Alabama goes big with its Talent Triad, an ambitious attempt to connect jobseekers and employers based on skills. The state’s newly launched suite of tools could be a breakthrough for learner records and skills-based hiring. Also, how to harness policy support for apprenticeships.

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

A Serious Move Toward Skills

Alabama has gone public with what may be the nation’s most ambitious effort to tighten connections between education and work. Experts say the project could have major implications for skills-based hiring and the unbundling of credentials.

The Alabama Talent Triad began five years ago with Gov. Kay Ivey’s goal of adding 500K credentialed and workforce-ready workers by 2025. A year later, a state committee started working to identify in-demand careers and to create a competency-based framework.

As that effort unfolded, the resulting public-private partnership tapped 19 state agencies and a coalition of employers, nonprofit groups, education and training providers, and labor-market data platforms. The project seeks to create a statewide skills-based hiring ecosystem aimed at:

  • Jobseekers and working learners who want to apply their skills in a new or advancing job.
  • Employers who want to find talented Alabamians to fill in-demand roles.
  • Education providers working to train and build Alabama’s workforce.

The Talent Triad is a “population-level solution,” says Nick Moore, director of the governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation.

“We believe this to be the nation’s first talent marketplace,” he says. “Tactically, our strategies are competency-based learning and skill-based hiring.”

The project includes three main components:

The Alabama Credential Registry, an online tool for education and training providers to register the credentials they issue, including degrees, as well as certificates, licenses, and other nondegree credentials. The registry also describes the competencies learners gain in completing the credentials.

The Alabama Skills-Based Job Description Generator and Employer Portal, which allows employers to create customized job descriptions based on the skills “DNA” of their jobs. It’s designed to help businesses transition their existing job descriptions to skills-based versions, and to post jobs that can be matched with potential employees.

The Alabama College and Career Exploration Tool, a version of a learning and employment record (LER) that allows students and jobseekers to own, collect, and manage their records of verified skills, credentials, and experiences in a digital wallet, which is designed to share easily and link directly to skills-based job descriptions from employers.

The Talent Triad’s tools initially will be available to the state’s residents through Alabama Works!, a hub that connects people with local job, education, and training opportunities. The first focus is job centers and people who need the most help. But the goal is to make the tools available to all Alabamians at schools and many other community locations.

During a demonstration last week, the learner record site looked like a souped-up version of LinkedIn. Users can opt in to have their profiles matched with employers and jobs.

The interoperability of the data included in the digital wallets, job descriptions, and credential registry is how the Talent Triad’s offerings could be used anywhere in the state, says Greg DiDonato, vice president of business development for EBSCOed, a platform from an Alabama-based company that helped to develop and power the Talent Triad’s tools.

“We do want to make sure everyone is speaking the same language,” says DiDonato.

The rich, open information about jobs from the Talent Triad will be a boon for colleges, which often lack details about the skills and competencies employers want, says Amber Garrison Duncan, executive vice president of the Competency-Based Education Network, which is a project partner.

“We weren’t giving the colleges enough information to build programs that connect people to jobs,” she says.

For example, Garrison Duncan says dental offices had told colleges in the state that certificates would be enough for jobseekers who wanted to become dental hygienist assistants. Yet most of the job descriptions from those employers still listed associate degrees as the minimum required credential.

Alabama tends to have a demand-based perspective with workforce development, Moore says. As a result, the Talent Triad has focused heavily on the needs of employers, starting in manufacturing and healthcare. The project also has an initial emphasis on state personnel offices, opening the door for Alabama to make progress in hiring government employees without four-year degrees.

“We’re all about tearing the paper ceiling, too,” says Moore. “But we need to have the technology in place to be able to pull it off.”

While he notes that the bachelor’s degree has the best long-term ROI, Moore hopes the Talent Triad will help to destigmatize noncredit training programs and shine a light on how to re-envision and unbundle college degrees.

“The credential is just the wrapper,” he says. “There’s got to be a way for us to democratize new modalities.”

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‘Scrappy’ and Agile

Many attempts to create data systems that link learners with education and job opportunities have failed to move the needle, says Matt Gee, the co-founder and CEO of BrightHive, a public benefit corporation that works on data collaboration.

For example, Gee cites career-navigation apps states paid to create but that didn’t attract more than a few hundred users. “They built things and never turned the lights on,” says Gee, a data science expert and a senior research fellow at the University of Chicago. “That’s endemic to innovation in this space.”

While some LER pilot programs made progress, he says none have proved the user value proposition—the reason why many people would want a digital wallet.

However, recent advancements in AI and the arrival of large language models could help the field to take off, says Gee. “The app ecosystem that hangs off a learner record is nascent, but it’s starting to bubble.”

The Talent Triad uses AI to squelch the noise as it seeks to better align job-market signals with education and training programs.

