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Bypassing degrees

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The Job
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Opportunity@Work’s bid to help nondegree workers get manufacturing jobs in Ohio, and a new nonprofit focused on expanding apprenticeships. Also, bootcamps and on-ramps, and a policy debate over an earnings threshold.


Skills-Based Hiring

Opportunity@Work has had a PR bonanza with its campaign for employers to drop degree requirements. Now the group wants to “rewire the labor market” by helping workers without degrees land good jobs.

This week the nonprofit rolled out a pilot project with Youngstown State University in Ohio that will offer free short-term training for jobs at Ultium Cells, a joint venture by General Motors and LG Energy Solutions to mass-produce battery cells for electric vehicles. The plan is to place 300 workers into jobs at Ultium in coming months, with more jobs to follow soon.

“There is no talent shortage,” says Bridgette Gray, chief customer officer at Opportunity@Work. “Employers can’t complain about their challenge with talent supply if they don’t change their approach.”

Byron Auguste, a White House official during the Obama administration, founded Opportunity@Work in 2015. The group’s focus is the 70M+ Americans who have a high school diploma or its equivalent as well as the skills to perform higher-wage work, but who lack a four-year college degree. It says these workers are Skilled Through Alternative Routes, or STARs.

Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of workers in the Youngstown metro area fit this description. Opportunity@Work is partnering with local organizations to help people get onto its Stellarworx platform, which connects workers with area employers who are committed to skills-based hiring. Northeast Ohio is the fourth market the group has entered with the platform, following the Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., metro areas.

“We recognize skills as a key asset and value a diverse workforce,” says Tom Gallagher, vice president of operations for Ultium Cells. “The technical components can be taught through on-the-job training.”

Higher Ed’s Role: Colleges and universities can’t keep up with labor market demands, says Jennifer Oddo, executive director of Youngstown State’s division of workforce education and innovation. She describes the project as a “new way to address the pipelines into higher education.”

GM and Ultium have made an initial investment of $5M in the effort. The university is serving as the air traffic control, Oddo says, by connecting Opportunity@Work with local high schools and community organizations. It also is administering the 40-hour education and training program for the Ultium hiring path.

The fully online pre-apprenticeship in advanced manufacturing will include skills training in digital literacy as well as in reading and math comprehension. To complete, students must pass a proctored assessment. Ultium, which is an active user on the talent-matching platform, will then hire from among the on-ramp program’s completers, offering apprenticeships that will pay annual wages in the low- to mid-$40K range.

“This is them actually being hired into Ultium,” says Gray, who describes the first 300 jobs as “just the beginning.”

The new training program is noncredit. But Youngstown State offers prior-learning credit to students who earn professional certificates for pre-apprenticeships and related skills training. And apprenticeships can lead to 30 credits for students who enroll in degree programs at the university.

“What we’re hoping is that we will get them on an education pathway,” says Oddo, so Ultium employees can “chip away at a degree.”

Opportunity@Work wants to expand its work in Ohio by partnering with community colleges and other universities, both public and private. And Youngstown State has big ambitions for its online pre-apprenticeships in battery-cell manufacturing. Oddo says:

“Our goal is to be able to do this at Ultium sites as they expand across the country.”

Beyond Degrees in Maryland: Opportunity@Work notched a win this week with the announcement by Larry Hogan, Maryland’s Republican governor, that the state will eliminate four-year degree requirements for thousands of jobs at government agencies.

Maryland employs roughly 38K workers. And the state’s Department of Budget and Management estimates that more than half of those roles “can substitute relevant experiences, training, and/or community college education for a four-year degree,” according to Hogan’s office. Maryland already has dropped degree requirements for 300 open government jobs that are now listed on Stellarworx.

The federal government took a similar step toward skills-based hiring during the Trump administration. But Maryland appears to be the first state to do so.

The Kicker: “People shouldn’t be compensated based on their years of education but on their skills to get the job done,” Hogan said.

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Apprenticeships for America

Just 636K workers were active in the federally recognized U.S. apprenticeship system in 2020. That’s about one-eighth the level of participation in apprenticeships for other major industrial countries such as the U.K., Canada, and Australia. 

Apprenticeships for America, a nonprofit group launched today, wants to close that gap by pushing on state and federal policy levers, contributing research, and helping to build economies of scale for intermediary organizations that organize and sell apprenticeships to employers, including unions, business service companies, industry associations, staffing companies, nonprofits, and government agencies. 

