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What it will take to change the narrative about career education

Photo by Derek Keller on Unsplash

An interview with a funder who says employer participation may be the key to helping more Americans take the plunge on career-connected education. Also, a national campaign to align workforce and higher education policy, and a look at Alabama’s head start on making that coordination a reality.

The Job
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Changing the Narrative

As many as one in six Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 are sitting out of both college and work, with college enrollments tumbling by 1.4M during the pandemic while more than 10M jobs remain unfilled.

Yet young people also remain skeptical of non-college education and job-training programs, which tend to have small participation numbers despite the flurry of interest in career-connected learning.

“Based on what we’re seeing from our grantees, there is not a consistent trend of people moving from a four-year college pathway to an alternative, or at least that jump that we might expect people to make,” says George Vinton, CEO of the Common Group, a social impact consulting firm.

Among the reasons experts cite for low turnout among most college alternatives are the deeply ingrained and largely accurate view that college remains the best ticket to a long, economically secure life, as well as doubts about whether employers will value other forms of education and training. Likewise, when college alternatives are free or low-cost, skeptical prospective students often wonder whether there’s a catch.

The San Francisco-based Common Group convenes public and private partnerships with a focus on education and economic mobility. It has been running a grant competition to improve young people’s career readiness and engagement with education. With funding from American Student Assistance, Arnold Ventures, and the Walton Family Foundation, among others, the Catalyze Challenge last month announced a second round of awards, with $5M for 25 grantees.

If large numbers of young people aren’t applying to the sort of programs Catalyze is funding, while also not choosing traditional college, Vinton says a worry is that many Americans are graduating high school without a plan for what comes next.

Part of the solution, Vinton says, is around changing the narrative. He says the premise of the grant challenge is that there are many paths to economic opportunity, and that a career-connected path or educational experiences that bridge to a career will add value to any young person in any context in any region of the country.

“So how do we convince families? How do we convince young people? How do we reach young people without the sort of predatory practices that for-profit universities have been accused of in the past?” Vinton asks.

Those questions apply to the roles philanthropy and governments can play in supporting alternatives to college. And Common Group’s research has found that employers in particular can be a linchpin for whether an upstart career-connected learning program is a viable option.

That’s because a meaningful employer endorsement—particularly a pledge to hire graduates—can carry the most weight among prospective students, who understandably don’t want to take the leap without knowing it will be worth their time and effort.

“If we can’t get employers to participate, then we can’t really get very far,” Vinton says. 

However, the current moment may be a catch-22 situation, he says. “Employers won’t sign on until families and learners are actually participating in the pathways and there’s a critical mass of talent that they can hire.”

Click over to Work Shift to read the full Q&A with Vinton.

Not Just One and Done

Policy discussions often position workforce education and traditional college as being in opposition—a zero-sum game where you’re either for degrees and view short-term credentials as a threat, or you think college is broken and should be ditched for apprenticeships or other alternatives.

This binary thinking presents a false dilemma, according to Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates and a former Democratic staffer for the Committee on Education and Labor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“We can move beyond degrees or credentials,” Peller says. 

Higher Learning Advocates just rolled out a campaign to better connect policies on workforce training and postsecondary education. With the backing of 25 groups, including the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and Advance CTE, the platform seeks to “widen the path” by recognizing all learning that promotes economic mobility.

A more inclusive view of higher learning begins with thinking about it as more than a one-and-done experience, says Peller.

“The reality is learners are earning multiple credentials throughout their lives—in the classroom, in the workplace, and online,” she says. “If we stop thinking about an individual’s ‘one chance’ at higher education, it’s easier to consider a ‘both/and’ approach.”

Peller says current policies and systems force people into making a choice between enrolling in a long-term degree program or pursuing short-term training to enter the job market more quickly. 

“For our system to support learners throughout their journey and guard against tracking, we need to connect the systems we have and build pathways for learners that include nondegree credentials and degrees,” she says.

The campaign’s policy priorities include:

  • Combining or braiding government funds for training, workforce development, and education.
  • Connecting and improving education and workforce data systems.
  • Increasing funding for workforce training and work-connected programs at community colleges.
  • Allowing students to use federal funds for apprenticeships and short-term programs.
  • Lifting barriers to financial aid eligibility for returning students without degrees, supporting transfer of credit, and using public dollars to pay for credit for prior learning assessments.

