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Mobility for Frontline Workers

Detroit and Ford want to help underemployed residents break into tech-based careers.

Detroit’s bid to lead again on mobility tech includes a $740M investment by Ford to create an innovation hub. Also, a rare detailed look at corporate upskilling finds bright spots but across-the-board room for improvements.

Photo by Nick Thomas on Unsplash

Not the Usual Suspects

The Biden administration is directing major new federal spending on infrastructure, high-tech industries, and more to cities and regions across the country that aren’t “superstar cities” like San Francisco and New York. The idea is to help more metros develop the kinds of focused industry expertise that becomes a magnet for growth and good jobs.

Think Silicon Valley today or Motor City in the 1920s.

The investments are being drawn from pandemic recovery funds, the Infrastructure Law, and the CHIPS and Science Act. A big question hanging over the administration’s efforts is whether far-flung metros and rural areas can and will be able to provide residents with the kind of education and training needed to make good on the promise of new jobs for locals. If not, many places might have to import workers—as is already happening in the semiconductor industry in Phoenix.

It’s a question that researchers Annelies Goger and Mark Muro, both of Brookings Metro, have dug into, arguing that thus far education and training dollars are falling short of what’s needed. Both, however, are hopeful.

"The United States has historically not invested very well in training people even for its existing industries, let alone ones that are emerging,” Muro told Work Shift. “What I think is in the air now is a sense of needed scale and initiative."

Detroit-based reporter Ethan Bakuli spoke with Muro for a story this week looking at how all this is playing out in his home city—as the fallen superstar looks to once again grow around the auto industry that made its name. The push comes as the electric vehicle market is booming, with the Biden administration announcing major new rules yesterday that would require most new passenger vehicles sold in the United States to be all-electric or hybrid by 2032.

Motor City for the Electric Car Age

Ford Motor Company is investing $740M toward renovating Detroit's historic Michigan Central Railroad Station, turning the previously vacant train depot into an innovation hub for startups at the forefront of electrification and other new mobility technologies. Google has signed on as a founding partner.

And the city is leveraging a $52.2M grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to help rebuild the region into a “global epicenter for mobility.”

City officials told Bakuli that they are hopeful these efforts will bolster “The People Plan,” a citywide initiative to address employment and economic barriers for residents. Dana Williams, president of Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation, which oversees the city’s workforce programs, told Bakuli that further training and education for many residents will be critical.

  • Roughly two-thirds of metro Detroit’s growing occupations are in healthcare, tech, and finance and business, but only 13% of Black and Latino workers in the city are employed in those occupations, in part because they lack the required education.

Training opportunities built around the revitalized Michigan Central are starting to emerge, but the numbers are still small. Bakuli talked with city and college officials about what they’re doing to serve greater numbers of people. He also spoke with residents who have gone through some of the early training programs. 

What Bakuli heard has implications well beyond Detroit. If you want to know what the push for economic advancement feels like at the ground level, it’s a must read. Click over to Work Shift to read the article.

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Moving Past ‘Silos and Blockades’

Companies tend to be tight-lipped about their attempts to upskill frontline workers, likely due to competition and wanting to control the narrative about how well their education and training programs are working.

Some of the best available information on corporate upskilling comes from the Aspen Institute’s Haley Glover. As the leader of the institute's UpSkill America project, and in her former role with Lumina Foundation, Glover has kicked the tires on employer training, ranging from apprenticeships to education benefit programs.

UpSkill America recently partnered with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) to survey hundreds of U.S. employers about their upskilling work. The resulting report includes survey data and case studies focused on three primary areas: formal internal education and training, apprenticeships and other work-and-learn opportunities, and tuition assistance programs.

With a tight labor market and skills shortages, many employers are feeling the heat to better retain and develop their workforces; the urgency will increase with AI’s adoption, according to the report. Yet companies tend to lack confidence in their upskilling work, i4cp has found

The new survey identified across-the-board room for improvement across all three types of programs featured in the report, including:

  • Companies have been slow to offer credentials for their internal training.

  • Just 25% of small employers and 42% of large ones reported that their apprenticeship programs are highly successful.

  • Education benefit programs typically don’t lead to structured advancement paths.

Signaling Skills: Badges, certificates, and microcredentials are commonly used terms for ways employers can signal that their workers have gained and demonstrated skills through internal training.

But outside of notable outliers like Google, IBM, and Walmart, many companies fail to issue this form of credential.

A primary barrier, Glover says, is that businesses often lack the organization and capacity to provide training with the level of fidelity that is required to offer credentials, or to make such credentials meaningful.

Silos and blockades are common in education, she says, including the corporate variety. And a common problem for internal company credentials is making them visible to other employers and education providers, which obviously is helpful to workers when they move on.

