How a medical tech company partners with higher education to build career ladders

A worker is seen in the workshop of a factory manufacturing medical devices in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, China July 27, 2018. Picture taken July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. - RC1FA7C86700
Editor's note:

This is the fifth section of “Employer Perspectives on Workforce Development,” a series that examines how business leaders are adapting to the future of work.

Cook Medical is a large, privately held medical technology company headquartered in Bloomington, Indiana. Cook Group (the parent company of Cook Medical) employs about 12,000 employees worldwide, many of whom work in the manufacturing of minimally invasive medical devices, the company’s core business. In this post, Dan Peterson, vice president of industry and government affairs at Cook Group, shares his perspective on the company’s challenges and solutions with respect to building a robust workforce. Like the other employers in this series, the skills gap poses a significant challenge for Cook. The company’s strategy for addressing the skills gap is largely anchored in partnerships with educational institutions, a strategy highly recommended by experts, as discussed throughout this series.

The impact of technology

Peterson’s experience at Cook illustrates that the impact of technology on manufacturing is more complicated than the replacement of human jobs by machines or artificial intelligence. On the one hand, it is the case that technology is reshaping the terrain of work. Many types of skills that humans used to perform will likely be mechanized, and in the long term, remaining competitive in the labor market will likely require a different skill set than in prior generations. Peterson acknowledges that in medical device manufacturing, as in many industries, technological advancement can mean “the ability to manufacture more and better products with fewer employees.”

At the same time, however, he explains that “in our industry at least, that is not the key, central piece” of how technology impacts their work. Rather, the primary impact is the ability to “be more effective and efficient in the types of things that we manufacture now,” as well as using technology to track the usage and efficacy of their products. Along with these opportunities comes a new challenge in hiring “more and more people that understand how those technologies work and how we can manage data in an effective way.”

“[T]he impact of technology on manufacturing is more complicated than the replacement of human jobs by machines or artificial intelligence.”

Rather than a mass replacement of humans with machines, Peterson describes a different scenario that is all too familiar when it comes to workforce development: the skills gap. Peterson explains that, in the case of medical device manufacturing, “a big challenge for us is finding enough people that are capable to do the work.” This experience speaks to the skills gap: the mismatch between skills that potential workers have and the skills that employers need. For manufacturers struggling to fill open positions, the central challenge lies in accurately signaling the skills they need and developing these skills in potential and current employees.

Addressing hiring challenges through educational pathways

Peterson describes how Cook has developed strategies aimed at skills and education development among adults without a high school diploma or equivalent degree. This is an important focus area for Cook, as Peterson explains that the entry-level requirement for the “majority of our manufacturing operators” is a high school diploma or high school equivalency (HSE)–formerly known as a GED. For these positions, Cook requires fundamental skills like communication, reading for content, and basic math, and then provides employees additional training relevant to their position. However, Cook has found that many adults ages 18-64 in their potential labor pool do not have a high school diploma or HSE.

Recognizing this “mismatch,” as Peterson describes it, Cook has developed strategies to provide opportunities and training to adults without a high school diploma or HSE. These strategies include internal pathways for development and promotion as well as partnerships with education institutions. Both approaches illustrate what several of the recommendations discussed in the introduction to this series can look like in practice.

To begin, Cook developed “My Cook Pathway,” a program that includes a career and education pathway for adults without a high school diploma or HSE. In Peterson’s words, the program was developed to “get people into our system and help them reach their potential, moving up in various ways around their interests and opportunities and various educational experiences.” In this program, adults without a high school diploma or HSE begin working for Cook for 28 hours a week in the janitorial crew or cafeteria staff. Cook pays these employees for a full 40-hour work week, providing time for individuals to take preparatory classes for the exam to earn their HSE. Cook provides study materials and support, and individuals who earn their HSE may then move into full-time manufacturing positions. According to Peterson, the program supports about 30 people at a time in Bloomington, Indiana, which translates to about 130 a year. Through this program, Cook provides a pathway into its workforce.

Partnerships with higher education

In addition, attaining postsecondary education is increasingly important. In contrast with an earlier era in which a high school diploma or less was often enough to secure a good manufacturing job, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports that in recent years, workers with a postsecondary credential or degree have become a majority of the American manufacturing workforce. Recognizing the importance of advanced education, Cook also provides employees with an opportunity to earn additional credentials and degrees through My Cook Pathway.

“In contrast with an earlier era in which a high school diploma or less was often enough to secure a good manufacturing job, … workers with a postsecondary credential or degree have become a majority of the American manufacturing workforce.”