“If the problem is going to be solved, it’s going to be solved by new intermediaries,” says Ryan Craig, the co-founder and managing director of Achieve Partners, who is on the new group’s board.

The timing is right for apprenticeships to reach a respectable scale in this country, according to Robert Lerman, a fellow board member and a veteran expert on apprenticeships. Three straight presidents have backed expanding earn-and-learn opportunities. And annual federal spending on apprenticeships stands at roughly $200M, up from $30M in 2015.

Yet government funding remains inadequate, Lerman says, with much of the money going to one-off contracts and grants that are hard to scale. To unleash more potential, the new group will push to simplify what most agree is a cumbersome process for registering apprenticeships, while also seeking incentives for intermediaries and support for postsecondary education funding for related instruction—both in Washington and state capitals.

“It’s not cheap. But it’s very cost-effective,” Lerman says of apprenticeships. “Once employers start on the path of apprenticeship, they tend to stay on it.”

The group is focused on apprenticeships that are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, because they offer a unified federal system of quality assurance, with checks aimed at ensuring apprenticeships lead to better jobs and a national, industry-recognized credential.

Craig says Apprenticeships for America will create a network of intermediary groups to encourage collaboration and to strengthen their voice. The group also will seek to create new incentives, he says, such as a federal pay-for-performance pilot that would provide funding for each apprentice they train and place.

CareerWise, Apprenti, and Year Up are the sort of intermediaries the new nonprofit wants to encourage, says Craig. And colleges that offer credentials connected to apprenticeships could be part of the network, too.

Craig says the bottom line is that conventional job training and education options alone will not be the solution for the skills mismatch that has led to a record 11M open jobs. “This is the answer,” he says.

Apprenticeships may be able to gain more traction given the hiring and diversity woes many businesses face. And added opportunities mean more equity, says Lerman:

“When you scale apprenticeships, you diversify the participants.”

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New Earnings Threshold?

Federal negotiators are discussing a potential gainful-employment rule, including a new earnings threshold the Biden administration introduced earlier this month.

The proposal would compare the median earnings of graduates of for-profit and nondegree college programs with those of workers between the ages of 25 and 34 in their state who hold only a high school degree or GED. Programs could lose access to federal financial aid if their graduates’ median wages fall below that threshold.

The high school earnings comparison is simple to understand, says Nicholas Kent, senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs for Career Education Colleges and Universities, the for-profit college sector’s trade group. And he says a similar earnings-premium metric might make sense to assess whether a program offers sufficient ROI. But Kent cautions that the proposal might end up comparing apples and oranges:

“As currently proposed, a 19-year-old cosmetologist two and a half years postcollege, who is still building up a clientele, could have their earnings compared to the earnings of a 34-year-old high school graduate who has been working as a flight attendant for 14 years.”

Michael Itzkowitz counters that many career education credentials lead to unacceptably low wages that don’t improve over time. For example, Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at Third Way and a former Education Department official who is an expert on ROI data, says that for 39 percent of certificate-granting institutions, students earn less on average 10 years after enrolling than the median wage for high school graduates in their states.

“The number one reason people go to college is to get a well-paying job and a secure career,” Itzkowitz says. “This is a discussion that needs to be had.”

Open Tabs

Community Colleges

A new national network of 22 community colleges that either historically or predominantly serve Black students will focus on the connection between educational experiences and career outcomes of Black students. Convened by Complete College America, with support from the Lumina and Annie E. Casey Foundations, the network will share expertise on career and academic advising, as well as wraparound supports.

Work-Based Learning

Participating in a paid internship as an undergraduate is associated with a predicted increase in annual wages of $3,096 one year after graduation, according to a new report from the Strada Education Network. This wage differential is larger than predicted gaps associated with gender or race and ethnicity, Strada found, and it only applied to paid internships. Work-based learning also was associated with higher career satisfaction.

Childcare Assistance

A new report explores policy changes to federal childcare assistance to make it more accessible to low-income parents who are seeking education and training. Increasing funding and reducing restrictions could quadruple the number of student parents who receive childcare assistance, the report from the WorkRise Network found. And parents who complete a credential with this support would see a 26 percent earnings boost.

Education Gap

Women’s employment last month reached 98 percent of the pre-pandemic level, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress. And employment of women with minor children at home has almost fully recovered. However, while employment of college-educated women had grown to 4.1 percent above pre-pandemic levels, the report said the climb back for women with less education remains far from complete.

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