Job action

A decade after the first call to action, it's time to get our workforce development house in order

january 2011 marks the tenth anniversary of MassINC’s New Skills for a New Economy report. The report’s main finding that 1.1 million workers in Massachusetts—a third of the state’s workforce —lacked skills essential to the “new economy” was broadcast far and wide. In one fell swoop, an issue that previously generated very little attention was pushed to the top of the public agenda. Ten years later, however, many of the problems identified in the 2001 report remain.

Despite our best efforts, too many adults still lack the skills needed to succeed in the state’s economy. Long waiting lists for programs remain and too many adults are struggling in post-secondary education. We accomplished incremental progress toward improving our adult education and workforce development programs. But we did not achieve significant reform. And while the issue has largely fallen off the public agenda, recent reports indicate that the economic and labor market trends that spurred the 2001 study have only intensified. In fact, the state’s economic recovery may well stall because we don’t have enough skilled workers. We can’t afford to let that happen.

The New Skills for a New Economy report identified three education challenges facing workers. The first was the “language challenge.” At the time, nearly 200,000 immigrants were identified with limited English-speaking skills. The second was the “education credential challenge,” or finding that 280,000 working-age adults, 9 percent of the state’s workforce, lacked a high school diploma. Finally, we identified 667,000 workers with a high school degree but limited workplace skills and little or no college education, who faced the “new literacy challenge.” These workers were most disrupted by the transformation of the state’s economy from manufacturing-based to knowledge-based. Simply put, for this share of the workforce, representing the vast majority of the 1.1 million workers lacking new economy skills, their education was no longer adequate.

The report sparked a genuine reform effort, led by then-Gov. Jane Swift, to dramatically improve how the state delivers education and workforce development programs, aimed at ensuring the state had enough skilled workers for an economy that was producing more higher-skilled jobs. It also sparked new interest in innovation among adult education providers and a substantial increase in employer-sponsored efforts to increase workplace literacy and basic skills. For a moment, it seemed possible that Massachusetts would have an adult education and workforce development system that was more effective, more accountable, and better funded. But the complicated governance and financing system of the state’s workforce development programs, as well as the lack of consensus about mission and outcomes, were too much for well-intentioned reformers to overcome. Rube Goldberg won.

Several recent economic studies strongly suggest that Massachusetts faces a future that will see a growing schism between the education and skills required by new jobs, and the education and skills of our residents. Recently, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston projected that the working-age population in New England will stagnate or shrink over the next two decades, and that its composition will include an even greater percentage of immigrants and minorities, many lacking higher-level literacy skills. Recent job vacancy projections by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development suggest that nearly all job growth in the coming decade will be in occupations requiring some post-secondary education; the Federal Reserve Bank study projects that New England’s growth rate for jobs requiring post-secondary education will be nearly twice the national average.

At the same time, the Fed study reports that the number of working age adults in New England with post-secondary education has been growing more slowly than other regions of the country. Although we can hope to import more workers in the future, we also need to get serious about investing in the skills of our current workforce.

What are we to do? We suggest four steps to tackle this challenge.

Make educational attainment for low-literate adults a priority Adult education is overshadowed by the important, but almost exclusive, focus on K-12 education reform. Yet, with one-third of the Commonwealth’s workforce lacking the education and skills they need for the growing occupations, it needs to come out of the shadows. Gov. Deval Patrick, through his Massachusetts New Americans Agenda, has publicly committed to ending the 16,000-person waiting list for classes in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). He should make good on that promise. The Commonwealth stands out among other states for its level of funding of adult education, but given the disproportionately high educational requirements of our labor market, and our dependence on immigrants in our adult workforce, we have little choice but to increase support for programs that better prepare adults for college while strengthening program outcomes.

The secretary of education should establish a high-level task force to recommend the governance, funding, and accountability structures needed to align the state’s adult education and higher education systems. At a minimum, the administration should seriously consider options for integrating adult education and higher education, including placing responsibility for adult education under the state’s Board of Higher Education.

Change the goal of adult education to support post-secondary success Adult education has traditionally set the bar for success at the completion of a high-school equivalency degree (GED), or high level ESOL. While these are important steps in educational attainment, the bar for success in adult education needs to be post-secondary education. Several actions should be undertaken to make this dramatic shift in focus and outcomes a reality.

Post-secondary attainment should serve as a primary goal for state funded adult education programs. Shifting the focus to post-secondary education will require significant improvement in the capacity of adult education providers to deliver high-quality, effective post-secondary preparation. State adult education funding has traditionally contracted with a wide network of providers, some with limited capacity and questionable outcomes. Shifting to a focus on post-secondary preparation may require a new funding model that supports a network of larger providers, or partnerships of providers, that have greater capacity to meet the post-secondary challenge for their students. There will also need to be a new emphasis on curricula and instructional innovation as well as the utilization of new educational technologies.

This shift will not be successful unless the state explicitly aligns adult education completion and college entry. Currently, adult students typically complete their GED or ESOL program and are far from ready to test into college-level classes. If they do go to their local community college and take the required “Accuplacer” entrance exam, they will likely be placed in developmental education, or remedial classes.

Sixty-one percent of the state’s community college students are required to enroll in at least one developmental education course. Nationally, drop-out rates from developmental education programs can be upwards of 50 percent as unprepared students find themselves exhausting their federal financial aid long before they get to take a credit-bearing class. Adult education programs should be preparing students to enter credit-bearing classes directly, or with no more than one or two remedial requirements. Community colleges should partner with adult education programs so that students are prepared to directly enter college. This type of alignment, which has occurred in several other states, will require more coordination from adult education, workforce development, and higher education bureaucracies in order to forge new partnerships.

Create pathways for working adults to succeed in college Once adult students enter community colleges, they face the challenges of an educational system that is not typically designed to meet their needs. Many community colleges have made enormous progress in delivering night-time and weekend classes, and making other adjustments for older, working students on campus. But much more needs to be done to help working adults succeed in college. Financial aid, which is more typically available for full-time students, will need to be restructured for part-time students. More colleges will need to create “stackable” certificate and degree programs that allow working students to attain valuable credentials that add up to degrees as their time allows. And colleges will need to be much more consistent in their class and program entry requirements across programs and campuses, so that working adults don’t waste their precious time repeating classes in order to progress to a degree.

Support employers’ efforts to increase the educational level of their employees State-supported adult education is unlikely to meet fully the demand or need in the Commonwealth. But thousands of employees annually attend workplace-based adult education classes because they are convenient, low-cost, and often directly related to the requirements of their jobs. The Commonwealth already has incentives for workplace learning through several programs available to employers, and these should be supported and expanded, but more could be done to fully tap the enormous potential for employers to invest in the education and skills of their employees. One approach that has been utilized by several major employers and states is life-long learning accounts. These are matched savings accounts, through which employees save for their education, and are matched by employer contributions. State tax credits, for both the employer and employee contribution, could go a long way to encourage more workplace education, and at the same time, create a new market for high-quality adult educational services.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Since the 2001 skills report, leaders have worked together to improve the system, while fighting to protect resources to help educate adults. But a decade of incremental change has not yielded results to the scale to match the challenge. Helping more working adults get a college degree generates economic opportunity and keeps the state competitive. Not only is it a goal worth pursuing, it must be the basis for the reform so urgently needed.

Jerry Rubin is president and CEO of Jewish Vocational Service, a Boston-based provider of workforce development services. John Schneider is executive vice president of MassINC and directs the organization’s New Skills for a New Economy program.