The 'great American work reassessment' can create bridges to opportunity

The 'great American work reassessment' can create bridges to opportunity
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COVID-19 shocked an already changing U.S job market, provoking “a great reassessment of work in America.” This reassessment is occurring while 10.4 million jobs are unfilled and more than 8.4 million unemployed individuals are seeking work, with the outcome uncertain. 

But there’s an upside to this puzzling disconnect between worker supply and employer demand. It’s an opportunity to expand two promising approaches to education, training and hiring so that young people and adults are prepared for jobs and careers in the new world of work: career pathways programs and skills-based hiring.  

Pathways programs link schools and students with employers and work, incorporating education, training and student support services. They build bridges to the personal and professional networks that individuals need to flourish, and these connections can foster relationships that build social capital. 

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They have four features, allowing for duplication in almost any community:

Credentials that pay: Programs offer an academic curriculum linked with labor-market needs, awarding a recognized credential that leads to a decent income. For example, Building Futures, a Rhode Island Registered Apprenticeship program, works with 29 public, private and nonprofit organizations, providing apprenticeships, a nationally-recognized credential in several fields, work placement, and wage progression.  

A civic compact: Written agreements describe responsibilities among the organizations involved, including employers and trade associations and organizations such as United Way and community foundations. For example, New Orleans’s YouthForce NOLA  is a civic collaborative with formal agreements among its 17 funders, 12 steering committee members, dozens of student coaches, and 11 civic leaders serving as board members.  

Work exposure and experience with an advisory system:  K-12 programs begin no later than middle school, with speakers and field trips. High school involves work placement and internships. Advisers help individuals make informed choices and ensure program completion. For example, Cristo Rey, a national network of 38 Catholic high schools serving 12,300 students, has a Corporate Work Study Program that assigns students — 40 percent non-Catholic and 98 percent minority — to entry-level jobs for five days a month, using over 3,400 partners that includes an advisory system with support services.   

Supporting policies: Local, state and federal policies and directives create a framework for program development. For example, a state policy can create incentives for K-12, postsecondary institutions, and workforce groups to integrate their separate funding in order to provide stable financial support.  

Skills-based hiring evaluates a person’s capabilities and competencies, matching them to jobs. It assesses technical and digital skills, social skills such as persuasion and negotiation, and other skills such as communication and problem solving. Employers then consider individuals based on skills, rather than proxies such as the four-year college degree (often assumed to be the premier job credential) or prior work experience. 

Since 2019, LinkedIn documented a 21 percent increase in U.S. job postings listing skills and responsibilities instead of qualifications and degree requirements and a nearly 40 percent increase in the number of positions not requiring a degree. Employers using this approach include Google, EY, Penguin Random House, Apple, IBM and Bank of America.

LinkedIn also developed Skills Path so that firms can define the job skills they need and match them to potential employees. Employees have free access to curated LinkedIn Learning courses, thereby gaining additional skills and earning a phone call with the company, often leading to a job. This tool is now used by more than a dozen employers, including Gap, Microsoft, Citrix and Wayfair.

Together, pathways programs and skills-based hiring deal pragmatically with two stubborn labor-market facts that won’t disappear any time soon: Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of those in the U.S. labor force don’t have college degrees, and there are many good, middle-skills jobs for high school graduates without college degrees. 

Pathways programs and skills-based hiring also level the playing field for those without college degrees, expanding talent pools to make them more diverse and inclusive, while also uncovering hidden workers. For example, a common hiring assumption is that low-wage workers without four year college degrees are low-skilled. 

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But one analysis found that 16 million U.S. workers with only high school diplomas had skills for high-wage work (defined as more than twice the national median wage). Eleven million were employed in low- or middle-wage work. Another analysis shows that the college degree bias eliminates 79 percent of Latinos, 68 percent of African Americans, 73 percent of rural residents, and 66 percent of veterans from potential employment based on their skills.  

These approaches also advance opportunity pluralism, offering individuals multiple education, training and credentialed pathways to work and career — including, for some, a college degree. But rather than equalizing opportunity through a four-year degree pathway, the range of opportunities for individuals is broadened, making the nation’s opportunity infrastructure more pluralistic. 

Finally, opportunity and human flourishing move through these new approaches, placing individuals on a trajectory to economic and social well-being, informed citizenship and civic responsibility, laying a foundation for adult success.  

Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Education Program. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the foundation.