Why America Needs a Better School-Career Bridge


by Joseph B. Fuller and Rachel Lipson

More than a year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are signs of optimism as more people gain access to vaccines and the federal government injects more stimulus money into the ‘economy. Yet the outlook for workers remains mixed. The crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities and recent job gains reflect persistent disparities based on race, gender, age and educational attainment.

Emerging from the crisis, providing more workers with pathways to economic stability will largely depend on forging stronger links between education and economic opportunity. America’s fragmented education and training systems have too often reinforced barriers between work and learning, rather than bridging the worlds of education and employment. This is an opportune time to reassess the country’s fundamental approach to human capital development.

To understand patterns and theories of change among training organizations, our Harvard Interdisciplinary Workforce Project research team analyzed 316 applications for the Postsecondary Equity Innovation Initiative. The grants competition, launched by venture philanthropy New Profit, awarded $ 100,000 to social entrepreneurs who help young people in low-income communities launch promising careers. The apps offer insight into the interaction between short-term training providers, employers, colleges and high schools.

We have found that the link between education and employment remains too tenuous in America. To create more pathways to upward mobility in the post-COVID recovery, policymakers, employers and educators need to prioritize and adapt programs that integrate work and learning. Our new White Paper Work to Learn: Despite a growing number of innovators, America struggles to connect education and career explores several important trends from our analysis:

Few programs target university and employment. While the organizations in the dataset see themselves as innovators in the combination of post-secondary credentials and work experience, they fall almost evenly between those focused on college enrollment and those offering models focused on college enrollment. the career. Only 16 percent of applicants favor relationships with educational institutions and employers. In addition, few organizations measure their success in terms of both educational attainment and labor market outcomes. For example, only 33 percent of organizations that track college-related outcomes also prioritize employment outcomes.

The opportunities for situated learning remain rare. Previous research has shown that skills learned in a setting similar to where they will be applied are much more sustainable. Yet relatively few organizations offer learning opportunities that closely resemble the realities of the workplace. Only 25 percent of applicants offer apprenticeships, internships or on-the-job training. This figure is derisory compared to other OECD countries such as Germany or Switzerland (pdf), where 40 to 70% of students divide their time between traditional school settings and learning at the workplace. .

Techniques and interpersonal skills rarely go hand in hand. The future of work, and in particular well-paying jobs, will require a combination of fundamental and transferable soft skills and job-specific technical skills. However, we found that only 9% of organizations in the dataset prioritize both types of skills. The emphasis on short-term placement should not come at the expense of developing skills, such as critical thinking, that prepare learners for long-term career success. Learning on the job, especially when paired with mentoring, can foster both skill sets.

Relations with employers tend to be lacking. Perhaps the most disturbing result of our research is that only 35% of applicants report working directly with employers. The most effective programs in the social science literature (pdf) exhibit strong relationships with employers. Organizations in our dataset that work with employers grow faster than their peers in the dataset. This offers promises for the future. But, given the gravity of the challenge of COVID re-employment, fostering links between education providers and the organizations that hire will be more essential than ever.

Establish an impact program

While many of these challenges are not new, the data strengthens the case for action. Indeed, the crisis has renewed pressure on the United States to develop new models and expand existing avenues that can open doors for those most affected by the recession. They include workers without a bachelor’s degree, workers of color, young workers, working mothers, and workers in industries most affected by COVID, such as retail and hospitality.

As we envision a post-pandemic recovery, it will be up to policymakers, business leaders and educators to ensure these groups are not left behind. The American Jobs Plan encourages significant new investments in training. Policymakers and educators should seize the opportunity to use the funding for programs that combine education and work experience, especially those where people can learn and earn money while graduating from high school or college. .

Incentives and measures will also play an important role in understanding the success of training efforts. If college-focused programs aspire to support employment outcomes, labor market outcomes must become a key indicator of success. These lessons should also apply to private funders of philanthropy.

Employers will also have a critical role to play in creating the pathways that will help workers affected by COVID withstand future economic shocks. The private sector spends most of the dollars spent on adult training.

Policy makers should support programs that actively encourage employers to invest in talent pools. CareerWise, founded in Colorado but now spanning Indiana, New York, and Washington, DC, provides a replicable model for employers to engage high school students in youth learning. And the growth of “education-as-benefit” models like Guild Education provides good evidence of the potential of employers to integrate access to post-secondary education more directly into their human capital strategies. Efforts such as the U.S. Workers’ Investment Act, which would revise the tax code so that business investments in their workforce are treated the same as investments in physical assets and research, are also a good step forward.

Additionally, as more data emerges from this crisis, we expect to see greater opportunities for workers with transferable soft skills in the wake of increasing automation. Employers and educators will need to focus on how they can cultivate these skills in workers and learners.

Finally, any systemic solution must meet the challenges of market fragmentation. There is no “one stop shop” for employers and potential employees to find each other, even when labor markets are tight. But as hiring increases, closer ties between educational institutions and industry can produce better economic outcomes for workers and higher levels of competitiveness for U.S. employers. Achieving this requires lifelong workplace learning programs that support educator degree programs and employer hiring strategies. Closing the gaps and reducing the friction between completing school and starting a job offers significant returns for workers, employers and society as a whole.

Joseph B. Fuller is professor of management practices at Harvard Business School. He co-chairs the HBS Project on Managing the Future of Work and the Workforce Project at Harvard. Rachel Lipson is the director of the Workforce Project at Harvard University.

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