization Development. Whatever we teach, we want to make it practical,” said Hyung Joon Yoon, assistant professor of education (workforce education and development).

“When we conduct research, we want to make it used worldwide. In a job description for my position, this sentence appeared: ‘A candidate with research interests that will inform understanding of Organization Development and Change/Human Resource Development and participatory research in facilitating transformational change in organizational settings in the USA and internationally.’ Because the program collectively aims for such level of influence, the program is getting the corresponding results. I firmly believe in the capacity of our program,” Yoon said.

Evolving focus

Workforce Education originally was known in 1920 as the Department of Industrial Education; it then was changed to the Department of Vocational Education and ultimately became the Department of Vocational Industrial Education. The modern name for vocational education is Career and Technical Education (CTE) and CTE and graduate-level courses in workforce education are WFED’s two primary emphases.

Because the name of the program has had numerous name changes, data dates back only to 1995-96 and shows that 720 students have earned degrees from bachelor’s to doctoral in that time span. Data prior to the mid-1990s was not available, administrators said.

Rothwell noted that in recent years the program has started to focus on organization development and change. Training changes people by giving them new knowledge and skills; organization development changes the corporate culture.

Rothwell said the rate of all human knowledge now turns over once every 2.5 years. “That means everything you learned while you're going to school to get your bachelor's degree is out of date by the time you graduate,” he said. “And so, you're running against a river that is running in the other direction; you're swimming upstream to keep your skills up to date. Once you graduate with your college degree, you're not done learning.

“In our department, that's kind of our whole focus — not just workforce education, but adult ed and LDT (Learning, Design, and Technology) are both also in that arena of helping people learn across the lifespan. And that's becoming more important, not less important, if we care about employment. That's our focus. The rest of the lifespan, after you leave college, how do you keep your skills up to date? That's us.”


Students are shown working in vocational education at Penn State in 1938.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

The College of Education complex on the upper west side of the Penn State University Park campus consists of Chambers Building, CEDAR Building, Rackley Building and two floors of Keller Building. The LPS and WFED instruction occurs in Keller.

“You think about educating for the workplace; that's ever so important. Those lessons learned … those skills, abilities and values that you learn within a program like ours transfer with that individual to the world of work,” Threeton said.

“And I think that's what's so monumental about things is the direct application and the pragmatic nature of what it is we're doing. We're conducting research and doing all of our things to promote better practice within the field … all of LPS in general, but particularly within workforce education and development.

“There are some neat things that are happening in Keller Building,” Threeton added. “I think the collaboration among faculty members is very positive in workforce education and development. It's just exciting. We're having a number of people who are just expressing interest in how they can retool or how they can build skills to go and advance their careers.”

Maximizing talents

The global business environment is in such a state of transition that organizations must either adapt to change or risk failure, according to Donahue.

“When you think about it, organizations can essentially buy the same technologies, equipment and materials. However, the only thing that really differentiates them is the education of their workforce and how the organizations are structured to maximize use of all talents,” he said. “Our goal is to provide students with skills and competencies that can immediately be applied to help the organizations they serve continuously improve and maximize potential.”

Threeton noted that faculty instruction stays up to date because of external input from alumni active in the field and an active advisory committee that meets to review what's going well, what's not working and what needs improvement, and what needs to be advanced.

“It's really a part of our culture to be forward-thinking about what we need to do to evolve and not rest on our laurels. But it's really been a part of our fabric to move forward and advance ourselves and the program a little bit each day,” Threeton said. “We were really in a great position [to teach our students during] the COVID-19 pandemic because we were already doing most of our coursework online.

“It's easy to get that 'ivory tower' mentality where we think as professors this is how it's done. We need to learn and be in touch with what's happening out in the field. We just try to make sure we keep ourselves in tune with that and not take ourselves so seriously.”

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Last Updated October 27, 2020