Everyone agrees that working class Americans are in a tough spot.
In policy debates, upskilling is a perennial contender for the solution to low-income workers’ struggles. But, as a new report by the Strada Institute shows, not all upskilling programs are created equal. According to On-Ramps to Good Jobs: Fueling Innovation for the Learning Ecosystem of the Future, over half of all employer-provided training goes to people who already have a bachelor’s degree.
On-ramps, programs that provide training and entry into specific fields for workers with a high school degree or GED, are a promising alternative. But they face their own challenges. For one thing, they currently serve only about 100,000 out of 32 million low-income workers. For another, employers are often reluctant to treat them as a competitive talent pool.
The difficulties on-ramps face in connecting workforce to employers are the same ones faced in various forms by community colleges, workforce boards, and other job training programs. The solutions are broadly applicable as well.
Here are the three important takeaways from the Strada report :
1. Measure your outcomes
“Learners don’t have good information to make informed decisions on whether to pursue an on-ramp. Employers don’t see an obvious human capital management return on investment (ROI) for leveraging more on-ramps. And on-ramp providers struggle to articulate the value of their programs to all stakeholders, including funders.”—On-Ramps to Good Jobs
To make smart choices and communicate your value, you need detailed, reliable data. To succeed, on-ramps need to know what occupations their students gravitate towards, how much money they make, how long they stay in those jobs, whether they move on to better jobs, and more. And they need to be able to frame that data in ways that matter to their different partners. This is consistently a big area of emphasis in higher ed, workforce development, and talent development.
Emsi continues to work on a variety of solutions in this area, including:
- Providing better information on the outcomes of different types of training and educational programs.
- Services that help students see what they can do with different degrees or programs.
- Data that connects education and work so that people can easily identify not only the types of opportunities that exist—but also the wages, demand, employers, skills, and so on.
2. Change the talent narrative
A major problem on-ramps face is getting employers to take their students seriously as talent, rather than as objects of corporate philanthropy. Because on-ramp hires lack traditional credentials, and sometimes have unorthodox work histories, there’s a real risk that employers will simply assume that these workers are incapable of providing much value to a company.
One way to surmount this obstacle is emphasizing how well the skills of on-ramp trainees match the skills sought by the company. If you know what skills an employer is looking for, you can shift the conversation away from generic credentials and towards specific needs. This applies to the hard skills that form the core of most job-training programs, but it also includes soft or human skills like communication, interpersonal skills, and time management. These skills are fostered in the mentoring programs many on-ramps provide, and our data show that they appear in job postings across a wide variety of industries.
Another option is showing companies that the talent they already employ may not come from the pipelines they expect. Using data to prove to employers that they already hire people from non-traditional backgrounds may cause them to rethink their negative associations with on-ramp trainees.
Again, this is a big area of focus for Emsi. Our data continually shows that there is a real non-linearity between education and work. Employers almost always feel that their talent comes from a far more narrow set of programs and educational backgrounds than it actually does.
3. Know your regional economy
“On-ramps are designed so that completers have a solid chance to compete for a specific set of jobs available in the local or regional economy.”—On-Ramps to Good Jobs
On-ramps match trainees with industries in which there’s high demand for workers and a moderate level of training required. The higher the demand, the higher the likelihood that companies will be willing to consider a wide pool of applicants with a variety of backgrounds. The on-ramp connects the employer and the potential employee by providing the missing link: the training required to do the job.
To fulfill their mission, on-ramps need to adjust to the industries, employers, and skills with high demand, how that demand changes over time, and what qualifications are necessary to fill open roles. None of those factors exist in the abstract: they are all features of regional economies. A successful on-ramp in Duluth, Minnesota, will look very different from a successful on-ramp in Portland, Oregon, or Galveston, Texas.
If on-ramps are to scale up their successes and help a significant portion of working class Americans, they’ll need to make strategic decisions guided by the available data.
This final point is the wheelhouse of Emsi. A vast majority of what we do is help colleges, workforce professionals, and companies evaluate regional economies so they can make better programmatic decisions. If on-ramp creators need help, our data is a good place to start.
If you have any questions about how your organization can use workforce data to change lives, please get in touch.