Building the on-ramps to the 'Good Jobs Superhighway'

Building the on-ramps to the 'Good Jobs Superhighway'
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Working-class Americans are being left behind. There are now 44 million working-age adults without college degrees who are not earning a living wage and do not have enough income to maintain a middle-class standard of living.  

They come from all races and ethnicities, from rural and urban areas, and they have seen their futures undone by globalization, automation and of course, the Great Recession.

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Three-quarters of the jobs lost during the recession were held by those with a high school diploma or less. And through the post-recession recovery, it was the workers with at least some education or training beyond high school who captured nearly all of the job growth.

Those with less education were the first to be cut and were never hired back. Now, those with only a high school education are 50-percent more likely to live in poverty than are those with some college or a two‑year degree.

So, even as economists point out how we are in the tightest labor market since the 1990s, far too many Americans are disconnected from good work. 

Against that backdrop, policymakers have suggested a host of solutions ranging from changes to federal tax policy and higher-education financing to unemployment and disability insurance programs.

Albeit promising, policy solutions to the woes of our modern labor market have been stymied by the complexity of  restructuring entrenched systems — or a lack of political will to advance the transformative change that is required.

It is a challenge complicated by shifting economic goalposts: Jobs are changing, and skills are being defined differently. In a Business Roundtable survey, 95 percent of CEOs reported they struggled to find workers with the requisite skills for the job openings. 

Fortunately, we need not craft new solutions from scratch. A growing cadre of on-ramps to good jobs already exist but rarely penetrate a national discourse focused on the growing disconnect between education and employment.

They can be for- or nonprofit and have names like JobTrain, STRIVE, i.c.stars and Techtonic. And they are having a profound impact. 

On average, on-ramp programs report that at least 80 percent of their participants find a full-time role upon completion of the program, often doubling, tripling or even quadrupling their incomes.    

San Francisco-based nonprofit, JVS, which provides targeted, short-term training programs in fields like health care, technology and financial services is emblematic of the approach taken by on-ramps to quickly move people from unemployment or marginal employment to well-paying careers.

It works closely with local employers to ensure that its various programs actually teach the skills in demand in the regional economy. 

Both the relatively short training time and the tight connection to employers are hallmarks of on-ramps and set them apart from traditional postsecondary programs or federally funded job training programs, such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).  

But unlike traditional education and training providers, on-ramps like JVS often provide wraparound supports such as counseling, help enrolling in assistance programs and mentoring on workplace norms that are critical to ensuring the success of learners who often face complex life challenges and have had limited success in either education or the world of work.

Despite their relative success, on-ramps are not widespread. We estimate that only 65 exist nationwide — serving fewer than 100,000 people. Part of this is because funding flows abundantly to postsecondary options that are better suited for younger student populations as well as the more educated.

Consider the fact that at the federal level, we invest $139 billion in postsecondary education, and the lion’s share goes to financial aid for those who are enrolled in undergraduate degree programs that neither aspire nor are they equipped to help Americans break out of low-wage labor. 

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Although on-ramps have demonstrated promise, they need much greater attention and investment.

We need policymakers, impact investors, philanthropists and employers to invest in identifying and tackling the barriers that have, thus far, prevented the growth of on-ramps. We need to test these new models and build out and scale the most promising ones. 

Our research shows that, when done well, they create much-needed, diverse talent pipelines for local employers, and they reduce the risk of hiring by allowing employers to “test out” employees through modern American apprenticeships.

In short, on-ramps can be good for society and good for business. And if brought to scale, they just might unlock opportunity for the 44 million Americans at risk of being left behind by the future of work.

Michelle Weise is chief innovation officer for the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, an R&D lab working on solutions to strengthen education-to-employment pathways and build the learning ecosystem of the future. 

Allison Salisbury is president of Entangled Studios, an education innovation studio that partners with philanthropies, universitie, and companies to build dynamic solutions to education’s most pressing problems.