Diane Bosak, Vice President for Workforce Strategies & Policy, Achieving the Dream, Inc. 

Roy Vanderford, Director of Strategic Solutions, Center of Workforce Innovations

Even with full employment, many individuals are not fully employed. Changing this reality, and creating a labor market that works for employees and employers alike, requires a shift in our educational model.
A strong economy with historically low unemployment levels should be viewed as a positive for employers and jobseekers alike, but the skills gap and worker shortages in key occupations signal the need for a reset as a major economic priority. We cannot wait for a new recession to resolve the challenges for employers and educators. Rather, we need to reset the relationship between employers and colleges in the new economic environment so that getting a job doesn’t close doors to higher education, but opens them.
While economists view our current economy at close to a “full employment” level, many workers remain at income levels where they could not be considered “fully employed.” Many current employees are lacking significant skills (the under-skilled) and others have skills and education credentials that don’t align with current needs (the underemployed). Having a job today is a good thing following the recession of a decade ago, but being under-skilled or having misaligned skills means that workers will not advance and will be more vulnerable to layoffs as new technologies are introduced. Workers will be trapped in low-wage jobs and will remain among the working poor, with limited financial assets and limited economic opportunity.

Education and training systems have not worked well for far too many, leaving significant numbers of potential talented workers unable to fully participate in today’s evolving economy, and ill-positioned for future jobs and economic mobility. We leave behind those who must work, sometimes at multiple jobs, to merely survive, who face significant barriers to accessing new skill-building opportunities. We leave behind those who have gained skills and knowledge through a job or some other formal training yet have no degree (and perhaps not even a credential)—but have a base that can become a bridge to a better job and better pay. We continue to create a deeper chasm for people of color and low socioeconomic status to bridge.

We need a different approach with different connections among colleges, workforce development programs, and employers. If we do this right, we can serve three critical objectives:

Close the skills gap for employers;
Increase the attainment of higher education credentials in our populations (often an economic development goal in regions), and;
Increase wages and opportunities for working families.
Annually, federal and state governments invest millions in education and training systems and programs by funding the public workforce system of workforce boards; by funding financial aid programs such as Pell; and by directly supporting institutions, including community colleges and universities. Yet, for all this investment we have not effectively helped working adults navigate their pathways to upward mobility. The resources available often appear confusing and disconnected to both workers and employers.

Current initiatives often revolve around the terms “career pathways” and “sector-based” planning. While there are many high-value concepts embedded in these approaches, implementation has often served to keep higher education and employers in their separate camps rather than develop new integrated models. There is an implicit compact between employers and educators: Employers advise schools on curriculum and its relevance; and schools provide education and training in order to deliver skilled workers to employers. Sector-based planning is done by employers to define demand-side needs, and career pathways are owned by the education side to provide the supply. The rapidly changing job market will require new and different skills than what most workers are equipped with today, particularly as technology and artificial intelligence create opportunities and challenges in all sectors. The old adage of lifelong learning is increasingly relevant. Additionally, employers in multiple sectors are demanding many of the same skills, such as IT and customer service, and cross-sector planning and partnerships can be extremely valuable. All of this begs for blurring the lines between what is learned, where it is learned, and how it is assessed.

What should a new model look like? A new model requires community colleges, employers, community organizations, workforce boards and, dare we say it, other public and private education and training providers to come together, design for the workforce needs of today and build a stronger infrastructure to meet the workforce needs of the future. This will require ongoing and full integration between working in a job and learning the skills for the next job. From the first day of employment there needs to be a compact between the employer and the employee related to the responsibilities of each in terms of advancing skills, credentials and wages. Community colleges and other education and training providers will need to be relevant within the context of that compact.

There are numerous mindsets that will need to change in order for this to be successful. Students must move from a “train and then get a job” model to a “get a job and then train” model that rewards competencies and skills already acquired so students are not starting over. Employers will need to embrace credentials, not just skills, and work with education partners to validate skills and credentials so they have relevancy in the work environment. Employers will need to offer clear pathways to better jobs, in order to foster employee loyalty. Apprenticeship programs and other learn-and-earn models will be ways for employers to not only attract new employees, but also to help current employees progress into new positions. Finally, colleges will need to embrace the value of knowledge gained at work and in other settings, and find better ways to turn that knowledge into credits. Publicly-funded job centers can also play a valuable role by working with customers past the point of hiring to the point of advancement to higher-skilled jobs.

So, back to where we began—a recession is not the reset we need. Can we maintain a recession-proof economy? Maybe not, but we should certainly act like we can, and we can help the workforce “future proof” their jobs by acquiring the skills and navigational tools they need to employ those skills as the economy continues to change. We are fortunate to have new technology in education and online learning that makes continuous education accessible to all. Our challenge is to break free of old models that no longer serve us well and to reset the basic relationship between employers and educators in ways that align with current economic realities.

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