Co-Producers of Talent

How employers can play more of a meaningful role in workforce education.

Brookings Metro on seizing the moment with place-based economic policy and how employers can help create more nimble education systems. Also, vocational programs at community colleges lead the U.S. enrollment rebound, and an essay on getting on the same page about career-connected learning.

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels

A Unified Voice on Workforce Needs

Employers need to be more hands-on with the U.S. education system to create paths into good careers for more Americans, including those without four-year degrees. Yet progress on this work remains sluggish at best, despite bipartisan support and labor market–driven urgency. 

Part of the problem is that most employers lack the scale and know-how to experiment with career-connected learning or alternative credentials. Even focusing on the vague, catch-all term of “employers” obscures the underlying challenge. That’s because few businesses, nonprofits, and governments view themselves primarily as employers, and most have other priorities than trying to reach into education.

Two new reports from the Brookings Institution chart a path forward by describing how employers can play more of a meaningful role in workforce education and economic development. Both argue that regionally focused, sector-crossing coalitions are crucial to making this a reality.

  • For the first report, Brookings Metro brought together broad teams of leaders from Alabama, Indiana, and Colorado to understand how they have sought to align education and employment systems, and to create more earn-and-learn opportunities.

  • Brookings Metro partnered with the U.S. Economic Development Administration for the second analysis, which features case studies on seven coalitions created through the place-based economic policy of the $1B federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

Employers should self-organize by industry or occupation to move beyond an advisory role with education and community partners, recommends the state-focused report.

“The changes that we propose involve a transformative shift in how employers in the U.S. have seen themselves, from being a consumer of talent to being a co-producer of talent,” says Annelies Goger, a Brookings Metro fellow and co-author of the report.

That won’t happen quickly. But Goger predicts that the change will be driven by the escalating costs of worker recruitment, turnover, and retirement under the dominant just-in-time hiring model. “Eventually more employers will come to the conclusion that they have to play a more active role in creating the prepared workforce they need,” she says.

Many experts say the bottom-line focus is the only way to get employers to the table. The sectors that are likely to move first have acute worker shortages and inadequate talent pipelines.

With the right partnerships and clarity about roles, businesses will remain engaged with educators, says Goger, pointing to examples from countries with mature education-to-employment systems, such as Switzerland or Germany.

“It will not succeed if it remains a corporate social responsibility project,” she says.

Employer-serving intermediaries and sector-based organizations will be critical to this work. Goger, an economic geographer, says these groups can help employers “speak in a unified voice about what their shared needs are when it comes to talent and skills.”

Organizing by industry to try to embrace a skills-first approach can make a lot of sense, says Clayton Lord, program director for the SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) Foundation.

“Such coalitions are often geographically bound, which means that, in addition to aligning around common pain points, job or skills standards, and acceptable credentials, the aligned employers also know the talent pool and its particular needs, strengths, and challenges,” he says.

SHRM has seen this sort of structure emerge in healthcare, particularly related to nursing and nursing assistant positions, and in the electrical industry. Sometimes the employer coalitions collaborate with community colleges or other formal educational partners. In other cases, they develop or pick the required credentials for quickly training and hiring local talent.

When industries self-organize they can create incentives, Lord says, including by spreading the burdens that come with changing systems.

“For small to midsize businesses, one of the biggest hurdles to a skills-first future is simply finding the time, resources, and capacity to do anything about it,” he says.

Philanthropy and Regional Coordination

Brookings Metro and Duke University hosted a meeting this week on the Biden administration’s place-based economic agenda. 

Representatives from regional coalitions in southeast Michigan, southern West Virginia, and North Carolina spoke at the event. They said the influx of federal money helped to ramp up existing projects in their regions, and to deepen collaboration among universities, labor unions, employers, and philanthropists, reports Ethan Bakuli for Work Shift. (Read the full story here.)

"Just creating the training is not enough," said Manju Bhat, a dean at Winston-Salem State University. "We have to make them accessible to the communities that we live in."

Sustaining place-based investments is a “whole-of-country” undertaking, argues the second Brookings report. Philanthropy can play a unique role with regional coalitions by filling funding gaps and being a central convener.

