Are working learners trapped in a paradigm shift?

Our nation’s existing postsecondary system seems caught in a paradigm shift similar to what retail business experiencing: how do you blend bricks-and-mortar with virtual shopping?  Education finds itself in a similar quagmire: how do you prepare or re-train students and workers for a marketplace where meaningful credentials are constantly redefined?

Our current system of training and re-training seems focused more on getting people back into jobs than leading to more meaningful and well-conceived career paths.  The burning question is this: are we providing working learners with the right credentials?  Is a certificate or degree meaningful if the student or employee completes a program but doesn’t possess the necessary skills to do a job?

In an era when higher education is more important than ever, many working Americans have only tenuous connections to a college education. There are currently 75 million Americans between the ages of 18 to 64 who still have no postsecondary credentials and who are not currently enrolled in a course of education.  With life-long jobs a thing of the past, workers are moving in and out of jobs more often with little notion of how to get ahead. For the vast majority of these working Americans the path to being productive contributors to our economy with decent jobs is through further educational attainment.   

For the most post, advancing their educations means juggling work and learning over much of their working lives. These “working learners’ face an educational system designed for young students who complete a degree or other credential after a fixed, continuous, period of education.

Working learners can’t do that.   They are older students who attend school in non-traditional ways, either don’t apply and/or don’t qualify for financial assistance, and are less likely to complete any kind of degree within six years. And the current alternatives often don’t provide meaningful benchmarks of achievement with value in the job market.  

While the government workforce development system offers a glimmer of hope (although it’s still focused on crisis intervention and short term job placement), it touches less than one-half of one percent  (416,000) of the 75 million potential working learners in the United States.

Are schools, government, and employers doing enough to prepare students to apply what they learn?  Are our tax dollars being spent to "bail-out" unskilled and under-skilled workers or to create a workforce with credentials employers can use?  Do employers need to start looking at non-credit courses and degrees in progress as adequate credentials for skills or does a certificate or degree still offer more evidence for potential performance?


Ira S Wolfe