America Needs a New Workforce Education System
Developing large-scale workforce education programs that enable workers to advance or change industries will not only reduce income inequality, but also support domestic innovation.
The American dream promised that if you worked hard, you could move up, with well-paying, working-class jobs providing a gateway to an ever-growing middle class. Today, however, the nation is seeing increasing inequality rather than economic convergence. Technological advances, combined with profound labor market shifts during the pandemic, are putting quality jobs out of reach for workers who lack the proper skills and training. One of the best ways to address this challenge is to improve workforce education.
Learning on the job has, of course, long been a feature of most occupations. But developing formal programs that allow most workers to advance from their current position or to even change industries has not been a priority for decades. Yet both research and practical experience have shown that such programs, designed to improve skills and education over the course of an employee’s work life, are precisely what is needed. Not just any jobs program will do. They must be carefully focused, flexible enough to meet emerging needs, and tailored to lifelong learning. Failure to meet these requirements could consign millions of workers to dead-end jobs during their most productive years.
The benefits of developing large-scale programs for workforce education will extend beyond the already considerable ones of addressing inequality. A more skilled workforce also contributes to innovation. Industrial policy in the United States has largely focused on two preproduction tasks aimed at earlier-stage innovation: support for agencies funding academic and lab research and development, and support for industry R&D through the federal R&D tax credit. But there hasn’t been a complementary workforce education thrust. Indeed, many economists view science and engineering at the college and graduate school levels as the principal educational key to future growth. Yet as innovation diffuses into production—be it robotic welding or new coating technologies—R&D has proven to be not the only educational need. A skilled technical workforce has an innovation role as well—in programming the robotic welders, for example, and in improving the coating technologies.
The social disruption is real
Overall, job opportunities for high school graduates have shrunk significantly in recent years. For example, the share of men of prime working age with no college experience who are not working at all reached 18% in 2013. At the same time, median income for men who had not completed high school fell by 20% between 1990 and 2013 and by 13% for those with a high school diploma or some college. In a country that prides itself on its social mobility, this was a clear signal of a loss to middle-income ranks and of growing social inequality, as well as a harbinger of a postindustrial backlash.
A closer look at two sectors—manufacturing and retail—reveals the turmoil. Historically, manufacturing has been an important middle-class pathway for high school educated males—including African Americans and Hispanic Americans. From 2000 to 2010, however, manufacturing employment fell by 5.8 million jobs (or almost a third), from 17.3 million to 11.5 million. And by 2015, it had recovered to only about 12 million jobs, where it remains.
Retail, which often offers a first job or a job of refuge, is in trouble as well, as stores, malls, and entire chains have closed over the past decade. First, the extraordinary expansion in the second half of the 20th century crashed against the 2008 financial crunch. Then the disruptive growth of online ordering accelerated a decline in in-person retail even further. Warehousing positions offset some of this job loss, but they went to different people—female store clerks weren’t hired to do heavy lifting in warehouses. Fifteen million people were employed in retail trades at the beginning of 2020. Then the coronavirus hit.
The pandemic has been a shock not just to retail but to much of the system. The volume of jobs lost has been dramatic. Restaurants lost 5.5 million jobs in April 2020, then reopenings during the summer let the industry regain some jobs, only to lose them again with the spike in infections during the fall. Similarly, retail lost 2.3 million store jobs in April, rebounded by a million jobs by June, but by fall the job numbers were falling again. In travel and tourism, 35% of the jobs have been lost since February 2020. These aren’t the only hard-hit sectors, but they are big ones. Many jobs in retail, the restaurant industry, tourism, and travel won’t be coming back: bankruptcies are already climbing. Millions of workers in these sectors will be stranded.
This latest disruption will make American economic inequality even worse than it was before the pandemic. Workers from hard-hit sectors will need to shift to new sectors where there will be jobs. And to thrive, they must get not just any job but quality jobs. While lower-end services jobs had been growing as the middle class thinned out, new Labor Department data show the coronavirus has now hit that sector, so job openings will tend to require higher skills.
Opportunities exist. Health care, for example, is embracing suites of new technologies that will require skilled technologists at good pay. Manufacturing and utilities have aging workforces that will require millions of new workers in coming years, albeit for increasingly skilled jobs. The trick to minimizing further disruption will be to provide the skills and training needed to educate and shape the current worker pool.
Wanted: worker skills and human skills
The United States was the first nation to develop mass higher education programs, and we used them as an engine for innovation as well as economic and social mobility. The high school degree was once the acceptable basic credential, but has since been displaced. A college degree is now the key differentiator for economic well-being.
Higher education is also a complex, established “legacy” sector, reluctant to change and adapt its operating modes to fit new needs. Although many of the necessary prerequisites are disconnected from actual job and life skills, college degrees have become a default credential for employers because there are no others that are as widely accepted and used.
Business requires new skills, particularly in information technology, so the workforce as a whole requires upskilling—current workers as well as incoming college graduates and those without college degrees. And yet universities have not embraced or contributed to these workforce developments.