“If more employers could make their education and training curriculum and outcomes transparent, we could unlock a huge opportunity for more people to be recognized for their learning,” Glover says.

Path to Promotion: Few of the survey’s respondents (16%) have developed structured advancement pathways for workers who have participated in tuition assistance and completed learning programs from colleges and other education providers. Yet the report cites evidence that education benefits typically do create opportunities for participating workers to move up in companies.

Target and Medtronic are examples where tuition assistance leads to promotions. A case study in the report describes the recredentialing process from Medtronic, a giant in healthcare technology, which has removed college degree requirements for half of its job roles in IT and 25% in manufacturing. The company’s skills-based strategies include supporting workers through high-quality upskilling and career pathways.

Scaling Apprenticeship: The report details how companies offer apprenticeships to current employees and as a pipeline for new talent. Incumbent frontline workers were the top priority for apprenticeships at both smaller and larger employers, the survey found.

Despite all the recent interest in apprenticeships, they still account for a tiny share of the U.S. workforce. Corporate barriers to apprenticeship include the structural, Glover says, such as a limited number of mentors and supervisors to provide necessary guidance and instruction.

“They also are cultural,” she says. “Do supervisors and managers really want apprentices? Are supervisors and managers prepared to train apprentices, especially young people and those from different backgrounds?”

Many major companies employ just a handful of apprentices. An exception is Trane Technologies, a manufacturing company focused on heating and cooling. Just one year after launching its registered apprenticeship program, the report found that Trane now has more than 120 apprentices working across 31 states.

Keeping an apprenticeship program small can be a wise choice for companies with limited capacity, Glover says. But apprenticeships are a proven talent strategy for companies that can go big. 

For those employers, she recommends considering a shift to national online providers, allowing apprentices to fulfill training requirements while on the clock, and “not getting stuck in pilot mode.”

Open Tabs

Semiconductor Workforce
The Biden administration announced $20B in funding for Intel’s U.S. semiconductor production, including $8.5B in grants under the CHIPS and Science Act. Intel plans to spend $100B on U.S. chipmaking, with an eye toward AI capacity. The federal investments will support a projected 30K direct jobs in manufacturing and construction across four states, 50K indirect jobs, and $50M for workforce development, according to the CHIPS office.

Industrial Policy
Recent federal investments in clean energy, manufacturing, and infrastructure could generate an average of 3M jobs per year. That spending will create significant opportunities across the country in occupations with relatively low credential requirements, including for workers without four-year degrees, according to a recent study from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

In-Demand Careers
New Jersey rolled out a new digital hub that offers personalized career exploration and navigation tools for jobseekers. My Career NJ connects New Jerseyans with in-demand job training programs and thousands of online classes for upskilling, with information about training providers. The navigator taps big data and machine learning for career recommendations that align with each user’s skill set.

Working Learners
Missouri seeks to close its postsecondary credential gap with a focus on adult learners and a goal for 150K credentials to be earned by Black, Latino, and rural Missourians by 2028. The new plan from the state’s merged Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development seeks to increase participation in apprenticeships by these three groups and to better align academic learning with industry demands.

AI and Job Change
Artificial intelligence will alleviate labor shortages as birth rates decline across developed economies, Nickle LaMoreaux, IBM’s chief human resources officer, told an audience at SXSW, as Jo Constantz reported for Bloomberg. She said the vast majority of jobs won’t disappear as AI takes hold, but will change dramatically. “The thing we need to be rightfully scared about is job change—and how are we going to get ready for that.”

AI and Skills
Two-thirds (68%) of tech-hiring decisionmakers expect to create new job roles related to their company’s use of AI, with 63% reporting that they plan to develop skills-based hiring strategies to support AI objectives, according to a survey conducted by the Cengage Group. Leading colleges are embedding AI skills in courses across disciplines, write Candace Williams and Kristen Fox of the Business-Higher Education Forum. They cite Miami Dade College, which is “democratizing AI talent” by creating new pathways for learners.

New Work College
Antioch College has been designated as a federal work college by the U.S. Department of Education. The private institution joins 10 other work colleges in receiving the federal recognition for integrating work experience into their academic programs. All resident students at work colleges are required to work every semester during their enrollment. Under the designation, Antioch says it will build on its legacy of cooperative education.

This newsletter turned three this week. While higher ed’s enrollment crisis and an unprecedented labor market were easy to spot when the first issue dropped, the amount of interest in the education+work beat has been surprising. What comes next is hard to say, particularly with questions around AI’s emerging impacts. Thanks for reading, and to the many of you who have spoken with me and sent tips my way. —Paul Fain