Workforce boards partner with a tech firm to use its algorithms to help job seekers find education programs that pay off. Also, a geothermal power company tweaks its approach to training to keep pace with demand.

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A weekly newsletter about the intersection of education and work. By Paul Fain

As the labor market evolves rapidly, some workforce boards are getting creative to better help frontline workers, including with personalized recommendations for career-boosting education and training.

The nation faces a structural labor shortage, in part due to the departure of baby boomers from the workforce. At the same time, technology and federal spending are creating millions of new and different positions. But helping underemployed workers prepare for opportunities in the fast-changing economy is a tricky proposition. And many job seekers lack even basic information about how to land roles in growth fields.

Workforce boards are an often-overlooked resource for employers and frontline workers, according to Angela Jackson, an expert on workforce development. She says they also are prime candidates for innovation and modernization.

For example, the biggest complaint Jackson hears about one-stop job centers run by workforce boards is that they offer outdated or inadequate training and education options.

To better assess and match people with available roles, she says, workforce boards should experiment with emerging tech tools.

“While I don’t expect technology to take the place of human connection, it puts greater information in the hands of job seekers so they can determine the best path for themselves,” she says. “And leveraging technology could increase the capacity of boards to serve more of their constituents with real-time labor and career information.”

During the pandemic’s peak, the National Association of Workforce Boards created a career navigation and learning platform to help its members offer individually tailored career exploration, reskilling, and job placement support.

Dubbed a “GPS for your career,” the Workforce Compass platform taps technology from FutureFit AI, which partnered with NAWB to launch the tool. The project’s goal is to “bridge the gap between job seekers and employers” by recommending possible career paths and creating personalized road maps for getting the skills needed for jobs.

“Workforce Compass is a portal that allows the local workforce development board to connect multiple services and keep a comprehensive service record for an individual job seeker or business in one administrative location,” says Ron Painter, the association’s CEO.

The platform connects users with education and training options, including those offered by Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, and Penn Foster. Boards can decide which providers to feature, including local ones such as community colleges. New York State has taken a similar approach by using $12M in federal funds to provide free online skills training from Coursera to unemployed workers. The online learning platform says learners have completed more than 1.5M lessons through the program so far.

Real-World Needs: To try to get moving on a rewarding career, a frontline or unemployed worker might need career counseling, an assessment of their interests, an online learning course, mock interviewing tools, an apprenticeship, and help with childcare and transportation, says Taylor Stockton, COO of the New York City–based FutureFit AI.

“The challenge is that these supports are sitting in a dozen different places with no connection to each other,” he says, adding that FutureFit AI seeks to be the “connective tissue” between existing resources.

The company’s algorithms focus on measuring:

  • Feasibility. How well do a job seeker’s skills and experience equip them to pursue a targeted career path?
  • Desirability. Do their interests and values match that path?
  • Sustainability. Does the path match with in-demand indicators in their local economy?

FutureFit AI works with data on localized job markets, hundreds of millions of job-seeker profiles, and information on credentials and their associated skills. Painter says that data is immediately available to local workforce boards through NAWB’s partnership with the company.

The tool can get granular, says Stockton. For example, it could determine which education programs and interventions work best to help veterans of the U.S. military break into healthcare jobs in a specific labor market.

Workforce Compass is agnostic about which education options boards can recommend. They can range from microcredentials and online bootcamps to apprenticeship programs and community college degrees. The tool over time will collect data to help boards and employers track which learning paths drive the best outcomes.

As it stands now, many boards lack the capacity to aggregate available training programs, according to Jackson. Instead they tend to rely on badly outdated and sometimes controversial approved technical provider lists.

Jackson is a fan of NAWB’s collaboration with FutureFit AI. She says Workforce Compass moves toward personalization and away from the “one-size-fits-all workforce approach that we see in far too many career centers.”

Workforce boards have plenty of appetite to try new things, Jackson says, citing a recent grant program where more than 50 boards applied to test technical solutions to help displaced workers. Yet boards face restrictions on their funding due to federal WIOA guidelines, which do not allow for much experimentation.