Herein lies an opportunity for institutions of higher learning, particularly at a time when they themselves face increasing financial pressure: they can offer more career-related skills in addition to what they teach now. This approach may enable them to reach beyond their current declining demographic of 18- to 26-year-olds. Some critics have worried that this shift might erode liberal art traditions. We argue the opposite: in fact “human skills” such as critical thinking, creativity, writing, and communicating are in high demand, and can flourish in this new configuration.
Unlike many European nations, the United States never built a comprehensive workforce education system. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that current programs lack the proper focus, are small in scale, and siloed from each other. The Department of Labor’s training programs don’t reach the oncoming higher technical skills or help incumbent workers acquire them. In turn, the Department of Education’s programs tend to target college, not workforce education, and don’t mesh with the Labor programs. With the exception of a few states, such as Massachusetts, the vocational education system in high schools has largely been dismantled. And community colleges, which could provide advanced training in emerging fields, are largely underfunded—not to mention that their completion rates hover around a third.
Most colleges and universities don’t see workforce education as their bailiwick and so aren’t linked to the other participants in the system. Overall, the education system is disconnected from the workplace, and a system for lifelong learning is missing. In addition, the existing workforce education system operates at too small a scale to meet the growing demand. The system needs not only reforms but also the ability to reach many more people, more effectively. Online education is one tool that can help with the scale-up—if applied correctly. Addressing these problems should help to reduce economic inequality and deepen our capacity for innovation.
The new community college try
Community colleges could become the cornerstone of a robust, much-needed workplace education system. A number of these institutions, some highlighted below, have already begun to show the way. They will all need additional building blocks, however, to achieve the necessary scale and flexibility of offerings.
Asnuntuck Community College is in the middle of an aerospace industry corridor along the Connecticut River Valley. It has developed advanced manufacturing certificate programs, using a new state-supported, state-of-the-manufacturing-art equipment center. Enrollees include not only its own students, but also high school students as well as workers at area companies, small and large.
Valencia College in Florida set out to reach a large economic underclass stuck in low-end, low-paid, part-time service jobs. It tailored various short programs to help students quickly get on a career ladder leading to secure jobs with benefits that can support families. Each program lasted 10 to 22 weeks, five days per week for eight hours a day. Valencia offered industry-standard certificates in advanced manufacturing, construction, heavy equipment, logistics, and health care fields. Importantly, these certificates could be stacked for multiple, certified complementary skills and credits toward a Valencia associate degree.
Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina, worked with area firms and the state’s Chamber of Commerce to develop a new youth apprenticeship program beginning in the junior year of high school. Students employed by participating companies go to high school classes in the morning, where they must take math and science, to the college at midday for technical courses, and to their sponsoring company for well-paying jobs in afternoons. This takes them out of a sometimes-disruptive high school culture into higher-expectation environments. By tearing down the wall between learning and work, the program places entry-level workers on a path to quality jobs and education.
Elsewhere, the US military has pioneered efforts to teach hands-on skills through virtual and augmented reality. The Navy’s Training Systems Division in Florida, for example, has developed programs that use online simulations run on touch screens and high-end gaming computers. The Navy is now shifting a substantial amount of its training for advanced equipment on ships, submarines, and at air bases into these online systems.
Several elements are common to the most successful programs for workplace education. They include:
- Forming short programs. Programs focused on technical skills should typically run for 10 to 20 weeks. People who have been in the workforce won’t be able to take off time for two- or four-year degrees; they have families to support and obligations to meet.
- Embracing credentialing. Programs should provide certificates for specific groups of related skills, based on demonstrated competencies. These should be stacked toward college degrees and credits, which remain the most broadly recognized credentials.
- Supporting competency-based education. Programs should be organized around demonstrated skills broken down into particular competencies, unlike today’s education that is based on an agricultural calendar and standard completion times. If students show the skill competency, they get the certificate, regardless of how long they have spent in the program. This can cut time in school and student costs, and reward practical experience.
- Developing appropriate online education. Online modules will be critical if workforce education is going to scale up to meet postpandemic needs. And yet online education can’t replace effective instructors or hands-on work with actual equipment. Online education is best suited to conveying and assessing the foundational information behind the skills.
- Breaking down the work/learn barrier. Programs should be linked to industry, as today’s schools have become too disconnected from the workplace. Linkage programs in the form of apprenticeships, internships, and cooperative programs are needed to get students into the workplace, earning money while they build skills. At the same time, they can make a direct connection between the competencies they must learn for greater job opportunities.
- Improving completion rates. Completion rates at community colleges should be at least 70%, up from the 30% rate at many of them today. Frustration with required remedial prep courses leads many students to drop out. Successful programs have found one solution in integrating the supportive course work into students’ study program for career skills so they can clearly see how the remedial work is relevant to their career opportunities.
- Embedding industry-recognized credentials into educational programs. Many employers want the assurance of skill knowledge that a credential approved and accepted by industry provides. It creates an additional and parallel pathway to help students toward employment. It also ensures that academic programs are relevant to actual industry needs.
The latest research on workforce education is quite clear. Federal resources need to scale up. States, with backing from federal education funds, must implement the new strategies outlined above. Some states and employers, and the community colleges they work with, are starting to embrace these steps. The workforce disruption from the pandemic could be a driver that forces further action. A more equitable and innovative future is possible, provided we leave our previously scattershot approaches behind.