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The First 100 Days: A Future-Focused Approach to Strengthening the Education-to-Work Continuum

January 25, 2021



If we are serious about putting working learners back to work and helping them continue their education without dramatically interrupting their careers, consider the following:

  • Recognize that today's learners are working learners, and our public sector solutions should shift to that reality. We need to build solutions around the working learners' needs and not ask them to modify their lives to fit an outdated educational model designed for the traditional learners of decades past.

  • We cannot do this in silos. Educators, employers, federal, state, and local government entities must work together beyond their narrow self-interests. We need a people-focused economy that we all contribute to building. Federal and state governments should connect policies for working learners, including entrepreneurs and gig workers, across departments. This means including stakeholders from Commerce, Education, Labor, and Small Business Administration at the federal level, and state and local workforce investment boards, chambers of commerce, and industry groups.

  • We cannot do this in small pockets. Regional and multi-regional consortia are needed--employers and government need to work together to upskill and reskill incumbent and displaced workers.

  • Equity and social justice must be the driving force across all of our efforts. We know best what issues people in our communities face and often know which solutions are working (or not). We need an infrastructure that provides quick access to resources, flexibility to meet the distinct needs of communities and regions, and incentives for stakeholders to engage.

  • Career readiness is essential and has to be woven throughout a life- and career-relevant curriculum that equips learners with the aptitudes to weather the storms throughout their careers.

  • Employers have to walk the talk! They can't promote skills-based credentials and non-degree pathways, then turnaround and privilege degrees in hiring. Otherwise, we're setting up an infrastructure that fails workers and learners, and we're wasting taxpayer dollars on programs that employers won't recognize. For this to work, employers have to show up and commit to change. The Department of Labor and its subagencies and the White House domestic policy team can encourage employers to take steps in this direction. 

Now that President Biden and Vice President Harris have been inaugurated, the country is getting a clearer picture of where the new Administration will focus its efforts. COVID and the economy are the pressing issues Biden and Harris will have to address first and likely for the foreseeable future. But the economy depends on a skilled, educated workforce, and 2020 wreaked havoc not only on the individuals in the workforce but also on the education and workforce systems we rely on to reskill and educate Americans.

We applaud the suggestions put forward by other learner advocates and education and workforce organizations to inform the Administration on how they might address education and labor challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. These articles have most often been at the policy level. At ED2WORK, we wanted to get a nuanced and pragmatic sense of how the Biden Administration could best get on with rebuilding training and education, prioritizing social justice and equity, to respond to a rapidly transforming economy.

As a first step, we engaged our Advisory Council of leaders from across higher education, nonprofits, healthcare, employers, and associations to weigh in on specific programs the Administration ought to embrace to achieve social and economic mobility goals for all. Through their organizations' grassroots efforts and their perspectives on regional and national approaches, advisory council members are tightly connected to the education-to-work continuum and provide an "on the ground" perspective to the conversation.

We've distilled our collective thinking into the following brief set of recommendations for the Administration. Some recommendations require cross-agency collaboration—both federally and across states, regions, and locales—to spur innovation and remove barriers to transformation. Others aim to develop and implement solutions on the ground in communities where the policies and programs will impact people most closely.


To be successful, each of these recommendations must encompass policies, practices, and programs that spur action and lead to demonstrable results. Success will not come if we simply tweak policies, create or distill a few new practices, or create just a few scattered programs. Change and transformation require boldness, some risk-taking, and an eye toward systemic change and long-term results.

As we advocate in our impact model, solving some of our most pressing challenges starts by seizing on a particular challenge or opportunity, discovering and building upon a community's strengths, and cultivating and nurturing leaders who will unleash the levers of change that drive sustained impact. But achieving sustained impact isn't just about scale; it's about learning and adapting, carrying forward what works in ways that we can respond to new challenges that will inevitably come. Real change means building capacity on the ground to carry the work forward.

