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Skills Training for the Undegreed

Community colleges turn to virtual training for high-demand roles in the skilled trades.

Interplay’s virtual training for the skilled trades makes headway with community colleges. Also, how to support workers without degrees during the AI transition, Congressional movement toward updating WIOA and modernizing apprenticeships, and an op-ed on how AI could threaten social capital.

Photo courtesy Technicians Make It Happen

Job-Ready on Day One

The U.S. faces a serious shortage of workers in the skilled trades—fields like HVAC, plumbing, electrical, solar, and construction. And those labor gaps are likely to widen as the federal government spends billions on infrastructure projects.

Employers in these industries are desperate for hires, says Doug Donovan, the founder and CEO of Interplay Learning. Yet the “challenge is not employer demand for workers,” he says, “but rather ensuring that learners learn about skilled trades careers and pursue them.”

The Austin-based Interplay offers online and VR training for workers in the skilled trades. The company was founded in 2016 with a focus on upskilling the hands-on worker. Even before the pandemic exacerbated labor shortages, Donovan says companies in these trades needed to hire workers who didn’t have all the skills required for jobs.

Interplay’s online courses and 3D, interactive simulations get close to what a learner is going to see on the job, says Donovan. “We aren’t trying to replace hands-on, instructor-led training,” he says. “We are trying to deliver tools that enhance that hands-on time or make it more efficient.”

Beginning about two years ago, the company saw a spike in demand from community colleges and K-12 schools, as well as from workforce development organizations—including unions, nonprofits, and local governments. The relatively new Interplay Academy is aimed at these learners, who don’t have jobs yet and face significant barriers to employment.

These programs start from an expectation of zero skills and end with a certification, Donovan says. The HVAC track, for example, includes 61 hours of expert-led learning, as well as preparation and testing for three certifications, such as the OSHA 10. Learners also can earn a job-ready certificate in the virtual programs.

Two-year colleges have long had trades programs, but Donovan says many haven’t offered building trades pathways. As federal and state government investments spur interest in those programs, Interplay seeks to help community colleges quickly stand up new offerings.

“Community colleges are finding that to be competitive, and maximize learner economic outcomes, they need to invest in shorter-term programs that provide learners with pathways into in-demand jobs,” he says.

With education and workforce development partners, Interplay typically serves as the training provider, plugging in its offerings to improve existing programs. For example, the company partners with Lenoir Community College’s Centro Educativo Latino. The North Carolina college offers Interplay’s training as part of associate degree programs.

Interplay also has an apprenticeship program that is registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. That allows learners to begin earning hours toward their apprenticeship while they are enrolled in the Interplay Academy.

The Kicker: “Because we were originally built for the employer, our platform teaches those skills employers want to see in their workforces,” Donovan says. “So we’ve been able to provide job seekers with the training they need to be job-ready on Day One.”

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AI and Workers Without Degrees

New technologies tend to disrupt the job market. As more employers tap artificial intelligence, workers who do not hold college degrees are among those who are mostly likely to feel the effects.

That’s the operating premise of a new report from Future State Ventures. The analysis games out potential scenarios for “undegreed” workers—ranging from no noticeable changes with their employment to significant job losses or the creation of new career opportunities.

Companies have been burned in the past by hyped tech that fizzled. And given how hard it is to predict what will happen with AI, the report says some companies may take a “wait and see” approach.

“We’ve never seen a future of work at a job-by-job level that’s more uncertain and dynamic,” says Taylor McLemore, the founder and general partner of Human Potential Capital, an emerging investment fund.

Yet he says being proactive and tapping AI-driven training capabilities to develop a more dynamic talent portfolio is a better strategy than sticking with a status-quo that hasn’t worked well for a long time.

For example, traditional hiring processes focused on the four-year degree have led employers to ignore the potential of millions of Americans who are undegreed but skilled through alternative routes, a category that includes graduates of community colleges. 

“We have a unique opportunity to leave the human capital practices of the past behind,” McLemore says.

As companies navigate AI-driven changes to career paths, the report says they must invest in workforce training and their employees’ AI literacy.

Quality measurements of what works with this sort of expenditure on worker upskilling and reskilling have been elusive, McClemore says. But advances in AI will change the delivery and personalization of training while also accelerating the measurement of work and learning.

“There is the potential to define a new AI paradigm by increasing the value created by worker-learners,” he says, “initiating a positive and reinforcing cycle of more targeted and better investments in learning and development.”

Inching Toward Modern Apprenticeships

The federal government is continuing to focus on modernizing apprenticeships, with Congress including provisions on wraparound supports and pay-for-success models in the appropriations bills it passed last month to keep the government temporarily funded.

The law provides $285M in continued funding for registered apprenticeships, and it instructs the Labor Department to:

  • Provide grantees with guidance around offering wraparound supports for apprentices who are also parents.

