One of the central promises of education in America is the opportunity to cultivate the knowledge and skills we all need to get good jobs, pursue careers and live productive lives.
We invest trillions of dollars to fulfill this promise, yet half of Americans don’t earn a post-high school credential of any kind by the age of 30. Today, there are 32 million working-class adults in America who aren’t earning a living wage.
To make matters worse, these struggling Americans are also at risk of losing their jobs to automation. As the pace of change accelerates in the labor market, the current skills gaps will only continue to grow.
If we don’t act now, working-class Americans will keep slipping economically.
Connecting these 32 million Americans to the prosperity and opportunity that education promises is the fundamental challenge we face as a country.
The challenge is that our learning ecosystem is not built to serve these Americans. Colleges are mostly designed to serve recent high school graduates, while employers focus their training on mid-career professionals.
In the workplace, most of the $170 billion that employers invest in formal training for their employees goes to workers who have had educational and professional success. Resources rarely flow to working-class adults who are unemployed, under-employed or no longer looking for work.
With a postsecondary education system designed to serve others, should any of us be surprised, then, that two out of three of these adults have no interest in going back to college, even though they know that further education would help them advance in their careers?
At the same time, venture capital is overlooking this market opportunity. At present, venture capitalists are investing billions of dollars in new programs, companies and technologies with the promise to disrupt higher education by connecting learners more directly to the workforce.
Most of what Ryan Craig has termed “last-mile training providers” — programs designed to supplement newly minted college grads’ general education with technical skills — are not designed to ensure the 32 million working-class adults most in need of good jobs.
According to one analysis, “companies directed at supporting middle- to high-skilled white-collar workers have attracted more than three times the amount of funding as those companies directed at low-skilled, low-income workers.”
We need to focus on investing more resources in designing innovative solutions that provide job skills for working-class adults, connecting these Americans to better economic opportunities.
One market of learning programs is emerging with an innovative design tailored specifically to working-class Americans. We call these learning programs “on-ramps,” and they include programs like STRIVE International, JVS, i.c.stars and Techtonic.
Each program is different, but all are built on a central premise: meet working-class adults where they are and do whatever it takes to launch them onto promising pathways for the future. On-ramps provide an incredible case study for how learning providers can connect working-class adults to economic opportunity more quickly and directly.
Unfortunately, however, on-ramp programs are few and far between — only serving approximately 100,000 adults across the country.
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As they are currently designed, on-ramps are simply too small for the challenge ahead. We need new business models, new investments, new technologies and new programs that integrate the insights of on-ramps into new strategies and job skills for working-class adults.
This model has the potential to serve as the foundation for a robust, well-functioning learning ecosystem of the future. Already, on-ramps have demonstrated the value of apprenticeships, human+ skills training, experiential learning and wrap-around support services for working-class adults.
To ensure working-class adults aren’t left behind by the future of work, we must reimagine and redesign how we deliver learning in America. On-ramps are just the beginning.
This story about teaching job skills to working-class adults was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Andrew Hanson is a senior research fellow at Strada Education Network, a first-generation college graduate, and a Teach For America and Americorps alumnus.