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Mobility and Digital Wallets

Colorado’s push to use skills data to boost the careers of workers in behavioral health.

Colorado seeks to clear a bottleneck for behavioral health workers by creating an infrastructure for skills data. Also, foundations in the state tap a pay-it-forward fund for capital loans to training providers, and a new survey of employer views on higher education and the value of microcredentials.

More Entry Points for Workers

The U.S. faces a serious mental health workforce shortage. More than 1M people need care in Colorado alone. And the state has struggled to meet a huge spike in demand for behavioral health workers.

A public-private partnership in Colorado is pursuing skills-based solutions to this critical workforce gap. The state’s strategy leans heavily on learning and employment records. Experts say the project will be an important test of the value and feasibility of LERs, with potential implications for other industries in Colorado and around the country.

A big part of the challenge for the behavioral health workforce is a bottleneck in credentialing, says Kristin Ingstrup, associate director of workforce development for the Colorado Behavioral Health Administration. 

Master’s degrees are minimum requirements for many good and in-demand roles in the industry, including careers in counseling, therapy, social work, psychology and psychiatry, and psychiatric nursing. Yet for many frontline employees, Ingstrup says, it can take six to eight years to earn a master’s.

Colorado is seeking to create more entry points to these jobs, including for early- and mid-career workers in behavioral health. That means recognizing more of the skills and experiences of nontraditional or working learners, who face particularly steep financial, cultural, and bureaucratic barriers.

For example, Ingstrup cites skills earned by professionals in peer-support behavioral health roles, where lived experience is mandatory. Likewise, care-taking volunteers and veterans of the U.S. military, among others, hold skills that could be recognized to help them break into the industry.

“Nontraditional is going to start becoming traditional,” says Ingstrup. “We need to start thinking of how people enter the field, coming from all entry points, and how we are able to categorize and understand the skills that they're bringing with them.”

The Plan: The Colorado Workforce Development Council is leading the effort to create competency-based fixes for the behavioral health labor shortage. The council is governor-appointed and business-led, with a wide range of public and private partners, including Colorado’s Department of Higher Education.

It functions as a state workforce board and seeks to “blur the lines across education, training, and work,” says Renise Walker, the council’s assistant director of systems innovation. She says the behavioral health project has a groundswell of support from healthcare employers. “They’re hungry to figure it out.”

The council is working to connect LERs to myColorado, the state’s free digital wallet. Walmart has funded that effort and related work with Colorado’s college and career planning tool

The goal, says Jessica Maiorca, a consultant to the council, is to “create a central place where a learner can hold, own, and share” their credentials. Making that happen is enormously complex work, which requires an interoperable digital infrastructure that protects users’ data privacy.

A broad coalition of organizations is taking on those challenges. For example, the Learning Economy Foundation is helping to scale up a digital wallet system at colleges in the state, including the Auraria Campus, which is shared by the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the University of Colorado at Denver.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Community College System has created five microcredentials in behavioral health, which workers can earn and stack into undergraduate and graduate degrees. Employers are at the table, in part to help determine which competencies to include in those credentials.

Industry Specific: Walker says that by starting with behavioral health, Colorado seeks to dig into the value of digital wallets for employers and to apply the lessons it learns to other industries. “The sector focus allows us to think more broadly, beyond our borders,” she says.

Several observers applauded the state’s approach.

“So much of these credentials are sector specific,” says Julia Lane, an economist and professor at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service who co-founded the Coleridge Initiative. And a win in behavioral health would be a boost for LERs, she says. “You get some runs on the board.”

Making an understandable case to employers about the potential for LERs—no easy task—is crucial for the movement to have any sustained traction. Haley Glover, director of the Aspen Institute’s UpSkill America, wrote a recent report about how to use clear language about this work that may resonate with employers.

For learners, Walker says, the message is about recognizing what they can do, no matter where they learned it.

The Kicker: “The value of LERs is really about helping people to better tell the stories of all the skills and learning they’ve acquired,” Walker says. “We’re chipping away at the feeling of being stuck.”

‘Pay It Forward’ in Colorado

When a group of mostly Colorado-based philanthropies set out to create an interest-free loan fund for short-term training, they quickly realized that some of the most successful programs in the state were already free to learners.

So, they zeroed in on other ways that capital could break down barriers. This month, they partnered with Social Finance to launch a “pay it forward fund” that will, among other things, provide interest-free working capital loans to training providers to ramp up wraparound supports and other services. That’s a first for the nonprofit Social Finance, which has been a pioneer in designing and managing outcomes-based loans.

Read the full story at Work Shift.

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Employers on Higher Ed and Microcredentials

Eight in 10 employers think recent college graduates are well prepared overall to succeed in entry-level positions and to advance beyond them, according to the eighth national survey of employer views on higher education from the American Association of College and Universities, a membership group focused on liberal education.

Yet just half of employers thought college graduates were “very prepared” for the workforce in specific skill areas, including communication, critical thinking, and complex problem-solving.