  • Assess the feasibility of supporting a pay-for-success initiative to increase and expand registered apprenticeship programs.

A report from the Labor Department on the latter is due in about six months. While this is just a preliminary step, it’s nevertheless an important signal, says John Colborn, executive director of Apprenticeships for America. 

Generally, a pay-for-success model would provide consistent funding for apprentices—rather than making programs compete for one-off grants—but would only make the money available if apprentices complete and get a job. As a model, Colborn points to France, where employers can get up to €4K a year per apprentice for successful training.

The Labor Department has also proposed a major overhaul of the rules around apprenticeship, including the creation of a new Career & Technical Education (CTE) Apprenticeship to more closely integrate apprenticeship with high school and college. And both the feds and state governments have continued to push for more apprenticeships embedded in degree programs.

Reporter Erin Strout took a look at how that is playing out in Texas, which is investing in nursing apprenticeships that lead to degrees. —By Elyse Ashburn

Bipartisan WIOA Bill Moves to Senate

The U.S. House of Representatives this week passed a bill to update the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a law that undergirds the federal workforce system. 

The bipartisan Stronger Workforce for America Act would be the law’s first overhaul in a decade. The proposed legislation was developed by leaders of the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, who pushed for its passage alongside a now-stalled bipartisan bid to open up federal Pell Grants to short-term programs.

The bill would require states to spend a greater share of their WIOA funds (no less than 50%) on training while calling for more of a focus on incumbent worker training, the use of real-time labor market data, and skills-based hiring. The legislation also seeks to streamline lists of eligible-training providers by putting more emphasis on employment results.

While the WIOA overhaul was approved by an overwhelming vote of 378 to 26 in the House, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

The proposal has a wide range of backers, including a cross-sector coalition, community college groups, the Business Roundtable, SHRM, the Manufacturing Institute, IBM, Stand Together Trust, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Supporters call it a good compromise and a first step toward making essential changes to the law.

However, the bill’s critics say it could create more problems than it solves. The federal workforce system’s structure and governance would be largely unchanged, they say, and its funding levels would remain woefully low, at $3.3B a year. For example, the National Association of Workforce Boards says the proposal misses the mark while the National Skills Coalition says it doesn’t go far enough.

Open Tabs

Labor Shortages
Workforce development remains a leading concern for manufacturers, with both a skills gap and a shortage of applicants for open positions, according to a new study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. Government funding-fueled growth in construction jobs may intensify competition for welders, electricians, and workers in other trades, which could exacerbate the imbalance in labor supply and demand in manufacturing.

Semiconductor Jobs
The Biden administration is set to provide up to $6.6B to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited under the CHIPS and Science Act. The funding, which includes $50M for workforce development, would support TSMC’s investment of $65B in three new semiconductor fabrication plants in Phoenix. The funding is projected to create more than 6K direct manufacturing jobs, 20K construction jobs, and many indirect jobs.

Clean-Energy Careers
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced eight grants totaling $20B from a fund in the Inflation Reduction Act. The grants aim to develop a financing network for tens of thousands of clean energy and climate solutions, and to create good-paying clean energy jobs, especially in low-income and disadvantaged communities. The EPA said the grants will mobilize almost $7 of private capital for every $1 of federal funding.

Partisanship and AI
The Daily Show took aim at Big Tech over AI’s potential job impacts. “While we wait for this thing to cure our diseases and solve climate change, it’s replacing us in the workforce. Not in the future, but now,” Jon Stewart said. Polling on the partisan divide over AI so far shows that Democrats are less distrustful of AI companies and more likely to say the technology will make the world better and improve their lives. But trust is declining overall.

FAFSA Crisis
Completions of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid are down 40% so far this year for high school seniors, the National College Attainment Network said, citing federal data. Declines are steepest among low-income students. FAFSA completions and college enrollments are tightly tied, and NCAN said a dip of 10 percentage points or more would lead to a bigger enrollment hit than the pandemic’s 1.5M-student collapse. 

Skills-First Hiring
The SHRM Foundation plans to create a center focused on accelerating the adoption of skills-first hiring and promotion. Walmart, the Charles Koch Foundation, and the Workday Foundation are among the human resources organization’s partners on the project. The new center will seek to offer employers an AI-based skills advisor, a skills-tech solutions lab, and a new credential to formally certify HR professionals on skills-first practices.

Education+Work Acquisitions
EAB will acquire Forage, a virtual job simulation provider. Forage will be added to the talent solutions from EAB’s Seramount division.

Multiverse, an apprenticeship and tech company, has acquired Searchlight, a talent intelligence and skills assessment platform.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be at the ASU+GSV summit next week, where I’ll moderate a discussion with this great group of speakers on how to develop an inclusive workforce amid a shifting political backdrop. —PF