This work will involve the Administration and a collective effort of leaders across education, business, philanthropy, and community-based organizations. Together, we should strive for smart policy creation and revision, fund demonstration projects that surface promising innovations, and programs and interventions that can inform national strategy and infrastructure that allows for localized flexibility. The solutions that emerge should be informed from the ground up, taking what we know works for people and communities, then scaling those solutions so that more people can benefit.

A Bold Approach to Serving Working Learners is Necessary

Unlike other cabinet nominees that have signaled a focus for their agency or whose background shed light on how they might address a particular issue, Secretary of Education nominee Miguel Cardona brings extensive K12 experience but has not signaled how he will address some of higher education's most pressing challenges. As of the publishing of this article, no undersecretary of education has been nominated to the post, which typically oversees higher education at the Department. From Cardona’s time as Connecticut's education leader, we can see that he is an advocate of public education, expanding access to low-income and students of color, and the need to provide wraparound services for students. In contrast, Secretary of Labor nominee Marty Walsh has a history of advocating for workers' rights, safety standards, a higher minimum wage, and paid family leave. We don't know where Cardona is likely to take higher education, especially as education and workforce preparation could benefit from more significant linkages.

We know community colleges will be a focal point for the Administration's education directives, with an eye toward free community college or at the very least efforts to significantly reduce the cost to attend a community college. We support a plan to make significant investments in community colleges, whose dual mission of academic and workforce education is critical to serving working learners. But community colleges cannot be the single education panacea for the post-COVID recovery, nor are they the only solution to educate less-skilled workers and learners.

The Biden-Harris approach to the COVID crisis offers a sound model to address working learners' needs at this critical juncture. We propose that the federal government is best positioned to plan and lead an integrated, cross-sector approach informed by a panel of experts well-versed in education-to-careers topics. The solutions that emerge are optimally positioned for implementation closer to where the work occurs, and the impact on people can be felt, that is, on the ground. Innovative work is already happening in states and regions. Some of it spurred by federal efforts to reimagine workforce preparation in response to COVID and, in some cases, state-led efforts to align education and workforce needs.

We would also suggest the need for a more integrated approach to align postsecondary programs with workforce needs. It is here that federal and state governments can work together to create a more integrated ecosystem. A working learner should not have to use numerous disparate platforms or databases to access information about jobs and careers and training or educational opportunities or seek eligibility for financial aid options and other wraparound services. We need a streamlined approach, perhaps a one-stop-shop for workers and learners where, for example, a recently unemployed workers visits a site, applies for unemployment insurance, and at the same time completes a skill and prior learning inventory, which matches several job openings, and where there is a skills gap, identifies training opportunities that would close the specific skills gap. At the same time, the individual could determine eligibility for and access additional wraparound services and qualifying supports to mitigate food or housing insecurity, for example. Some states are working on such a model, and with the federal government's support and a profound rethinking of how these systems might come together, it’s possible to create an entire education-to-work ecosystem that connects data across states.

It's Actually Past Time to Focus on the Working Learner

Even before COVID, our country was at a fork in the road regarding how best to serve adult and working learners. Our postsecondary education system is entrenched in policies that support a traditional view of how someone acquires postsecondary learning. The current system assumes and privileges a traditional college-going pathway and forces a sizable population of adult and working learners to contort their lives to fit an outdated postsecondary system instead of the system changing to meet the needs of today's learners.

The fact is that most postsecondary learners are not 18 years old and leaving home to live in a residence hall (this was the case even before the pandemic upended the traditional student experience). Regardless of age, today's learners may be working, caring for their families, and managing civic and community responsibilities on top of acquiring college-level learning in college and non-college settings. Look across community colleges, private and state universities, and proprietary institutions: the students reflect what the data show: learners today are more diverse, first in their family to attend college, they bear greater social and economic constraints, and balance learning with other priorities. Today's learners are anything but traditional.

Given the increasing heterogeneity of postsecondary students, it is essential that the Biden Administration enables learner segmentation and encourages specific policy and programmatic reforms to meet different learners' distinct needs. In their pursuit of postsecondary education, the needs of a 19-year-old part-time student living at home and holding down two jobs to help pay the family's bills will be distinct from the needs of a 45-year single parent raising her children while earning minimum wage with no access to affordable childcare or transportation. And in both of these examples, the learners are miles apart from the 18-year-old full-time residential student attending college. A one-sized model for postsecondary education does not fit all; it doesn't even fit the needs of many of today's students.

