Education-and-Employment sector in US – Programs that worked with employers were growing faster Harvard’s interdisciplinary Project on Workforce finds

A new white paper released today by Harvard’s interdisciplinary Project on Workforce – Working to Learn: Despite a growing set of innovators, America struggles to connect education and career – highlights stark challenges and transformative opportunities for the growing field of organizations seeking to connect postsecondary education with employment.

The development of job pathways that integrate work and learning are critical to an equitable recovery and a future where social and economic opportunity are available to all. Workers from underrepresented communities, particularly communities of color, have been most affected by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and traditionally have faced the largest systemic barriers to social and economic opportunity in America. These communities are wellsprings of insight and talent where people are poised to take advantage of stronger pathways to learning and earning amidst accelerating changes in our workforce and economy.

This report is an analysis of the education-and-employment sector landscape, using a novel dataset of organizations working at the intersection of education and employment. We answer two broad questions: 1) What are the characteristics of the education-and-employment sector? And 2) What are the most common program delivery methods, audiences, and outcomes?

“Our research showed that many organizations purporting to connect both education and career are still struggling to do so,” said Joseph Fuller, Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School and co-author of the report. “While standout organizations exist in the field, too few programs are linking soft and hard skills, prioritizing evidence, working with employers, or providing wraparound supports.”

The research utilized a unique dataset of 316 applications to an open grant competition for programs seeking to connect postsecondary education and employment. Analyzing these organizations, the report’s authors found:

  • Huge potential to engage employers more deeply: Programs that worked with employers were growing faster than peers, but only about one-third (35 percent) of organizations mentioned that they were working directly with employers. Only about one-quarter mentioned providing learning opportunities in workplace environments.
  • Opportunities to build bridges between education and employment: Only 16 percent of organizations prioritize relationships with both educational institutions and employers. Success measurement is similarly siloed between education and employment metrics; for organizations that focused on college-related outcomes, only 33 percent also prioritized employment outcomes.
  • A growing need to develop transferable skills in the future of work: One-third of organizations in the dataset focused on job-specific training, but just nine percent of organizations prioritized foundational soft skills alongside job-specific skills.
    A critical opportunity for more investment in wraparound supports: Only 13 percent of organizations cited directly providing wraparound supports like subsidies for transportation, housing, or childcare.
  • A growing, but still nascent, evidence base: The most common success metric tracked by applicant organizations (59 percent) was whether participants completed the program. About one-quarter of organizations indicated that they measured employment rates and a similar share tracked college attendance. Causal evidence is more rare; nine percent of applicants cited an existing study, quasi-study, or external evaluation of the program model in their application.
  • Under-leveraging of technology in some areas: Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the field was heavily skewed towards in-person models. Only six percent of programs were fully online; 11 percent had hybrid models.

“To date, the field is fragmented and often siloed between college and employment missions,” said report co-author Rachel Lipson, Project Director of the Project on Workforce at the Harvard Kennedy School. “But there is vast untapped potential to scale innovations both within and across organizations.”

The “education-and-employment sector”

This white paper describes and analyzes a diverse array of service delivery models that we call the education- and-employment sector. We sought to define a term that would be intentionally inclusive of organizations that carefully straddle both the postsecondary education and employment sectors.

Perhaps it is surprising that no standard terminology exists. That reflects the complexity of a field trying to work alongside and communicate effectively with employers, educators, nonprofits, intermediaries, and aspiring workers simultaneously. Many in the US have traditionally referenced the “workforce development sector.” Others use “school-to-career,” “education-to- career,” or “postsecondary.” All those titles are imperfect in different ways. A reference to “postsecondary” alone ignores critical employment services and career objec- tives. Similarly, “employability” or “employment services” lacks recognition of organizations’ educational mission in providing technical and social skills.

In the case of “education-to-career” or “school-to- career,” those names convey a strict linear progression from education to an eventual labor market destination. That is misleading at best. It fails to reflect the reality for millions of Americans who upskill on the job, take a break from school to entirely focus on work, return to further their education and training in adulthood, or go through career transitions in middle-age. For instance, 69 percent of entering community college students work for pay. Thirty-nine percent of undergraduate students and the majority of adult learners study part-time. And adult students (age 25 plus) make up over 25 percent of the US undergraduate population.

Workforce development might appear the closest fit. But as more organizations embrace economic mobility as the ultimate north star, there is a danger in emphasizing the output of services over the outcomes an intervention achieves.

In this body of work, we wanted to reflect a holistic view of the field, communicating the feedback loops and interde- pendencies inherent in the relationship between educa- tion and employment. Our hope in using the broadest terms of education AND employment will allow us to capture more fully the set of emergent organizational models and the variety of theories of change and defini- tions of success.

Employer Involvement and Career or College Focus

One of the critical elements of an education-and-employ- ment organization’s value proposition is its purported ability to deliver educational opportunities while also providing employer connections. To assess if this was happening in our sample, we looked to see if the organi- zations that provided employment support to participants involved employers in their program. We also analyzed if education-focused organizations—specifically those focused on achieving an outcome related to college matriculation or graduation—gathered data on employ- ment outcomes for their participants.

Despite the focus on the connection between education and career, we found a strong divide between the orga- nizations focused on labor market outcomes and those focused on college access and attainment. Across the 316 organizations, there was a strong negative relationship between the applicants who cited educational institutions’ involvement in their delivery model and those that directly involved employers. Of the 53 organizations that provided employment support, only 22 involved employers in their program. For organizations that focused on college- related outcomes, only 33 percent also prioritized employment outcomes. There was also a strong negative correlation between the organizations that worked with educational institutions and prioritized job-specific skills. Similarly, the organizations focused on college were less likely to focus on specific job roles.
Although applications specifically asked for innovators who connect young adults to the “work experience needed to access upwardly mobile careers” and “workforce-connected postsecondary programs,” less than half of the applicants mentioned that they were working directly with employers. Only about 50 percent of the organizations that prioritized job-specific skills also indicated that employer engagement was integral to their programs. This was a statistically significant relationship. There was also a statistically significant, positive relationship between the programs that involved employers and growth in learners (learner CAGR). Applicants that involved employers tended to show higher growth rates in learners served. The programs that prioritized employer involvement were also more likely to measure participants’ employment rate, employment success, and income as outcomes measures.

Some of these findings are troubling. They suggest that many organizations do not work closely with employers, even when their primary program outcome is employ- ment-related. It also suggests that educationally focused organizations do not prioritize employment success, even as students are showing ever-increasing interest in programs that offer the promise of providing attrac- tive employment opportunities. While this sector seeks to help participants make smoother transitions between learning and career, the majority of these organizations prioritize only one side of the equation—employment or education. Few organizations attempt to hold them- selves accountable to both. Unfortunately, integrated approaches and more seamless pathways are still not the norm.


Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story @ Working to Learn: New Research on Connecting Education and Career


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