Similar to Batesville Tool and Die, discussed previously in this series, Cook has partnered with Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College system. Through this partnership, Peterson explains that Cook is “helping employees move up, advance their educational efforts as far as they want to go.” Through Cook’s partnership with the Achieve your Degree program at Ivy Tech, Cook will pay for employees to earn an associate degree via 10 tracks of classes and certificates in fields related to their work at Cook. The company either pays up front or after students have completed a program, a change from a prior policy in which students paid for a program and then received a reimbursement. Previously, employees who left the company within three years had to pay the cost of their reimbursement, but Cook has eliminated that policy. In Peterson’s words, this program currently provides employees with an education pathway with “virtually zero out of pocket expenses.”

In addition to their work with Ivy Tech, Cook has developed partnerships with several four-year universities in Indiana, including Indiana Wesleyan University and Western Governors University (WGU). Similar to their partnership with Ivy Tech, Cook will pay up front for their employees’ education at these institutions. Through a partnership with WGU, an online nonprofit institution, employees receive a discount on their education and have access to additional scholarships through the university. Peterson explains that, through this partnership, employees could begin the program without a high school diploma and end up earning a master’s degree for no out-of-pocket costs. Peterson notes that Cook is working on reducing that cost further and is looking for additional higher education partners. Across all these partnerships, the bottom line, according to Peterson, is that “we are making education the easy choice and eliminating at least one of the barriers, which is the out-of-pocket [expense].”

As discussed in the previous post in this series, research suggests that tuition-assistance programs benefit employers and employees alike. Furthermore, these employer-educator partnerships can help address the skills gap. Consider a scenario in which an individual pays for an associate degree, but upon completion, their skills are misaligned with local employers’ needs, leaving them without a job. This scenario is not far-fetched. There is an overwhelming variety of postsecondary programs from which to choose; a 2017 report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce explains that the “variety of postsecondary credentials available has multiplied rapidly in recent years, including degrees, certificates, certifications, licenses, and badges and other microcredentials.” While some credential and degree programs help students develop skills and knowledge that are aligned with employer needs, others are much less successful in doing so. As the authors of the Georgetown report observe, “No one really knows what a postsecondary credential represents.” The authors note that this “ecosystem of postsecondary credentials is complex, fragmented, and multilayered.” Without sufficient information or guidance, it is difficult for individuals to identify a program that will set them up for employment.

Employer-educator partnerships help to eliminate this guesswork. By collaborating with education partners, employers can help develop new programs or identify existing programs that are most likely to help current and potential employees gain the relevant skills and knowledge for employment. This cooperation is key, as Peterson explains: “We can no longer just sit on the sidelines and say to our education partners, ‘OK, here’s what we need.’ We need to take a much more active role in that.” Through these partnerships, employers can direct their employees to a select subset of programs, such as how Cook offers to pay for its employees to earn particular associate degrees at Ivy Tech. This helps to narrow down the field of possible programs to those that are the most relevant for their employees.

“Without sufficient information or guidance, it is difficult for individuals to identify a [postsecondary] program that will set them up for employment.”

Peterson notes that the industry perspective can be valuable to education institutions in helping to provide context and relevancy around particular pathways. With input from industry, colleges may be in a better position to understand and explain to their students how different programs prepare students for employment opportunities. Ultimately, job seekers benefit from having a clear set of well-defined programs aligned with employer needs from which to choose.


As this series has argued, employers have a central role to play in identifying and communicating the skills they seek in employees and providing pathways for skills development. Peterson’s experience at Cook highlights one case in which an employer has assessed the local workforce landscape and taken a leadership role in filling a need: supporting potential employees in earning HSEs and, in doing so, providing a pathway into the workforce. Subsequently, Cook has partnered with a variety of education partners to expand the educational pathways available to their employees.

Reflecting on this work, Peterson describes a positive change toward more collaboration between the education and business sectors. These are two very different industries, and as Peterson explains, “We don’t speak the same language.” But at the same time, he sees more willingness from both sides to work together toward mutually beneficial outcomes: “I see the barriers have dropped a lot on both sides, and that there’s more and more willingness and interest in helping each other move to the best possible outcomes and solution. … What we’ve recognized is that we’re much better off at many levels at working more closely together.”

“It is certainly good news that both [education institutions and businesses] increasingly recognize the value in partnering with one another. At the same time, cross-sector collaborations require long-term investments by all partners.”

Peterson’s observation speaks to the inherent challenges in building successful educator-employer alliances as well as the value of these partnerships. It is certainly good news that both sectors increasingly recognize the value in partnering with one another. At the same time, cross-sector collaborations require long-term investments by all partners. As discussed in the introductory post in this series, strong leadership from the business community in prioritizing talent pipeline development is a crucial element of this investment on the employer side.

In Peterson’s experience with educator-employer partnerships, “There’s a lot of employers and industries out there that get it. … We’re not alone in this.” This is a good sign, and cases like the partnerships between employers and Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College system illustrate the feasibility and value of these partnerships. Identifying strategies to export this type of model to other states and localities may be a promising avenue for building education and career pathways in communities across the country.

Read the next section of “Employer Perspectives on Workforce Development,” or visit the series homepage.

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