The federal Workforce Investment and Innovation Act (WIOA) has changed the landscape of adult education, focusing the field on workforce development outcomes and programming that supports the integration of education and training (IET) and career pathways. Programs are intensifying their focus on job preparation because adults need work-related math, communication, and technology skills for middle-skill jobs; because employers, overall, are providing less in-house training for their entry-level workers; and because funders see education as the solution to the problem of low-wage jobs.
Adult education programs can address the need for upskilling by collaborating with vocational training providers and employers to deliver contextualized instruction that prepares adults for locally available jobs. Many programs have been exploring such collaborations for years, and have a lot to share about what’s working, what has been challenging, and their plans going forward.
To make this expertise available to the field, World Education sponsored a series of webinars (Building Integrated Education and Training Programs: Tested Strategies and New Endeavors) and a new companion guide (Integrated Education and Training: Implementing Programs in Diverse Contexts) of written profiles that describe how eight adult education programs around the country – new and well-established, rural and urban, ABE and ESOL – have been integrating education and training.
Across these examples we see some consistent themes. One is the need to be nimble in responding to the local context and the particular barriers facing students in that community. For example, programs in rural settings without many employers have used sectoral approaches that prepare workers for occupations that are needed in many different types of industries, settings, and worksites (such as boiler operators). To better insure that trainees will find employment, they have also rotated the type of occupational training they offer so that they aren’t graduating too many people at once and over-saturating the labor market. Programs have addressed issues of access by creating blended and distance learning programs, and have designed bridge programming for students not quite ready for IET coursework. And to help students with credentialing, programs have assisted immigrant students in getting their foreign credentials evaluated and recognized, and have also helped employers clarify what’s really needed to do the job so that strong candidates aren’t disqualified for lack of high school credentials. Each of these design features emerged as programs reflected and learned what was and was not working for their students and their partners.
Another recurring theme is the importance of building new relationships and ways of partnering. Basic education and technical training instructors are co-developing integrated curriculum, team teaching, or observing each other’s classes to get a firm grounding in what’s being taught and how to support students with the requisite language, math, and technology skills. Employers are being engaged not only to confer about curriculum content and design, but to participate in mock interviews, evaluation of student presentations, worksite visits, internships, and on-the-job training programs. The closer the collaboration between educators and employers, the better students are prepared for the available jobs and the better employers understand the strengths and capacity of adult students. These lessons are part of a growing body of knowledge about how to most effectively prepare adults for contemporary jobs.
However, improving the design of and access to career pathways is not enough. Increasing the economic security of the entry level workforce will also require efforts to make the minimum wage a living wage, and to develop the self-advocacy skills of workers. Without that foundation, adult students are more likely to be pulled off their career pathways by any number of destabilizing forces. Moreover, although middle-skill jobs are growing at a faster rate, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the greatest number of new jobs will be in low-wage retail sales, home health, food preparation and food service, landscaping, security, and child care. These jobs are not only low-wage; they also often have poor working conditions – irregular and erratic hours, few employment benefits and limited options for advancement. So although education may help a percent of the adults we serve (those who can access a career pathway) to move up the ladder, the fact remains that those low-wage jobs are still there and someone’s going to do them!
We need to implement a combination of approaches that improve life for ALL workers, not just provide an escape route for the minority who qualify and have the supports in place to succeed in a pathway program. That includes:
- Advocating for a legislated “living minimum wage” for all workers,
- Public campaigns to encourage or require employers to adopt “good job” practices for all employees, and
- Organizing unions or worker associations to negotiate with employers for good working conditions.
The Aspen Institute describes this two-pronged approach as “building ladders and raising the floor.”
The field has made great progress in strengthening career pathways and should now think about the knowledge, skills, and abilities we need to teach so that adults can have security and dignity in any job, and a voice in how they are trained. For a sampling of those voices, the upcoming (September 2017) issue of The Change Agent on the theme of “Career Pathways” includes student writing about their experiences in programs preparing them for work. Let us continue to learn from those experiences and recognize that most adults need the stability of a living wage job in order to step onto and succeed in the career pathway programs we are thoughtfully designing.