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April 17, 2024 | Katelyn Keenehan

UTK launched a new college in response to changing workforce needs

CECS launched in July 2023 in response to the growing need for students to customize their education and gain the skills needed to enter a transforming workforce.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) creates a talent pipeline for local companies, and for years it has been sustainable. However, things started to shift once artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning hit the workplace. Now, everything is changing, and the skills of emerging young professionals need to change, too.

According to the Technology Skills Gap survey by the Knoxville Chamber and the Knoxville Technology Council, local businesses want to hire people with AI skills and would be willing to pay them more. Young professionals cite a lack of good-paying jobs in the city, and according to the 2023 Career Outcomes Report generated by UTK, the median salary for a graduating student is $56,384.

Caleb Knight
Caleb Knight

Enter UTK’s new College of Emerging and Collaborative Studies (CECS), created to train students to be innovative, technology-forward thinkers in any field or industry they enter. The new college will produce competitive applicants with relevant, timely skills that businesses are looking for and provide students with the higher salary positions they seek.

We spoke with Caleb Knight, who recently joined CECS as the Director of Partnerships & Economic Engagement. He believes CECS will fill a gap seen in higher education, not just in Knoxville, but across the country.

“CECS launched in July 2023 in response to the growing need for students to customize their education and gain the skills needed to enter a transforming workforce,” he said. “We want to be that college hub for collaboration and innovation.”

The college is set up in such a way students will be able to take courses from across disciplines rather than focus their learning in a more traditional linear degree path. This approach will allow them gain well-rounded knowledge and apply their skills in various sectors. It also plays on student strengths through the ability to customize a degree plan.

Sarah Wyland
Sarah Wyland

“CECS is a great option for students who are innovative thinkers and want to make an impact across multiple sectors,” Sarah Wyland, the Director of Marketing and Communications for CECS, said. “The customizable nature of CECS allows students to create a degree path that aligns with their interests and prepares them for rewarding careers upon graduation.”

Another unique feature of CECS is the focus on industry partnerships. Knight’s role with the new college is to help recruit those partnerships and encourage cohorts, internships, and real-life work opportunities. To do this, CECS needs buy-in from local companies and organizations that are passionate about embracing innovation and change in their workplaces.

“Ideally, the company will identify a want/need as it relates to applying AI or cybersecurity, for example, and the student’s internship would be about trying to find solutions to that problem,” Knight said. “We want these internships to be mutually beneficial for the student and the company and ultimately result in a career.”

CECS plans to launch three degrees in Fall 2024: Applied Artificial Intelligence, Data Science, and the CECS signature degree, Innovative Transdisciplinary Studies, a customizable degree that utilizes stackable certificates, among which include certificates in Applied AI, Game Craft, and Sustainable Development. These degrees were approved by the Board of Trustees on March 1, 2024, and are awaiting final approval from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) which is expected to happen in May, just in time to welcome their first students in the fall.

The community support, momentum, and motivation behind the CECS could be explained as “historic.” It’s the first time a public university in Tennessee got three degrees approved in such a matter of months which signifies the state’s urgency in creating a program of this nature to address the widening talent gap.

Though the college is still waiting on approval from THEC for the three degrees, the courses offered are already proving to be popular with students, particularly introductory courses in Artificial Intelligence and Data Science. CECS believes engagement and interest will continue to grow as the degrees launch and additional degrees and certificates are planned.

For more information about the college, visit the CECS website.

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