Pursuing Innovations to Build a Better Workforce Development Ecosystem

Education and training have long been considered routes to economic security. But millions of people can’t access postsecondary education or workforce training that would prepare them for high-demand, living-wage jobs. Few programs have any impact on individuals’ earning power or mobility out of poverty. These realities have ripple effects on families, communities, employers, and the economy.

With support from the AIR Equity Initiative, AIR’s PROMISE Center aims to change this narrative with research, partnerships, and ingenuity. In this Q&A, Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, managing researcher and acting director of the center, shares how AIR experts are working to develop, build, and measure the impact of innovations designed to increase economic opportunity and mobility at scale.

Q. What major challenges are workforce training and postsecondary education programs facing?

Rutschow: A real challenge for the field is, how do we help build individuals’ ability to skill up quickly and efficiently and obtain living-wage jobs? How do we build a strong workforce for the many high- and living-wage jobs that are unfilled? We need to find ways to improve the skills of millions of lower-wage workers to meet both the supply and demand challenges.

Not everyone needs a four-year or even a two-year degree. They need some targeted training around some very specific skills and shorter-term credentials. Workforce training and postsecondary education programs are under pressure from the government, industry, and foundations to think more broadly and creatively about how to get individuals into great jobs in a shorter timeframe.

Q. How is the PROMISE Center addressing these challenges?

Rutschow: Our key focus is figuring out how to build a much more equitable workforce. To do that, we are working to improve the full spectrum of workforce training, meeting underserved populations where they are and bringing their voices and experiences into our work. There are four pillars of this comprehensive work:

  1. Analyzing evidence. We began with a landscape review to understand the research on both workforce training and postsecondary education, as well as on some specific underserved populations. Many rigorous studies of many different innovations found that, over decades of money, time, and research, most programs are not really moving the needle on program completions, employment, or earnings.

    Along with others in the field, we did discover very rigorous, randomized controlled trials of a handful of programs that have made meaningful differences in individuals’ ability to obtain living-wage jobs and maintain these wages over the long term—five to nine years after they participated in a program. This is highly unusual. Now we are mining the implementation evidence from these programs to try to better understand what those programs did and who they served.

Sectoral programs train people for existing jobs in high-demand industry sectors that pay well for workers without four-year college degrees.

—Harry Holzer, AIR Institute Fellow

  1. Expanding effective programs. The premise behind much of the PROMISE Center’s work is that some organizations have clearly done this well. These best-in-class programs are scaling and expanding, but they’re still relatively boutique organizations. So, the second pillar of our work is partnering with effective sectoral programs, exploring what they’re doing that makes them unique and successful, and helping them develop tools and innovations that will allow them to scale to much bigger, broader, and more diverse populations.
  1. Fostering effective practices broadly. A third pillar of our work is partnering with institutions that are already reaching many of these populations at scale. We’re starting with community colleges, which are present in nearly every community across the country, to improve their success in getting individuals to graduate and into employment. We want to help them further strengthen their workforce training and development practices so that they can achieve the same kinds of successes as the effective sectoral programs have had.
  1. Supporting underserved populations. Despite the ubiquity of community colleges and other workforce training programs, many individuals still face specific barriers or challenges to participation and success in these programs. We are exploring the challenges these individuals face and promising ways of supporting them, with the hope that we can also help build bridges for their success in postsecondary programs and in the workforce. We’re focused on four key populations:
  • Adult learners with foundational skill needs, such as academic or English language skills;
  • Opportunity youth, or young people ages 16 to 24 who are not in school or working;
  • Justice-involved young people who are incarcerated or reintegrating into communities; and
  • Displaced workers who are trying to transition their skills from one career to another.

Many of these individuals are screened out of programs because leaders are unsure how to best support their success. We hope to partner with these communities and programs that serve them to develop innovative solutions to help them succeed.

Q. What has AIR learned about programs that work?

Rutschow: One best practice is ensuring that individuals are trained in the content and skills that employers need—and that they get some on-the-job or work-based learning experience. Programs like Year Up, a PROMISE Center partner, have shown that with six months of training to develop technical and professional skills and six months of a work-based learning experience, an individual can be out in year in a job and earning a living wage. Five years later, that same person is still out-earning individuals who did not participate in that program.

Per Scholas, a PROMISE Center partner that trains people in information technology and other tech careers, has a similar track record of large earnings gains. The data show that this can happen.

Q. How can these programs be scaled up and sustained?

Rutschow: We’re helping successful programs identify possible equity gaps in the populations they serve. We’re also developing frameworks, tools, and innovations that will allow them to scale to much bigger, broader, and more diverse populations with the same or better levels of effectiveness.

Right now, we’re at a stage of innovation and testing. For example, we’re working with Per Scholas on an integrated tutoring system to support learners with different academic and training backgrounds as they go through an IT certification program. We’re hoping this new technology, which has never been used in this kind of setting before, will allow Per Scholas to serve many more diverse sets of learners—and tailor instruction and support for them. We’re also building assessment systems to help Year Up better target services to individual learner needs.

Q. Is there one project that exemplifies the PROMISE Center’s work advancing equity within the workforce system?

Rutschow: Given colleges’ focus on longer-term academic programs, it can be challenging for them to develop more systematic approaches to workforce training, adapt to ever-changing market needs, or track the economic success of individuals who enroll in their programs. This is a key need in community colleges across the country.

With City Colleges of Chicago, a PROMISE Center partner, we are building a much stronger data system and user-friendly dashboards to track the outcomes of their shorter-term, sectoral workforce training programs. The system may integrate real-time state or national labor market data to inform programming and work-based learning. AIR has a unique blend of individuals for this project, including our Technology Solutions team, postsecondary researchers, and technical assistance staff to help college administrators, faculty, and staff use this information to strengthen their workforce development and training strategy.

We are hoping to leverage this experimental project into partnerships with states, colleges, and workforce training programs to develop a more systematic and strategic approach to workforce training that we can learn from with larger studies.

Elizabeth Rutschow
Managing Researcher and Acting Director, PROMISE Center