Sunday, April 2, 2017

A New Employment Niche?

When I started in Worker's Compensation, I represented employers and carriers, though my practice and evolved over the years to representing primarily self-insured large employers. But in those early years, I got used to working with claims adjusters. Back then, they made most of the decisions about claims. 

Carriers were evolving in this regard during the 1990s. There was a trend then toward specialization in the adjusting of claims. Insurance companies were beginning to use nurse case managers. Some hired them as employees and others engaged them case-by-case. 

As my practice evolved to the self-insured, I learned that those employers had long since embraced "facility" nurses and some even had physicians on premises. Their processes involved both providing on site care and having those medical professionals engaging in employee health issues, whether work-related or not. 

The concept was simple, in foundation and execution. These employers had accepted that there was a need for medical expertise, which could benefit both employee and employer. Nothing is indisputable. There are those who are not fans of nurse case managers, company doctors, and plant nurses, and they will cite anecdotal examples of their dissatisfaction's or disagreements. However, it is probably possible to cite such examples regarding any profession. In my experience, there were many positive contributions to health and welfare made by these medical professionals. 

So, during the 1990s, we witnessed the integration of nurses into the litigation management process by insurance carriers. In some instances adjusters at large insurance companies teamed with nurses. In other instances, nurses took over responsibility for the medical authorization and decision-making aspects of the claim. Those working in workers' compensation found themselves more often working with adjusters regarding legal and indemnity issues, but with a nurse case managers regarding medical issues. 

Most of these claims-related medical experts were not physicians. They were in-house specialists with medical training, usually nurses and sometimes physician's assistants. They were postured and positioned in a way intended to facilitate interaction with other involved professionals, including treating doctors, vocational providers, human resource managers, supervisors, and more. Their medical background, training, and expertise, allowed them to more effectively communicate with these other professionals, to facilitate appreciation for medical challenges, and to translate the medical information for the non-medical professionals involved in a particular claim.

I recently learned of an effort which may be similar to that synergistic approach, but from a legal standpoint. It is possible that insurance companies and employers may soon be engaging specialized legal training to similarly facilitate their team approach to managing legal issues. The approach is perhaps similar to the nurse case manager medical paradigm above, but may also have far broader implications beyond injury issues. 

The Florida State University College of Law has introduced a new program called the Juris Master. It is touted as a "1-year degree that could help you advance in your chosen field." It is not a legal degree, nor is it either a precursor or adjunct to a legal degree. It appears instead to be an "introduction to legal studies" to prepare professionals to effectively interact and communicate with lawyers and the legal processes in which so many find themselves. 

This program touts available specializations in "Business Law; Administrative Law and Governmental Relations; Environmental and Land Use Law; Criminal Law and Justice; and Employment and Human Resources Law." The various implications seem broad, but for the subject of workers' compensation, it would seem the Administrative Law, and Employment and Human Resource Law may be of particular relevance. 

It is not a unique concept. Arizona State University (west) is offering a program, as is Washington University in St. Louis (central), and Drexel University (northeast). It is interesting that there are four programs and significant geographic diversity. This is notable since all of these master degree programs are offered in an online setting, and some advertise that they are exclusively online. The design appears to be focused on employed professionals who would benefit from the expertise and skills, but who are either unable or unwilling to take time from work for an on-campus experience. 

Will the workers' compensation industry adapt to and embrace the idea of team members trained to better understand legal principles? Are legally-trained specialists the future of human relations, claims management, and disability accommodation? Will masters degrees such as these provide critical skills and advantages that employers and insurance carriers will leverage to facilitate better communication and interaction in the universe of workers' compensation and other casualty loss systems? 

These questions will be answered in time, and they are perhaps part of a larger debate. American education is struggling. Educators face a tremendous challenge. The world is changing, and the very foundations of employment are changing. Robotics will fundamentally change employment. Jobs will disappear as a result of robots and artificial intelligence. People will be forced to adapt, and there will be challenges on the most fundamental levels of societal interaction. Legal professionals will not be immune from the coming (r)evolution, and neither will claims adjusters, physicians, and auto body repair technicians. Though their realization has been slow from some perspectives, educators are beginning to accept that their livelihoods are directly tied to the success of those they train for these other professions. 