The survey conducted by Morning Consult found substantial perception gaps based on the age of respondents, which included 1,010 executives and hiring managers. More than half (55%) under the age of 40 strongly agreed that higher education is preparing graduates to succeed in the workforce, compared to just 33% of respondents who were 50 or older.

AAC&U for the first time asked employers about microcredentials, finding that:

  • 68% said they would prefer a job candidate for an entry-level position who has a college degree and a microcredential.

  • 72% said they were either currently offering microcredentials or planned to offer them in the future.

  • When coupled with a degree, a microcredential recognizing a broad skill was viewed just as favorably as one representing achievement of a job-specific technical skill.

There’s little question that microcredentials will shape the future of what it means for job candidates to communicate their skills, according to Ashley Finley, AAC&U’s vice president of research and the survey report’s author. 

“We want colleges and universities to feel empowered to be part of this conversation in partnership with employers, not in opposition,” she says, “for the sake of maintaining quality, equity, and excellence for what college credentials signify.”

Ideally, earning a microcredential should lead to college credit, Finley says. Students from underserved backgrounds and working learners are disadvantaged when credentials are positioned as “extra” or noncredit. And she says assigning credit encourages colleges to formally acknowledge microcredentials on transcripts or comprehensive learner records.

“The microcredentials should be seen as a way to elevate and make more explicit the skills and outcomes already being acquired within general education and the majors,” says Finley.

Open Tabs

AI and Education+Work
It’s getting tougher to keep up with interesting content on AI in this space. Here’s some new reading that caught my eye:

  • The job roles of many middle managers could be affected, Dave Ferrucci, an AI researcher, predicted in an interview with Goldman Sachs. “The value chain starts to shift because the decision-maker can get the synthesis, the summary, the aggregation and the delivery of information from a machine and at a much lower cost,” he said, while also predicting huge improvements to education in both academic and corporate settings.

  • During a virtual summit hosted by SmartBrief, Richard Culatta, CEO of ASCD/ISTE, cautioned against schools drafting policy around AI. “The far better approach is creating policy for the healthy conditions for technology use in our school,” Culatta said.

  • Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO, said at Axios’s AI+Summit that he’s optimistic the tech will offer wide benefits, including through the use of AI tutors. Rohit Chopra, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said he’s concerned about the “enormous control” that could be wielded by a handful of firms and people.

Community Colleges
The U.S. Department of Energy announced $32M in grants for 17 new hosts of Industrial Assessment Centers, which for the first time will include community colleges and union training programs, writes Shalin Jyotishi of New America. The centers provide energy assessments for manufacturers while offering hands-on learning and clean-energy experience for students and apprentices. The new funds come from the federal infrastructure bill.

Moms With Degrees
A record share of prime-working-age women in the U.S. currently hold a job (75.3%), which has helped the country avoid a recession, Catherine Rampell writes for The Washington Post. College-educated mothers have helped drive these employment gains, while other groups of women have employment rates that are close to their 2002 levels. Reasons for this shift include remote work and fathers taking on greater responsibilities at home.

Healthcare Training
Futuro Health will receive $100M from Kaiser Permanente to expand free and low-cost allied healthcare education beyond California, beginning with Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, with plans to expand to other states. The nonprofit training hub features programs from a network of colleges and education providers. Since its creation in 2020, more than 9K students have pursued certificates and microcredentials through Futuro Health’s network.

Apprenticeship Intermediaries
Multiverse, a leading apprenticeship intermediary, cut 5% of its workforce in what the UKTN news site called a “bid to revive its U.S. business amid widening losses.” The British company has invested heavily in building a bigger market for apprenticeships in this country, but has been missing its revenue targets. The layoffs are part of a plan to retool to be more tailored to specific industries in the U.S., UKTN reported.

Career Navigation
Five key factors drive career navigation success—and skills is just one of them, according to a new analysis from the Project on Workforce at Harvard. Social capital and wraparound supports also play a major role. The analysis, “Unlocking Economic Prosperity,” focuses specifically on young people and working adults who commonly face challenges to advancement, and it identifies 12 helpful types of services, tools, programs, and structures.

Pearson is embedding job simulations from Forage into its coursework and e-textbooks. Pearson+ users soon will be able to access Forage’s roughly 350 simulations, which are designed to allow students to explore what it’s like to work in a field. The learning company said that students soon will be able to earn digital badges from Credly, which Pearson owns, when they complete a simulation from Forage.

AI Hiring & Training
Federal agencies are scrambling to hire more than 400 chief AI officers, to satisfy a requirement of the Biden administration’s AI executive order, reports Ryan Heath of Axios AI+. Meanwhile, U.S. tech firms either offer formal AI training for junior employees (84%) or plan to soon (16%), found a survey of 500 senior tech leaders at U.S. firms that was conducted by Wakefield Research for General Assembly, a tech bootcamp provider.

Thanks for reading. I hope the Thanksgiving holiday treated you well. —PF