The U.S. Senate recently introduced the ACCESS to Careers Act, a bipartisan bill that continues the trend set by the current administration to accelerate economic recovery and set individuals on the path to good jobs. This act would create a community college and career training grant program administered by the secretary of education, working to increase postsecondary credential attainment, align skills needed for high-demand occupations, and improve and scale evidence-based strategies that best meet learners’ and employers’ needs.
Many of the requirements to access federal funds mirror what organizations, including Education Commission of the States, have highlighted as innovative approaches taken by states to align education and training with workforce needs. In 2018, ECS conducted five state-level interviews to better understand workforce development systems. Through interviews and analysis, ECS identified five key components of state workforce development systems: data utilization, coordination and collaboration, leadership, outcomes alignment and funding. The current iteration of the ACCESS to Careers Act incorporates some key components that complement existing innovative state activities.
When interviewed, state education and workforce leaders expressed the need to analyze longitudinal data and labor market data to accurately assess employer needs and align those with education and training programs. However, state leaders also expressed concern about their capacity to coordinate and analyze the data in a useful way.
A cornerstone of the ACCESS to Careers Act requires grant recipients to use and implement a robust longitudinal data system focusing on student outcomes data. With this support, states could further their efforts and create systems that align labor market needs with education and training programs.
Coordination and Collaboration
A strong workforce development system engages key stakeholders across the state to collaborate and align training programs with employer needs. Beyond data, different stakeholders can provide valuable insights and perspectives that create aligned and flexible programs. States that form broad, cross-agency collaboration expressed greater progress and potential for their workforce development systems.
The act would require strong coordination and collaboration between education and training providers and employers representing high-need fields identified in each state and region. Priority would be given to grant applicants seeking to collaborate with businesses and education providers. It also would require engagement with employers to develop programs and curricula.
Outcomes Alignment and Funding
Too often, student success initiatives with good intentions fade away with a lack of sustainable funding. States discussed ways to pool funding sources together that may have served the same purpose for each agency but could be leveraged together for a greater reach.
The act would require each grantee to submit a report to the U.S. Secretary of Education outlining funded activities and resources leveraged. Additionally, the secretary must contract with a third party to evaluate the grants awarded, on the effects of funded strategies and to combine findings with the TAACCCT grant program. The act also requires applicants to show how they will leverage additional resources for future sustainability of any programs created. Evaluating current funding sources and amounts to assess duplication and options for sustainability prove fruitful for successful, continual workforce development pathways.
State and Institutional Innovations
States continue to build capacity across the five components. However, since 2018, an increasing number of states have focused their attention on expanding and building quality pathways to credentials for the education and training they need in local labor markets.
Below we outlined a few areas of opportunity for states to consider beyond the innovations outlined above, as provided through this act.
- Stackable credentialing: As states and national organizations point out, to create equitable and strong pathways into the workforce, it is imperative to ensure the stackability of credentials. Credential stackability provides flexibility in how individuals access training and allows for continued career progression.
- Focus on wraparound supports: States can continue to leverage public benefits to help students access and persist through postsecondary education. The act highlights the requirement to use 25% of the grant for student support services like childcare, connecting students to state or federal benefits and financial assistance for hardships.
- Building flexibility and adaptability in workforce pathways: It is important for states to continually evaluate labor market data and make adjustments to training programs to meet evolving needs. To accommodate rapid shifts, states and institutions can allow flexibility and adaptability in their training programs.
Innovative practices that states can learn from are underway as the federal legislation is under consideration. States continue to innovate around the five components to advance their workforce education and training systems. Increasing flexibility and adaptability will continue to be important as our economy evolves.