Painter says a lack of adequate federal money to develop residents’ skills forces local boards to tap funds from a variety of public and private sources. And the feds typically don’t track how the other funding is used. He says Workforce Compass will help capture data points to make quick adjustments.

“Federal requirements for data are for reporting and not for managing, so most of the system only gets a ‘rear-view’ look at performance,” says Painter. “Real-time data will be key to helping job seekers and employers stay better informed on their regional labor market, both skills in the labor supply and skills being demanded in the market.”

Cracking the Code on Hiring

Back in June 2021, I wrote about Dandelion Energy, a home geothermal company that offers an intriguing green energy solution but had struggled with hiring and training skilled workers to drill the wells for its heat pumps.

Since then Dandelion has tweaked its approach to talent development, says Michael Sachse, its CEO.

Dandelion had been focused on recruiting workers with key skills, including those who lived far away from its core operations in the Northeast. That didn’t work, says Sachse. Now Dandelion is more interested in the mind-set of applicants than the skills they hold. A landscaper, for example, can be trained to have the same success on the job as a hire who had previous experience as an entry-level driller for a fracking company.

“If you’re eager and you have desire, we’re eager to work with you,” Sachse says.

The company also has formalized its training processes. Job skills are broken into components, with expectations and timelines for workers to get up to speed. And paths to promotions are more clear.

The workforce changes have helped Dandelion keep pace with exploding demand. The company more than tripled its commercial operations last year and recently installed a geothermal system in its thousandth home.

Green power tax credits in the federal Inflation Reduction Act have helped, Sachse says. And the industry’s growth is a big draw for workers who are looking for stable careers and better pay.

Even so, he says the company will continue to pay close attention to how it hires and retains workers.

The Kicker: “We always have to be good at this,” says Sachse. “We’re not ready to spike the football just yet.”

Open Tabs

Public Shaming

As part of its debt-cancellation push, the Biden administration has said it would publish an “annual watch list” of college programs with the worst debt levels. The Education Department this week said it is seeking formal public feedback on the “best way to identify the programs that provide the least financial value for students.” Institutions with programs on the list will be asked to submit improvement plans to the department.

ROI and Policy

Republican voters overwhelmingly (88%) believe that higher education programs should be required to provide a good ROI if they are going to accept tax dollars, found a survey conducted by Third Way and Global Strategy Group. Likewise, 85% of respondents say more transparency is needed on how college graduates fare in the job market, and they are willing to accept federal intervention to protect students and taxpayers.

Enrollment Crisis

The largest declines in community college enrollments during the early pandemic were among recent high school graduates, according to an analysis by John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center. About 90 U.S. community colleges gained students during this period. Dual enrollment grew in 30 states, Fink found, noting that 18.3% of U.S. community college students were under 18 in fall 2021.

Education Pipeline

Public schools lost more than 1.4M students in the first part of the pandemic, and enrollments have not rebounded, according to an analysis by Ben Chapman and Andrea Fuller of The Wall Street Journal. Many of the country’s largest districts expect further drops because of declining birth rates and the increasing popularity of private school and home schooling, which would have major implications for school funding.

Trade Jobs

The application rate for young people seeking technical jobs in fields like plumbing, building, and electrical work dropped by 49% in 2022 compared to 2020, Mary Yang reports for NPR, citing data from Handshake. While job postings for technical positions have grown, applications from students haven’t followed suit. Some commenters said trade jobs take a physical toll and that pay for apprenticeships can lag salaries in retail and fast food.

Career Readiness

Colleges are focusing more on career readiness — but many efforts are missing the mark, Matthew Hora, co-director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, writes in Inside Higher Ed. The problem includes a focus on skills that are too generic, an overreliance on work-based learning that happens off campus rather than being integrated into the classroom, and a lack of guidance to help students navigate career-related learning opportunities.

Learner Records

A new report from SmartResume maps the categories of companies and institutions that are part of the digital credentials ecosystem, including learning and employment records. The company focused on four data standards that enable how credentials are issued, stored, shared, and consumed. It also interviewed 20 experts to develop the map and an accompanying attempt to chart how digital credentials relate to each other.

Thanks for reading. What did I miss? Next week’s issue will look at challenges facing community colleges and plans for overcoming them.

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— Paul Fain

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