For example, the tool allows users to customize labels on their skill descriptions, while the AI looks for similar terms across jobs and training, says Kristin Delwo, executive vice president of SaaS product and technology innovation at EBSCO Information Services. “The technology will evolve over time,” she says, as it uses feedback loops to improve processes.

Gee says Alabama’s Talent Triad is a “scrappy” and agile approach to solving challenges that have derailed other LER projects. Most importantly, he says the state has spent years doing the groundwork to actually get the tools in the hands of people. A similar push in Arkansas is also worth watching, say Gee and many other experts.

The consistent support from Ivey, the state’s Republican governor, has been crucial to the depth and power of the project, says John Pallasch, who served as assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Labor during the last administration and has worked as a consultant with both Alabama and Arkansas.

“Problems like this aren’t fixed in a year,” he says. “It’s eminently doable if you have the political will.”

Other states can learn from Arkansas and Alabama, says Pallasch. They already are—Moore says his team has spoken with officials from two dozen states, some of them blue states. He hopes the Talent Triad will help to “springboard the nation” toward more skills-based systems.

The Kicker: “We see this as public good—a utility infrastructure,” says Moore.

From Talk to Action

Few issues draw more bipartisan support than efforts to expand apprenticeships.

A new policy snapshot from Apprenticeships for America points to recent investments approved by the Biden administration and bipartisan majorities in the U.S. Congress, as well as in TexasAlabamaCalifornia, and Maryland.

The brief describes an analysis by the relatively new advocacy group of all 50 states’ approaches to apprenticeship policy. Among the findings was that the political interest led to more talk than meaningful action.

“Most states lack clear, scalable strategies for multi-employer and cross-sector implementation,” says Mary Ann Lisanti, the group’s legislative director. “Only a few states have set numerical goals and implemented funding to reach them.”

Even modest state support could help hesitant employers give apprenticeships a whirl, says Kimberly Nichols, founder and CEO of Franklin Apprenticeships, an established provider of tech apprenticeship programs.

“There needs to be more funding to help employers pilot this,” Nichols says. “Once they do a pilot, they will support this.”

Open Tabs

Enrollment Crisis
Increases to the minimum wage during the last decade may be contributing to big declines in community college enrollments, particularly among part-time students, according to a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The researchers said a key question is how the minimum wage increases and two-year college enrollment dips might be impacting on-the-job training by companies.

Public-Private Partnerships
Industry-led public-private partnerships can strengthen college students’ paths into careers, according to a survey by researchers at the American Institutes of Research of 23 active partnerships in 10 states. However, developing, sustaining, and scaling these programs can be challenging. The report calls for strong intermediaries to manage partnerships and stresses the value of early wins to help with engagement and funding.

Short-Term Pell
As the U.S. Congress considers legislation to authorize short-term Pell Grants, the Congressional Research Service released a report describing the history, experiments, and policy arguments around short-term programs. It also includes a comparison of three short-term Pell Grant bills in this session of Congress, including proposed outcome metrics, such as earnings requirements, that would apply to eligible programs.

Sectoral Training
A confluence of economic forces makes this the ideal time to expand proven sectoral training programs like Year Up and Project QUEST, according to two reports from the Workforce Futures Initiative. Replicating and scaling these programs will require novel adaptations, such as shortened paths to jobs and workforce ecosystems, the reports say, as well as a strategic balance of funding from philanthropy, employers, and the federal government.

ROI in China
China’s largest ever college graduating class of 11.6M students will enter a slowing economy with record youth unemployment rates of 21.3% in urban areas, reports The New York Times. The problem is exacerbated by a mismatch between the jobs students want and what’s available. Government policymakers are pressuring college administrators to do more to find jobs for graduates, some of whom are fabricating job offers to placate officials.

Economic Environment
Pluralsight, a workforce development software company, recently had a third round of layoffs, reports Shannon Sollitt of The Salt Lake Tribune. The company previously laid off 400 employees. Pluralsight’s co-founder and CEO, Aaron Skonnard, cited a challenging economic environment in announcing the initial restructuring and workforce reduction. Vista Equity Partners reportedly acquired Pluralsight in 2021 for $3.8B.

Skills-First Metrics
Grads of Life and the Business Roundtable co-led a working group that developed metrics companies can use to evaluate their skills-first employment practices, including hiring and promotion. In a new report, the nonprofit group describes the measurement framework it created in partnership with IBM and 11 other companies. The report argues that standardized metrics are needed to evaluate the impact of companies’ skills-first investments.

Job Moves
Daniele Grassi is the new president of General Assembly, a skills training company owned by the Adecco Group. Grassi most recently was president and chief business officer of Ironhack. He replaces Lisa Lewin, who in April left her role at the helm of General Assembly to be the CEO in residence at Primary Venture Partners.

Work Shift will be doing more reporting on Alabama’s important experiment. This sort of complex, sector-crossing work too often seems to slip through the cracks, with little news coverage or publicly available writing by experts. I’d like to see more attempts to make sense of this project and others like it. Let me know what you’re seeing or would like to read?

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