The big shift in education and work

Call it the “great reassessment of work,” the “great resignation,” or the “big churn.” Whatever the case, today’s job market is facing massive upheaval amid growing evidence that millions of Americans are rethinking what they want from work. There’s a shift underway—and whether it ends up being seismic or something smaller, it has major implications for the way we educate and prepare people for careers.

We think it’s a bit of a historic moment for the American labor force.”

-Karen Fichuk, chief executive of Randstad North America, in The New York Times.

Initially, this reassessment looked like it might be a boutique, white-collar phenomenon—as work-from-home employees with new savings and new perspective found themselves suddenly willing to take on new risks. But April’s jobs report and the months that followed have laid that notion to rest. Even as states have opened back up, frontline workers aren’t snapping up new jobs in fields like retail, hospitality, and warehousing and transportation. And many who were still working in those fields are now leaving—with The Washington Post reporting that retail just saw its largest one-month exodus since the U.S. Department of Labor began tracking that data more than 20 years ago.

This upheaval in the labor market is expected to accelerate existing trends toward greater automation, more flexibility in where and when people work, and the rise and fall of entire job categories. It also has heightened concerns about equity, and who gets access to the quality education and training needed to navigate this turbulent market.

“I still feel like we’re sewing the parachute as we fall because the change is just really coming that rapidly right now.”

-Tamera Maresh-Carver, managing director of global learning and development at FedEx, at a recent event.

However it shakes out, the world of work will look fundamentally different than it did two years ago. And our education and training systems have never needed to be more agile in order to respond. To address that, the Biden administration and states across the country are looking to make major investments in growing and reimagining education and workforce development. 

To understand more about how this shift is playing out on the ground, we dug into survey data and talked to some of the people—counselors, leaders at staffing agencies and nonprofits, and students themselves—who are driving the change. They gave us a clearer picture of the uncertainty of this moment and the real challenges around filling high-need roles, putting diversity and equity goals into action, and ensuring students don’t just find jobs but meaningful careers. The following are snapshots from those data and conversations.

Where the Jobs Are, but the Workers Aren’t

Hiring sign is seen outside of a daycare building in Glenview, Ill., in May. (Nam Y Huh/AP)

The state of play: Early childhood education is one sector facing a severe shortage of workers. The field was struggling to find enough qualified aids and teachers even before Covid—in part because of stringent licensure requirements coupled with relatively low pay—and the pandemic only exacerbated the problem. Now, the federal government, states across the country, and major nonprofits are making significant investments in the sector, with a particular eye toward retraining and growing the early childhood workforce. 

On the ground: Minny Kouanechao, director of early childhood education at Kelly Education 

Kelly Education, a staffing firm for schools and childcare centers, is slowly rebuilding its pool of early childhood educators, after it dropped in half during the early days of the pandemic. The sector relies heavily on workers who are 55-plus, Kouanechao said, and many of them had to stop working to care for elderly family members or because of risks to their own health. It remains an open question whether those workers — many at or close to retirement age — will return to the field.

In the meantime, Kelly Education isn’t taking chances. The firm is aggressively recruiting younger adults, touting the flexibility of substitute teaching and the ability to attend college while working in the field. It’s a sort of “earn-and-learn” model that the umbrella company, Kelly Services, has experience with in IT support. And it’s an approach that has captured the attention of corporations across the country—with many selling the ability to start a career and go to college at the same time. Major companies, such as Walmart, McDonald’s, and Chipotle, are touting education benefits that cover the full cost of college or close to it as a secret weapon in the war for talent.

At Kelly Education, workers in its substitute pool don’t receive tuition benefits, but Kouanechao stressed that they do have the opportunity to connect their work with their studies. The company is recruiting heavily at community colleges with early childhood education programs, and is starting to target students right out of high school who might be interested in careers in education. 

“We’re working with guidance counselors to let students know, ‘Hey, if you’re interested in education, this is a path you can take right out of high school and go from there.”

Key Stat: In LinkedIn’s most recent “Workplace Learning Report,” 76 percent of adults in Gen Z, 61 percent of Millennials, and 56 percent of Gen X said that learning is the key to success in their career.

When Talk of DEI Hits Reality in Campus Recruiting

The state of play: In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last May and the ensuing protests over injustice and systemic racism, businesses across the country made new commitments to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. More than 50 major companies—from Accenture to Yum!—have signed onto OneTen, committing to provide one million new family-sustaining careers for Black talent in the next 10 years. Companies are increasingly open to non-degree pathways, but many of the country’s “good jobs” will still require two-year or four-year degrees.