While allowing students to tap federal Pell Grants to earn credit for prior learning can help with college affordability, Peller says quality safeguards are needed so those credits are trusted and accepted toward degree requirements by colleges and other providers.

As for braided funding, she says this approach works best with a shared goal and sustainable support. And combined funding streams should be used to support students’ needs outside the classroom.

“We should not only think about braiding education and workforce funds, but also think of how other funding streams, such as those flowing through Commerce, HHS, and USDA, for example, are aligned to support higher learning for today’s students,” Peller says.

Transformation in Alabama

Alabama may be the farthest down the road of any state in its efforts to better connect workforce development and postsecondary education.

The Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation is leading much of that complex, broad-reaching work. Kay Ivey, Alabama’s Republican governor, created the policy office a few years ago. Its mandate includes braiding funding streams, coordinating databases, and creating clear career pathways for residents.

A key motivator for this effort is Alabama’s labor force participation rate, which lags the national average by almost five percentage points and is contributing to hiring woes in several booming industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, and logistics.

Alabama Possible, a statewide nonprofit focused on barriers to prosperity, is working with the governor’s office on several related projects. The group is helping to improve communication between the state’s four-year institutions and its community colleges as they seek to re-engage working learners and to help high school students make the transition to and through postsecondary education. 

Chandra Scott, Alabama Possible’s executive director, says her organization talks often with the governor’s office. They share intel about where the pain points are for students, what data infrastructure is lacking at colleges, and what gaps in career connections exist.

Many potential students or participants in job training programs hesitate to enroll, Scott says, in part because of their fear that a resulting wage gain will make them lose access to subsidized childcare or assistance with paying for housing and food—but won’t be enough to put them on stable financial footing.

“The benefits cliff is real for them,” she says. “People are not going to be interested in upskilling themselves if it’s going to drive them further into poverty.”

Employers can help by making sure that wages for workers cover their potential loss of government benefits, Scott says.

Likewise, she says serious contributions by employers are crucial to the state’s effort to identify credential programs that lead to good careers. To opt in, people want confidence that their education and training will pay off.

The Kicker: “They don’t have the money to gamble,” says Scott.

Open Tabs

Tech Jobs

Micron Technology’s newly announced manufacturing campus in central New York will include an initial investment of $20B, creating 9K high-paying jobs with Micron and 40K related jobs around the state, according to Kathy Hochul, New York’s Democratic governor. Micron chose the region because of its rich pool of diverse talent, the Idaho-based company said, including workers who have been underrepresented in tech jobs.

Labor Market

Job openings in the U.S. dropped to 10.1M last month, a decline of more than 1M positions, with the largest dips in healthcare and social assistance, followed by other services and retail trade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Companies are continuing to hire and keep workers, The Wall Street Journal reports, and it remains relatively easy for laid-off workers to find a new job, with more openings than job seekers.

Demographic trends, like aging populations and slowing immigration, in the U.S. and other developed economies will continue to drive worker shortages even once the pandemic’s acute effects have ebbed, says a new report from Lightcast, a workforce analytics firm. It argues that businesses can offset the impact of demographic decline by increasing workforce participation rates with strategic training and retention initiatives.

Working Learners

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education released a plan to remove barriers to enrollment for adult students, a group that has seen a 50% undergraduate enrollment slide in the state over a decade. Recommendations include a statewide policy on credit for prior learning, mulling a performance funding formula tweak, expanding flexible academic programs, and establishing partnerships with regional healthcare providers.

Quality Jobs

A shared definition of good jobs is an essential first step in a renewed movement toward good jobs for all, according to a statement signed by groups representing business, labor, workforce development, policy, philanthropy, and research. The statement, which was organized by the Families and Workers Fund and the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program, included economic mobility in its definition.

Degrees and Careers

Dual-mission institutions—which offer a full range of credentials, from certificates to associate degrees to bachelor’s degrees—are getting increasing attention as more learners demand both a broad education and hands-on career preparation. The colleges will gather next month in Colorado at the National Dual Mission Summit.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what I missed? —@paulfain

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