Reporting on the connections between education and work

A playbook for workforce development policy

America Achieves unveils a policy playbook to help state and local governments decide how to best spend federal aid from last year’s $1.9T American Rescue Plan. We talked with the group’s CEO about its recommendations.
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Jon Schnur is CEO of America Achieves, a national nonprofit focused on bridging the gap between education and work. The group just published a policy playbook to help state and local governments decide how to best spend federal aid from last year’s $1.9T American Rescue Plan, in order to support people on the pathway to good careers while helping employers fill in-demand jobs.

Work Shift emailed Schnur with questions about the playbook. A lightly edited version of the exchange is below.

Q: The playbook makes clear that jobs have to be available on the other end of these training programs, and that those outcomes must be tracked. But how can policymakers and training providers be relatively assured that employers will actually hire these learners into well-paying jobs?

Schnur: You are right that this playbook focuses squarely on empowering individuals to attain good jobs and wages—and therefore employers hiring for those jobs need to be at the center of this work. That means starting with employers in in-demand, growing sectors of the economy, including technology, health care, clean energy, and infrastructure. It means asking those employers and their associations to confirm what good jobs and careers they are prioritizing and to agree on what skills and credentials are needed for hiring.

That can give targets for programs to focus on curricula, coaching, instructors, and outcomes that match those needs—while measuring and improving success based on data looking at  equitable attainment and persistence in good jobs with strong wages. Then, employers can put “skin in the game”—and ideally commit to hiring or at least interviewing candidates from these programs and to focusing on good jobs with quality standards and opportunities for advancement. And state funding should, over time, go to those programs and employer partnerships that not only reflect these principles but also deliver results. Wherever possible, states, institutions of higher education and other programs should ensure that learners completing these programs have the option of earning meaningful credit to apply to valued postsecondary degree programs in those in-demand sectors—in order to advance ongoing economic mobility and ensure a more diverse talent supply for higher-level roles.

Q: Does this playbook work for both small programs and large?

A: This playbook works well for programs of all sizes, whether it’s one community college or program in one local community, or a robust, comprehensive statewide initiative. But the goal, in the aggregate, is for states to use these policies as a way to get to scale. This should become a strategy to create diverse talent pipelines at large scale for growing, in-demand sectors—and to give substantial numbers of individuals predictable pathways to good jobs. That means getting financial and other resources to evidence-based—and over time, proven—programs and partnerships of all sizes across communities and regions. At the same time, the partnerships are likely easier for large employers as individual firms. That’s why employer associations and intermediaries are crucial to enable active participation of small businesses.

Q: As with employment, you all are strong on the need for stackability. Do any of the examples you cite offer options for real career growth with stackable credentials on the job—and that can be counted toward a four-year degree?

A: Stackability is easier said than done—and we need more options for workers to earn valued and stackable credentials on the job. And when we talk about stackability, what we mean is shorter-term programs that allow participants immediate off ramps into employment—which is important for those with less flexibility to enter into longer, degree-driven programs. But instead of these credentials standing alone, they are considered like credits and can be “stacked” atop one another on the route to an advanced degree. We have to move beyond self-contained, traditional degree pathways that are focused primarily at the associate’s and bachelor’s level and are binary: either you complete the full degree program or are viewed as a non-completer. There is great opportunity to install flexible off-ramps at multiple junctures that provide students with ever-increasing job skills.

A few design elements can help:

First, policymakers should prioritize programs that lead to certificates and credentials along a defined career path and, if desired, to a degree. For example, through Indiana’s Next Level Jobs program, participants can get support to obtain certificates in a range of in-demand fields that can be stacked with further certificates towards an associate’s degree—and then continue their education at a four-year institution through a transfer partnership. With its Learn and Earn program, West Virginia is explicitly crafting opportunities with employers for participants to gain skills on the job as they work toward an associate’s degree. The non-profit Merit America has established active partnerships with universities, where their learners completing the program can earn postsecondary credit in aligned programs and degrees. 

Second, enabling state policy is critical—including investments in the development of stackable credential pathways, credit articulation, and transfer partnerships between institutions providing short-term credentials and traditional degree-granting institutions. This should involve incentives for higher education to partner in this work—and ensure credit for prior learning, attainment of valued credentials, and work-based learning. 

Finally, workers and learners need clear and accessible information, and support through career navigators and coaches. The good news is that there are programs and emerging state models leading the way and learning as they go.

At the same time, we should also be elevating the idea of skills-based hiring—rather than employers using degrees as screening criteria for jobs that don’t actually require degrees. The non-profit organization Opportunity@Work is one example of an initiative addressing this issue—pushing for a modernized way of evaluating and hiring workers that should be partnered with any discussion on stackable credentials. Recognizing the existing skills brought by many workers is a crucial supplement to the attainment of valued degrees.

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