Photo by Stephan Bechert on Unsplash

This week’s issue looks at a geothermal company’s struggle to hire drillers, how youth employment may be fueling the college enrollment crisis, the new Workforce Pell amendment, and more. (To get this newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.)

Unfilled Green Energy Jobs

Dandelion Energy sounds like a politician’s dream—a green energy company that creates the sort of high-paying, hands-on jobs that millions of American factory workers have lost in recent decades—only the roles with Dandelion are high-tech jobs of the future.

Yet the geothermal energy provider has a problem: hiring or training skilled workers to drill the wells for its heat pumps. And Dandelion has hit worker licensing snags that seem absurd.

“The thing I always worry about is death by a thousand cuts,” says Michael Sachse, the company’s CEO. “And this is where a lot of the cuts are.”

Dandelion spun off from Google X a few years ago and has received $65 million in backing. The pay is good for its drillers, who can make more than $40 per hour drilling shafts that go 200 to 500 feet below homes.

Yet money hasn’t helped the company with its recruiting problem. Neither have any local officials at workforce boards or state agencies in New York and Connecticut, where Dandelion currently operates.

Geography also is a challenge. Many potential drillers live in the South or West and are reluctant to move to the Northeast, mostly because of the weather and higher cost of living.

“Drillers aren’t on LinkedIn,” Sachse says. “And moving is hard for anyone, particularly if you have a family.”

Training locally has proven difficult as well.

“We’re aware of a small number of training programs for drillers, but we need more,” says Sachse, adding that state-sponsored apprenticeships could help with labor shortages in the skilled trades. “We’d really love to see community colleges focus more on these types of jobs.”

Drowning in Red Tape

Licensing requirements have been a barrier even for Dandelion’s veteran drillers. For example, one senior driller with 30 years of experience and licenses in both New York and New Jersey struggled to get approved by Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection. He had to take two tests for the license, including one on state-specific laws for drilling.

This was hardly the only regulatory hurdle Dandelion has faced in Connecticut, a liberal state that presumably is keen on green energy. Sachse describes Kafkaesque experiences applying for a geothermal license that didn’t actually exist because the state regulation had not yet been approved. The company also applied to a third-party testing agency that cashed Dandelion’s check but never sent it to the state, so the company couldn’t take the required exam.

Dandelion often has struggled with licensing requirements that vary by the state, the county, and sometimes the town. It even has had to create subsidiaries that are primarily owned by its licensed plumbers or electricians.

The Kicker

“We learned the hard way that if we didn’t call to advocate on a regular basis, things just wouldn’t move,” says Sachse. “The world of manual labor really is not built for companies to operate beyond the county level.”

Your Tips Requested

I’ve reached out to experts who might be able to help Dandelion train, hire, and license its drillers. Let me know if you have ideas.

This newsletter also will report regularly on licensing and education barriers that appear to prevent win-win job creation, which may be the case for Dandelion in Connecticut. Please send tips my way.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Youth Jobs and College Enrollment

Lower-income teenagers and young adults have been more likely to hold jobs than their peers during COVID-19, according to federal data. Teens now are employed at higher levels than before the pandemic, Marketplace reports. And a bigger teen job boom may occur this summer.

Some observers are touting benefits of this spike, including the skills and money young people can earn. Pundits also have long lamented the gradual loss of the summer job as a rite of passage.

I earned my first real paycheck working for the county road crew as a 16-year-old. The job with the signs division taught me a lot, including how far you can get on $5 an hour, the minimum wage in Ohio at the time. But I was a privileged tourist on my way to college. And the experience only encouraged me to work harder to get there.

That appears to not be the case for many lower-income young people, who increasingly are working to support their families. And experts warn that teen employment may be contributing to collapsing college enrollment numbers, particularly at community colleges.

“High youth employment likely is impacting students’ decisions on whether to enroll in college immediately after high school graduation or to work first, and as such is likely impacting community college enrollments,” says Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

Balfanz is worried about warning signs that lower-income youth are losing academic momentum.  

“As a general rule, kids have to have a postsecondary pathway,” says Balfanz. “The way you get to a sustainable wage with a high school degree is small and dwindling.”

Community college leaders say many recent high school graduates have taken on more work to help their families pay the bills. This also is true for high school students in dual-enrollment programs, according to an official at a two-year college in northern Illinois. (The source asked to remain anonymous because the college doesn’t let them speak with journalists.)

One high school junior had to drop out of her summer courses at the college, which were only offered in person. The reason? Her three jobs, the source says:

She was working a job at a fast food restaurant before the pandemic but then picked up a steady babysitting job for a family member when daycares started cutting spots. Her third job was at Target. She took the job for the potential college benefits. She sounded like she was supporting her parents and an adult sibling in the house, and it was expected of her to work. They asked a lot about emergency funding should she quit her job to go to school, but she couldn’t qualify since she wasn’t eligible for financial aid.

Workforce Pell

The leaders of the U.S. Senate’s HELP Committee have cut a bipartisan deal on an amendment to expand Pell Grant eligibility to postsecondary education and training programs of eight to 15 weeks in length.