On the ground: Lynette Correa-Velez, Assistant Director of Career Development at Northeastern Illinois University

For students at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, career development isn’t something that will be happening down the road. The university is 60 percent first-generation college-goers, and 53 percent of undergraduates are eligible for federal Pell Grants for low-income students. Most students are already working — supporting their families, paying their own bills, or raising children.

So, the conversations Lynette Correa-Velez, Assistant Director of Career Development, has with students often center on immediate needs, especially during the pandemic. She’s been working hard, though, to ensure the career services office is “less transactional, and more transformational.”

“I often think about how unintentional the career services office was when I was an undergraduate. It was across campus in a random building on the 3rd floor, basically locked away,” Correa-Velez said. “That’s a major issue nationally — that we don’t center our career services offices.”

The pandemic, somewhat counterintuitively, has made it easier for career services to have a bigger presence. Employers are more willing to host information sessions online than they were to come in person, and Correa-Velez is able to hold more one-on-one coaching sessions now that they’ve gone virtual. She’s found that many students are more willing to open up in that setting than they are in a formal university office — and that’s important given how much of her work centers on helping students see how a successful career can live alongside other aspects of their identity.

“Unfortunately, the workplace has shamed people that don’t have middle class or upper middle class backgrounds and accents. So a lot of our students are ashamed that they don’t talk the ‘right’ way, or look the ‘right’ way. And a lot of my coaching is around dealing with that shame.”

Correa-Velez also focuses the office’s programming around the intersection of identity and work. It recently hosted a series on LGBTQ+ justice in the workplace and a “carrera” speaker series, designed to appeal to the 36 percent of students who identify as Latino. And the events of the past 18 months have also made it more natural for Correa-Velez to push employers on diversity, equity, and inclusion — even if it’s an area with which many still struggle.   

“It’s an opportunity for employers to say, ‘Hey, we haven’t done that well with that, but we’d like to and let’s talk.’”

Key Stat: Nine in 10 CEOs say that diversity, equity, and inclusion is a strategic priority this year, and that their companies aim to be leaders in that area, according to the 2021 Fortune/Deloitte CEO Survey.

Starting Adult Life Amid a Swirl of Anxiety and Uncertainty

The state of play: The high school class of 2020 was far more likely to delay college than the one the year before. Amid the pandemic, immediate postsecondary enrollment fell by 6.8 percent, with high-poverty schools seeing four times the decline of low-poverty ones, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. And the enrollment shortfall hit particularly hard at community colleges. The jury is still out on this year’s graduating class — but as of mid-June, FAFSA completions, a key indicator of enrollment among lower-income and middle-class students, were down 5.3 percent from the same time last year.

On the ground: Members of the high school Class of 2020 and 2021

A new national survey from America’s Promise Alliance found that 8 in 10 juniors and seniors this year changed their postsecondary plans at least somewhat because of the pandemic. About 16 percent said they will delay college, while 7 percent said they no longer plan to attend at all. A similar survey from the Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights, focused on graduates in the classes of 2020 and 2021, found that “stress, anxiety, and uncertainty” was the No. 1 reason why students who were interested in college decided to delay, followed by financial pressure.

As much as the survey itself, though, the graduates’ own words in open-ended responses provide insight into what is going on. A recent graduate in West Virginia who is working full-time and helping to support their household had this to say:

“Confused, Obligated, Stressed. I’m confused as to what I want to spend the rest of my life doing and don’t want to go into debt straight out of high school for something I probably won’t end up doing. I feel obligated because the only real way to make livable money is to get a higher education after high school unless you go into trades. I’m stressed because I have no money or family to help me pay for the high cost of college and this last year I haven’t made good enough grades.”

Another graduate working full-time in Arizona echoed that sense of obligation coupled with uncertainty:

“Post-high school education in America is very expensive, not accessible, and may not even be the right path for the lifestyle one wants. It feels as if it is the only choice but pointless at the same time. I don’t want to waste all my time and money on an education that gets me a career I don’t even enjoy.

Key stat: According to the latest data from the National College Access Network, FAFSA completions among 2021 high school graduates are down in every state but three, Illinois, Wyoming, and South Dakota. New Mexico and West Virginia have seen the biggest drops, with financial aid applications in both states down more than 12 percent over the previous year.  

Equity-Focused and Struggling to Find Training Providers 

The state of play: Companies want to hire more diverse talent and increasingly are willing to hire people without four-year degrees. In particular, large employers in consumer banking, information technology, and finance are focusing more on skills-based hiring. Yet for one unusual staffing agency, the real challenge is finding education and job training providers to send graduates their way to place in open jobs with employer partners. 

