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Workforce Training Programs Need Employers at the Table

Two-thirds of Americans over 25 don't have a bachelor’s degree or higher. A Harvard study uncovers inconsistent efforts to give these workers skills for economic mobility and calls for improving the problem.

COVID-19 forced a reimagining of work and workplaces, accelerating shifts to new technology and workplace practices. Workers who lacked the skills to navigate this disruption faced overwhelming obstacles, and many jobs “temporarily” filled by automation will never return. The need for training systems that can keep pace with rapid changes in technology, and the nature of work itself, has never been more obvious or urgent.

Academic work on training programs has been somewhat static, says Rachel Lipson, director of the Harvard Project on Workforce. A paper from 30 years ago might not look much different from one published today. “There's been a lot of attention on K-12 quality and college access and completion, but a lot less on the types of educational and training pathways that sit in between high school and four-year college,” she says.

These pathways are critical to the future of economic mobility, and the Project on Workforce hopes to raise the research community’s interest in them. “The plurality of the U.S. labor force does not have a four-year college degree,” says Lipson. “We can't throw up our hands and say four-year colleges are the only answer.”

A recent white paper from the project, Working to Learn, examines the characteristics of more than 300 organizations in the "education and employment sector" that applied for grants from the Postsecondary Innovation for Equity (PIE) initiative of the venture philanthropy organization New Profit.

Credentials and Job Mobility

The aim of PIE is to foster the growth of programs that help young workers in low-income jobs, and high school graduates for whom college “has not worked,” gain credentials and experience that put them on a path to upward mobility.

“Over 80 percent of jobs that pay $35,000 or more to younger workers require a postsecondary credential,” said New Profit Managing Partner J.B. Schramm in announcing PIE. “While most individuals from high-income backgrounds get a credential, only 35 percent of people from underserved backgrounds do so.”

There’s no basis for describing the 316 organizations that applied for PIE grants as a representative sample of current innovations in training delivery, says Lipson. Even so, the scope of their activity and support is significant; all told, they served 2.6 million learners in 2019. Applicants generated more than $4 billion in revenue in that year, with support from such high-profile grantmakers as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and JPMorgan Chase.

A few applicants were associated with accredited colleges or universities, but largely, they were private for-profit or nonprofit groups providing short-term training programs that are not degree-accredited. Their grant applications proved to be a rich source of data for Lipson and her colleagues, including such details as their program models, outcome measurements, the number of learners served, expenses, and their approaches to diversity, equity and inclusion.

This created a unique opportunity for the research team to evaluate the characteristics of the groups, and their characterizations of their approaches to training delivery and program outcomes. “A lot of these organizations are supported in large share by private philanthropy, and that is part of the reason why they are not well captured in the traditional sources of information about programs,” says Lipson.

Innovation, But With Limitations

The Harvard researchers found that rather than offering alternatives to K-12 and higher education practices, program models reflected them. Moreover, they note that adapting to the changing nature of work “did not appear to be a primary focus across the field.” Nearly two-thirds of the applicants were not working directly with employers. Few linked their training to credentials recognized by industry, and fewer than one in five made it a priority to develop relationships with both employers and educational institutions.

Less than three percent of the organizations tracked the long-term progression of the careers of their clients; none measured learning as a primary outcome. Most often, the metric used to gauge success was participant completion of the program offered.

The social tensions and technological disruption exacerbated by the pandemic won’t disappear when public health restrictions are lifted, and employers also recognize how important “soft” skills such as communication and leadership are to their survival. Programs that include these in their training have better outcomes, but only nine percent of the PIE applicants emphasized both job-specific and soft skills.

Less than ten percent of the organizations referenced a study or external evaluation of their program model. It would be unfair to suggest that this means anything in regard to program outcomes, but the researchers say that the education-and-employment field “needs to invest in evidence” if it wants to increase its impact on workers whose only credential is a high school diploma.
Rachel Lipson
Rachel Lipson, director of the Harvard Project on Workforce: “We’ve been focused on catalyzing and producing basic academic research as well as applied research, to create better feedback loops between practitioners in business, government, policy and education.”
(Photo courtesy of Rachel Lipson)

The Role of Government

The Project on Workforce is a collaborative effort between the Harvard Kennedy School's Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, the Harvard Business School Managing the Future of Work Project and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“We’ve been focused on catalyzing and producing basic academic research as well as applied research, to create better feedback loops between practitioners in business, government, policy and education,” says Lipson.

In a conversation with Governing about Working to Learn, Lipson discussed its implications for state and local government officials.

How can officials find out what kinds of programs are available in a particular community?

One thing that we're doing right now is looking at each of the states’ eligible training provider lists. Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, WIOA, states have the responsibility of determining what programs they have are eligible for training vouchers.

What we're finding is that these lists are extremely difficult for the individual worker or learner to access or navigate. In most contexts, the website functionality isn't good. There's not a whole lot of information about the results of programs, or who they typically serve.

For mayors and governors, it would be helpful to have some level of analysis about these programs. What are the sectors that they focus on? What are the types of approaches that they employ? How much do each of them cost per participant? Are they offered online?

Then you could take that big picture and match it to what we think is going to be needed for the future. I think that in most places, even that first level isn't there right now.

Is there a role for government in regard to program evaluation?

It may be unrealistic to put the onus on each of the individual small programs to do extensive research and evaluation. Outcome measurement costs a lot of money, and it's hard to track people over time and see how they're doing.

Government can play a big role in setting up the infrastructure so that you can register your program, share the information about the individuals who have enrolled and then through tax filings or the state unemployment system, have the ability to see what happens to people over the course of their lifetime.

You could imagine extending something like the college scorecard to some of these shorter-term workforce training programs. Government can play a big role in stepping up in both defining what quality means and making data more accessible to more people.

How can connections between training programs and employers be improved?

It does feel like a fundamental flaw at the beginning of a program if you're just making assumptions about what the employer wants, versus being able to engage with them and define what you're teaching to participants.

Programs like Skills for Chicagoland’s Future are trying provide a convening function, instead of employers having to scrounge around the whole training ecosystem or providers competing for the same set of employers in their locality. There are some interesting early-stage, tech-enabled efforts to do a better job of matching programs to employers searching for people to fill certain roles.

If you imagine yourself in the shoes of employers, it's really difficult to forge relationships with 10 or 20 different providers, especially if they're only going to be able to find you a few candidates every cycle. There's an important role for government in providing an aggregation function, a single point where an employer can go.

What is the role of community colleges?

Our work on this paper is focused on smaller nonprofit and private organizations. That said, a lot of our findings do apply to community college programs as well, such as the siloing between educational outcomes and career outcomes.

Community colleges have a mission of preparing people for transfer to four-year schools as well as a labor market, workforce training mission. Historically, the labor market part of the mission gets overlooked in pursuit of the transfer mission.

They need to focus on both. Their success should be judged not only in terms of what share of their students transfer to a four-year program, but also on the economic and job quality outcomes for students who leave after a short-term certificate program.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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