In typical D.C. fashion, the new version of short-term Pell, dubbed Workforce Pell, is one of several largely unrelated amendments to a bill aimed at competing with China and restructuring research funding at the National Science Foundation. A vote on the bill could come as early as next week.

Workforce Pell would eliminate federal loan eligibility for short-term programs, replacing loans with grant aid. It also includes several new protections for students and taxpayers, including requirements that:

  • Completers get a median wage bump of at least 20 percent.
  • Providers disclose completion and job placement rates to students, as well as earnings.
  • Programs losing federal approval will remain ineligible for at least five years.

Community college groups back the measure.

“We fully support language in the amendment that requires programs to demonstrate earnings growth in order to qualify for federal funding, and we embrace the strong oversight and disclosure requirements designed to help assure program quality and relevance,” Joe May, the chancellor of Dallas College, said in a statement urging the amendment’s passage.

The proposed guardrails appear unlikely to sway critics of the policy, however.

For example, Bob Shireman, director of higher education excellence and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote this week that while some students could benefit from short-term Pell, the programs too often lead to low-wage, dead-end jobs.

The shift to a voucher-style subsidy for this form of career education also would reduce employer-driven accountability for training programs, says Shireman, who was an official at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. To prevent the rapid growth of overpriced, low-quality credentials, he argues that employers should be required to kick in matching funds to help cover program costs.

“The best short-term, job-specific training is a program that is financed at least in part by an employer who hopes to hire, or has already hired, the program’s students,” Shireman writes.

Sources think the amendment has a good chance of passing in the Senate. But it might be stripped out of the already cluttered bill. The proposal also may face resistance from House Democrats, including Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, who leads the education committee. Scott is leery of short-term Pell and typically prioritizes traditional college pathways.

Mixed Results From Washington State

New America this week released an analysis of data on results for short-term training programs in Washington, which account for almost a quarter of all training in the state. The report found that short-term programs reflect and perhaps reinforce occupational gender segregation and tend to lead to relatively low-wage work.

On the positive side, the report from New America found that student completion rates are higher for short-term programs than one-year certificate and degree tracks.

Short-term graduates on average earn more ($17.84 an hour) one year after completion than the state’s minimum wage, which is $13.50 an hour. But those wages are not enough to support a family, concluded the report’s author, Lul Tesfai, a senior adviser with New America’s Center on Education and Labor.

Transfer Numbers Drop

College students’ mobility declined during the pandemic, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. U.S. enrollment of transfer students declined by 10 percent this spring compared to a year ago, the center found. 

Community colleges were the hardest hit, with a 16.3 percent decline. But public four-year institutions only had a 1.5 percent drop. And the upward transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions actually went up by 1.5 percent, which the center said may reflect efforts to streamline the transfer process during the pandemic.

While the enrollment of white and Black transfer students at public four-year institutions went down, by 6.2 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively, transfer enrollments for Latino and Asian American students were up by roughly 2 percent.

Latino Student Transfer in Texas

Tarleton State University saw a 7 percent increase in its number of Latino transfer students compared to last spring. The public university in Texas had an overall 2.5 percent decline in transfer students. But its transfer numbers are up 12 percent during the last three years.

More than half of the 13,000 students at the fast-growing university located southwest of Fort Worth are the first in their family to attend college. And Tarleton State, which is on the verge of becoming a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution, this spring created a broad scholarship program for transfer students.

James Hurley, Tarleton State’s president, says the university has a social and economic responsibility to invest in transfer students.

The Kicker

“Some of the brightest students in the region graduate from two-year schools then transfer to Tarleton,” Hurley says. “If we educate students in North Texas, they will stay in North Texas, and North Texas will prosper.”

Open Tabs

Short-Term Programs

Louisiana’s Legislature last month approved a last-dollar college promise scholarship program that will cover short-term workforce training credentials. The new $10.5 million annual student aid program will focus on high-demand fields such as construction, health care, IT, manufacturing, and transportation and logistics.

Dual Enrollment

Rhode Island students who earned college credit during high school were more likely to graduate and later enroll in college, according to a new study from the U.S. Department of Education. They also were less likely to require developmental education courses. But male, economically disadvantaged students and racial and ethnic minority students were underrepresented in the state’s accelerated college credit programs.

Employer Education

Guild Education, an employer-focused education platform, this week said it has raised $150 million in funding, increasing its valuation to $3.75 billion. “This latest round of funding will allow us to support the tens of millions of Americans in need of upskilling, with a model that encourages their employers to do well by doing good,” said Rachel Carlson, Guild’s CEO and co-founder.

Nondegree Credentials

The Rework America Alliance studied the job histories of 29 million people across 800 occupations to better understand how unemployed workers from low-wage roles who lack a college degree can realize their potential. The alliance cited a new job progressions tool from McKinsey & Company as well as a metro-level one from the Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Microcredentials likely will be a major component of postsecondary education globally, particularly programs in IT, business, cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing, and health care, according to a new report from the Nondegree Credential Research Network at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy. The paper summarizes an April presentation by experts from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

A new policy brief from Credential Engine seeks to help state policy makers understand which higher education pathways enable learners to earn credentials that lead to jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. The brief includes suggested actions to make information about the quality of credentials more accessible, valuable, and useful.

Let me know what I missed? Catch you next week — PF @paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.