  1. Expand the Current Postsecondary Model. Although well-established research and elite private institutions may not need to pivot, many small private colleges and medium-size regional state institutions would do well to reimagine their mission as one of serving working learners across their lives and career spans. They would do well to shift the percentage of campus resources away from "traditional" students and redirect them toward the needs of the students who can benefit from their programs and services.

  2. Make Learning A Regular Part of our Lives and Make Learning Interoperable. Our colleague Chris Shipley calls for an "HMO for postsecondary education." She believes individuals at every age and career stage ought to be able to access expertise and resources to step into their next job or career. Conceptually this might take on various forms. For example, a platform of different informal and formal educational offerings from a community of experts and educators with varying levels of engagement or membership in a network with a menu of options to access various "quality assured" education programs and credentials of varying modalities across providers. We think the higher education model should support the more effortless movement in and out of formal and informal learning for short and longer-term credentials. And because learning occurs both inside and outside of the formal classroom, higher education must become proficient at providing new learning to students and assessing learning garnered elsewhere in life. Credit, non-credit, transfer credit, alternative credit: it's all learning and should be easily counted as part of a student's comprehensive learning record.

  3. Create More Short-Term Credentials and Increase Funding for Them. More postsecondary institutions should develop and offer short-term credentials with embedded career skills so that learners can earn a credential quickly that enables them to step into a higher-paying job as they continue their education and career path. And we suggest that the federal government should eliminate artificial barriers to accessing critical federal student aid like Pell grants, which could be used by working learners to enroll in quality short-term upskilling or reskilling programs (perhaps revisiting the Department of Education's Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) experimental sites initiative which seemingly faded following the transition from the Obama and Trump administrations). We think federal support is necessary given the likelihood that many state's tax rolls will likely be impacted in the years to come due to COVID. However, many governors are just now proposing their budgets for the next fiscal year, so we won't know the reality of the actual budget impact for months.

  4. Re-Train Faculty and Staff to Adopt New Roles. Particularly on campuses where student enrollments have been dropping, resources formerly dedicated to traditional-age students can be transformed to support learners and their larger communities in a host of new ways, including facilitating small business incubators that provide entrepreneurs, freelancers, and gig workers with access to low-cost expertise and services to launch or grow their business. Leveraging faculty's disciplinary expertise and other campus staff, colleges can quickly develop and offer short-term training and create new career exploration programming. Access to these programs could be accelerated if learners could draw on financial aid like degree programs. This strategy allows colleges and universities that are experiencing retrenchment the chance to retain the human and social capital within their campus community by creating new ways to help them provide value to the campus and community. It’s time to design and deliver a 21st-century curriculum to today's students and redesign faculty and staff roles to deliver that curriculum. The unbundling of the faculty role is underway, and it may now be time to re-bundle roles in new ways, leading to new career options for some faculty and staff.


Emerge from COVID with a More Just and Equitable Society for All 


With the need to re-adjust our postsecondary educational model firmly in mind, the new Administration will have to address the inequitable realities of COVID. The pandemic exacerbated nearly every inequity already present in our society, with people at the lower ends of the socioeconomic spectrum most adversely impacted. For example, COVID created a "she-cession," which affected many women who were forced to make the difficult decision to put their careers on hold to manage the complexities of children thrust into an unfamiliar remote learning environment. The negative economic impact of the pandemic and related job losses was especially devastating for Black workers and their families. The new administration can and should (and likely will) address these inequities immediately. We offer three ideas to help those efforts:

  1. Look Forward, Not Backward. Before COVID, technology was already changing how and where people work, and the pandemic merely accelerated this. Many entry-level and low-to-middle wage jobs in sales, administrative support, higher education, air travel, hospitality, and construction are likely not to return to their pre-COVID levels. In contrast, "high-paying jobs" in some of these sectors will increase, not decrease, after COVID. We should not be steering the underemployed or unemployed workers back to these industries without a clear picture of how the skills they acquire translate into higher-wage jobs in adjacent roles. As we watch the future develop, there are steps that the federal and state governments can take to shape that future. The education and workforce infrastructure should provide working learners with accessible information on good jobs and career paths and direct connections to the training needed to secure one of those jobs and employers seeking to hire for those roles. The nonprofit CareerOneStop delivers the type of integrated services job seekers need and could be expanded to benefit more working learners.