On the ground: Michelle Sims, CEO of Year Up Professional Resources (YUPRO)

It’s been a busy year for YUPRO. The staffing agency places newly-skilled young people who have graduated from nonprofit workforce education and skills-training programs into job assignments with its employer partners. Companies are eager to hire more talent from the firm, Sims said. And YUPRO is on track to double its size and $10 million in revenue last year, with projected triple-digit growth in job placements.

The firm is a public-benefit corporation and wholly owned subsidiary of Year Up, a nonprofit that provides free technical skills training and paid internships to lower-income young adults. It works with young people who lack formal college credentials, and most are Black and Latino. YUPRO only partners with employers that seek to reduce hiring barriers and that pay a living wage.

“YUPRO seeks to close the opportunity divide through job placement that also provides for our talent with career coaching, job readiness skills, and access to social services,” Sims said. That’s the sort of wrap-around support in job placement that can extend tenure and career progression.

The firm’s employer partners want to do better in hiring diverse talent. But Sims said they are struggling to fill open entry-level and middle-skill jobs through traditional means like posting open jobs on the internet. This is particularly true when they try to recruit low-income young people who lack consistent computer and broadband access.

Sims said YUPRO needs help finding quality workforce skills-training groups to make the connection to its eager employer partners. YUPRO is a no-cost partner, and makes a donation to nonprofit training providers for each job placement it makes. Finding training partners is time consuming, with a steep learning curve on both sides.

We need to deepen and widen our diversity talent pool with mission-aligned talent providers to expand opportunities for traditionally underrepresented talent so we may meet our employer partner demand.”

Key stat: Last year, 93 percent of the young people YUPRO served got a full-time job. And new hires placed by the firm this year earn an average hourly wage of more than $26.

The Challenge of Putting Learning into Work

The state of play: Work-based learning is in vogue, popular with colleges and universities looking for ways to make coursework more engaging and to help students develop more of the real-world skills that they need to be successful in careers. The pandemic led to significant growth in online internships, and the federal government is making major investments in diversifying and expanding the registered apprenticeship program.

On the ground: James Mable, Director of Career and Job Placement Services for the Houston Community College System

James Mable is slated to meet with leaders from AT&T on Friday to come up with a strategy for preparing more students for hard-to-fill jobs at the company, headquartered 240 miles north in Dallas. “Just like everyone, they’re having a labor shortage,” he said.

He’s hearing from major companies a lot more often these days, eager to hire both new graduates and students who need to work while enrolled. Employers are having to be more strategic, he said, offering better benefits and greater flexibility.

“We’re finding that students have options. Students worked in a lot of jobs that they did before because, it seems, they just weren’t fully aware there were other options.”

The college system is being more strategic, too. Its central career services office is just three years old, and it launched a new, centralized student engagement and employer recruitment platform two years ago. That move enabled the central administration to augment the work that departments were already doing to cultivate employer partners — significantly expanding the range of co-ops, internships, and apprenticeships available to students.

Employers’ urgent need for talent right now has opened up the opportunity for new conversations about work-based learning, but even so, Mable says it can be a hard sell.

A lot of times employers are simply trying to fill a job. But I think about a student at a community college — a lot of times this is their first instance of connecting with an employer in their field of interest. We want them to have a foundation, to have opportunities to experiment with their field, to get acclimated to what’s expected.”

Mable’s team works to get companies on board by having detailed conversations about their business processes, and they try to smooth and shorten the match-making process for both employers and students. It’s what both corporate and education consultants like to call “reducing friction.” And unless it’s done well, education and work often remain disjointed. 

Key stat: Prior to the pandemic, analytics firms routinely found that 6 in 10 full-time jobs seeking entry-level employees require at least three years or more of experience. Burning Glass Technologies, which analyzes millions of job listings a day, recently told The New York Times that may be changing. The firm found that the share of postings that say “no experience necessary” is up two-thirds over 2019 levels.

The last word: Mable believes that, as the recovery continues, institutions and employers must do more to align expectations for learning and work. Otherwise, he said, “There’s a continuous disconnect between the programs that are out there and the employers that are related to those programs. Everybody is shooting for the ideal candidate, and students are applying, but they’re kind of just out there in the wilderness.”

Editor’s note: Strada Education Network, which runs the Center for Education Consumer Insights cited in this story, is a financial supporter of Work Shift. See our full list of funders and our policy on editorial independence.

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