There has been a historical trend in which educational institutions have provided knowledge and training with little consideration or regard for the necessity or marketability of that education. Academics with little or no real world experience have been accused of foisting irrelevance upon consumers (picture the supercilious Dr. Philip Barbay lecturing millionaire businessperson Thorton Mellon in the 1986 classic Back to School); consumers have complained that acquiring this irrelevance has come at increasingly troublesome costs, financial and time. States are seeming to focus on value, and taxpayer investments in university infrastructure and subsidy have decreased. 

More recently, there has been discussion of the online college paradigm, which is touted in regards to the new Juris Master concept. Online learning has proponents and critics, and in that regard is hardly unique. The online issue has been newsworthy in Florida this spring as the state debates how to fund higher education. There has been discussion of whether online education should replace or merely supplement the "sticks and bricks" learning environment that dominated the pre-Internet age. 

There are critics of the online experience who lament the potential for less student to student interaction, less developmental opportunities for social skills and group dynamics. Similarly, there are proponents who remind of the convenience and cost savings for the consumer student (driving, parking, work time lost to commuting). There is no doubt that there are multiple perspectives. 

This is a debate with many perspectives; some believe that those perspectives may be influenced by interests beyond the ultimate question of what best prepares graduates for their place in our economic system and society. An example is the economic reality that "stick and brick" investment represents. Those campus classrooms were expensive to build, they must be maintained, cleaned, and air conditioned (in other parts of the country, heated even). The cost of those facilities remains, whether there are students physically in the seats or not. Some argue that resistance to online learning is driven by this (arguably antiquated) "sticks and bricks" investment and commitment. 

There are critics of the online paradigm who contend that less is taught (professors are less engaged, and students interact instead with interactive computer assignments), and that less is learned. They contend that testing is less reliable (my mom could perhaps take my physics test for me), and academic progress less discernible (because of less personal interaction between instructor and student). 

Many perspectives indeed. 

In the end, everyone engaged in the process of American education will have to refocus in the 21st century on a singular fundamental. Unfortunately, through committee mismanagement, that fundamental has been lost to intense debates of symptoms and signs such as class sizes, curricula breadth, and faculty enrichment. But, the key fundamental of education is simple, it is value. Does an educational experience bring value to the consumer (student), and the marketplace (employers)? 

The answer to this question will be the real determination for educational systems in the 21st century. Are curricula, programming, instructors, certificates and degrees bringing value? If the education brings value, it will be consumed eagerly. And, if it does not bring value, all of the television advertising and promotion in the world will not save it. 

In this regard, it appears that Florida State and the few others mentioned above are approaching their function logically. The Juris Master concept appears to be a product of need, if not necessity. In a world of increasingly complex regulations and regulatory interdependencies, legal knowledge will be of value in various businesses. There is increasing specialization in professions, doctors and lawyers among them. The value of legally-trained non-lawyers is apparent. 

There is a seemingly great population in academia who cling to the historical education paradigm of producing what they deem important and forcing consumption (required classes) without regard to real-world value. That process has produced classes and requirements deemed relevant and important by teachers who have never provided professional services, run a business, managed an employee, marketed a product, or written a paycheck. There are simply too many educational paradigms designed and implemented by those whose view of education value is clouded by their lack of practical experience and complacent acceptance of academic superiority. 

But, that does not appear to be the case illustrated by the Juris Master programs. These appear instead to be thoughtful constructs, which do not provide a product in search of a need. Instead, these programs seem to have identified a need and set out to design a product, an academic program, that will provide value and skills to address that need. 

It is refreshing to see education being responsive. Not responsive to academic surveys and self-evaluation, but responsive to the needs of the consumer and marketplace. As the technological (r)evolution continues, our world will change. Work will change, consumption of goods and services will change, and our lives will change. Educational institutions will either grasp that change and deliver value, or they will likely find themselves as tomorrow's Blockbuster Video, New York Times, Borders, or Kodak. Institutions will adapt, or they will decline to obscurity and fade from relevance. 

Will the Juris Master graduate be in demand? If so, then the Juris Master program will be in demand. The logic seems sound, but time will tell. I predict that the knowledge can be valuable. The graduates will be engaged as translators, internal negotiators and mediators. It will be critical that they be able to use their expertise by effectively communicating with outside professionals, managers, coworkers, and more. Some will argue the online nature of these programs may not best facilitate development of these interactive skills. Those who now offer these degrees would do well to acknowledge that potential criticism and address it head-on through curricula choices and course assignments. 

In the end, I predict great potential for these programs. Specialization and knowledge have great promise for various professionals whose roles require interaction with legal and regulatory processes. It is encouraging to see institutions responding to need, and producing solutions. Time will tell.  

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