For example, Goger and her co-authors pointed to a recently formed consortium in Indiana that’s working to develop a statewide youth apprenticeship system. With backing from philanthropists, the group of 100+ leaders behind the CEMETS (Center on Economics and Management of Education and Training Systems) iLab Indiana hope it can help contribute one potential solution to what they call a “mounting workforce crisis.”

“The end goal is for businesses to play a leading role in the system, in partnership with the K–12 and higher education systems,” says Claire Fiddian-Green, the iLab’s co-chair and president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.

The Indianapolis-based foundation focuses on the city. It has contributed millions of dollars for the creation of a youth apprenticeship system in Indiana. Fiddian-Green says the foundation expects to continue funding the work in the near term, while the system’s structure and other key components take shape.

“This allows employers and others to learn about the system and participate in the early planning stages without an early financial commitment,” she says.

The Fairbanks Foundation underwrote several benchmarking trips to Switzerland to help better understand that country’s youth-apprenticeship system and to adapt a version in Indiana.

It also has played the lead convening role for the project, tapping corporate CEOs, university presidents, K–12 superintendents, and state government officials, among others.

Philanthropies often have relationships with a wide range of community leaders, says Fiddian-Green, and can bring people together who may not otherwise find themselves in the same room.

The Kicker: “The work would not be progressing as it is today if we did not have the right people on board,” she says.

Vocational Education Surges

Undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. continues to rebound. Year-over-year growth continued for the second consecutive semester, with an overall increase this spring of 2.5% following an uptick of 1.2% in the fall, according to newly available data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Community colleges led the way, accounting for almost 56% of the total enrollment increase. The two-year sector was up 4.7%, or by 200K students, compared to last spring. However, community college enrollment remains 12.4% below where it was when the pandemic began.

For the first time, the center looked at two-year college enrollment by institutional program focus—breaking out numbers based on whether colleges had a high focus on transfer, vocational learning, or mixed transfer programs. Enrollment at institutions with a vocational focus was up a whopping 17.6%, followed by transfer (3.6%) and the largely flat mixed focus (1.2%).

Dual enrollment of high school students grew for the third year in a row, and accounted for 28% of the increase in undergraduate enrollment. Community colleges had a 10.2% bump in dual-enrolled students.

Open Tabs

Noncredit ROI
Earnings gains associated with earning a noncredit industry credential on average would exceed the program costs of that training in slightly more than six months, according to a working paper published by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute. The researchers used data on roughly 24K working-age adults who enrolled in noncredit workforce training offered by Virginia’s community colleges. They found substantial variation in earnings across fields.

Alternative Financing
State lawmakers in New York are seeking to define rules for outcomes-based job-training programs, reports Steve Lohr for The New York Times. The legislative proposal relates to state regulatory limbo experienced by Pursuit, a New York–based nonprofit that offers tech training partially financed by payments made by graduates who land good-paying jobs. The law proposes a minimum annual earning threshold of $50K for repayment.

AI Commission
A new commission on AI in education is bringing together educators, policymakers, and workforce leaders to chart a course on how artificial intelligence (AI) is used in classrooms and how to prepare workers amid a transforming labor market. The Southern Regional Education Board convened the 60-member commission. In its first meeting, the group discussed how to move rapidly, responsibly, and proactively on AI, with a focus on both its risks and opportunities.

Data Consortium
The American Council on Education (ACE) is seeking comments on a concept paper about a global data consortium it plans to launch next year. The nonprofit project aims to democratize access to educational data and to leverage AI’s potential to enhance teaching and learning. ACE extended an open invitation for colleges and organizations to join the consortium, which it said will “supercharge” their capabilities and potential with the technology.

Government Planning
Too few state and local governments do adequate workforce planning, which is a problem as generative AI is likely to change many government jobs, Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene write for Route Fifty. Daily workforce challenges, the decentralized nature of government, competing priorities, and limited resources tend to prevent long-term strategic thinking. And disparate approaches with technology hamper attempts to develop employee skill data.

On-Ramp Training
Merit America has received $15.6M from the Crankstart Foundation to provide tech-skills training and career coaching to lower-income workers in the Bay Area. The multi-year grant has the potential to reach more than 2K people, according to the nonprofit, which offers on-ramp training and has served 10K learners since its founding in 2018. The support from Crankstart will allow the group to formally launch and expand its services in the Bay Area.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what I missed? —PF