  2. Educate the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs. Through our work, we advocate for preparing people to navigate career chapters, not merely follow a "linear" career steeped in a mid-20th century mindset. Today's learners may wish to start a business at some point in their career. So, we should encourage an entrepreneurial mindset and provide affordable and accessible resources that help entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses. In a recent project we collaborated on, we helped develop a unified statewide plan to serve the entrepreneurial community better and grow the small business economy by leveraging and expanding access to existing and potentially underutilized expertise, resources, and facilities across the state's colleges and universities. The infrastructure is in place to do this; it merely requires some ingenuity and a willingness to risk doing what might be uncomfortable and disrupt the status quo. Still, it's what is needed to strengthen higher education's place in the value chain.

  3. Support Workers in the Gig Economy. One critical suggestion to the new Administration is to address the needs of workers who have turned to the gig economy to survive (think food delivery services). The delivery companies have touted these as a way for the workers to "be in business for themselves," Certainly, these workers have the flexibility. They are in demand, but they also lack essential benefits like paid time off, medical benefits, and retirement plans. And importantly, they are not building equity in their own companies. What incentives can the new Administration put into place to help them move out of the gig economy and into a stable, middle-class job? It will take flexible training programs, bridge benefits, and childcare subsidies. If we want to build new social mobility pathways, we must address all these impediments for working learners.

  4. Increase Social Capital for Learners. For too many learners, their zip code or the lack of a professional network limits their future education and work opportunities. As long as this is the case, we will simply worsen the entrenched social and economic bifurcation between the have and have nots. Developing social capital early in one's life is as essential to a career as attaining skills and knowledge. We know the lack of social capital harms already marginalized populations by no fault of their own. We need to ensure that learners have early access to resources such as connections to mentors and professionals to build social capital. Suggestions to broaden social capital include using educational technologies to connect students to mentors, experts, and peers in meaningful ways. While making deep connections to a social capital network is essential, we must also help learners access the tools and develop the aptitudes that will allow them to benefit from such networks.


Don't Recreate the Wheel, Make it More Efficient


Much work needs to be done to shift the postsecondary landscape toward serving working learners far better, and we don't want to discount the great work that has been done already. For example, states have developed strategic plans for Perkins V legislation to strengthen career and technical education pathways for the 21st century. These plans can provide a roadmap to inform a broader view of education and training to enable more people to rejoin the economy. It's worth taking a look at the Perkins State Plans Data Explorer to note what states are already planning and doing to create a more seamless linkage to career and technical education. But like all high-level plans, there are gaps. For example, as a society, we assume too much knowledge among the populous about today's and tomorrow's jobs. We recommend that in addition to the Perkins V state plans as they currently exist, the Administration, states, and other stakeholders identify modifications to existing policies, practices, and programs to best support working learners:

  • Convey information about current and future job opportunities in a way that is easy to distill so learners, academic and career counselors, and others can make informed decisions about what types of training and education to pursue

  • Support models of non-linear career pathways; it is the rare individual who follows one career path in life.

  • Fund re-entry programs for adjudicated youth and the formerly incarcerated, as well as other hidden pockets of talent, and work to destigmatize incarceration.

  • Explore new approaches to educating older workers who may choose to work for financial or intellectual, and social reasons.

  • Get serious about credential transparency for all education providers; this does not currently exist. Learners need better information about expected outcomes about competency attainment, labor market alignment, and how a credential positions them to succeed in future work and learning.


Perkins may have required states to create an overall plan, but the career-empowered individual is still an illusion.

Last updated January 25, 2021, 7:58 PM ET

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