What to Do About Paths After High School

What to Do About Paths After High School

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There’s a reason 2/3 of voters say improving education should be a top priority this year.1 America faces an opportunity crisis. The ability to earn a good life depends heavily on a person’s skills and educational attainment, and nearly 2/3 of jobs require some form of postsecondary education.2 Yet only 40% of adults in the US have that level of education.3 While economic opportunity exists for highly-skilled workers in certain superstar regions and industries, far too many other Americans are left behind.

The ability to get the right skills will continue to be a top issue, especially since a majority of voters think it will be harder to earn a good life in the future.4 Further, while many people choose to go to college after high school, many don’t complete their degrees. Employers face a skills gap, and good-paying jobs remain unfilled.

Anyone running for office in 2020 needs to confront this crisis head on. As a central part of that, policymakers need to make sure there are alternative paths in addition to the traditional college degree that help Americans get jobs throughout in-demand fields.

The Case

There is a dearth of skilled workers across booming industries. Currently, 7.6 million jobs remain unfilled,5 with severe skill gaps in industries such as health care, information technology, manufacturing, and energy.6 For example, 71% of manufacturers say their inability to attract skilled workers is their top challenge.7 Many good-paying, in-demand occupations in numerous industries don’t call for a bachelor’s degree—they just require some training after high school. Yet while 53% of jobs are “middle skill” jobs, only 43% of US workers are trained for them.8

Millions of people don’t have a college degree. In 2017, 44% of students enrolled in four-year colleges immediately after graduating from high school.9 But 40% of people do not complete a four-year degree program within six years.10 In 2015 and 2016 alone, 3.9 million undergraduates left college with student loan debt and no degree.11 We need to do a lot more to increase completion rates. But we also need to ensure there are other paths to get skills outside of the traditional four-year degree.

Eleven million Americans live in “education deserts” without easy access to a traditional college path. Eleven million adults live more than an hour’s drive from a public two- or four-year college.12 While many people can and will move to more populated areas to pursue a college degree, there are many who can’t move or choose not to. Alternative paths after high school, such as apprenticeships, can help people in these primarily rural areas acquire the skills needed to land good-paying jobs.

Apprenticeships are an afterthought in the US. Apprenticeships allow people to earn money while learning in-demand skills. And because apprenticeships are employer-driven, the skills a person learns will be tailored for a specific job opening. A worker who completes an apprenticeship earns a solidly middle class $50,000 a year on average.13 Despite this, apprenticeships have not caught on in the United States in the same way they have in European countries.14 As a result, the US apprenticeship system serves too few industries and doesn’t reach enough people. Apprenticeships remain rare in industries like advanced manufacturing, information technology, financial services, and health care—all of which are currently experiencing skills shortages.15

The traditional postsecondary system doesn’t help people keep up with changes in the nature of work. In this fast-moving economy, skills stay relevant for just ten years.16 Yet, credentials often don’t build on one another, or “stack,” which encourages people to only pursue postsecondary education in single, large increments immediately after high school. A modernized system could help people gain skills in more manageable chunks, allowing them to move up the ladder throughout their career. It would better align with the future of work, letting people retool and reskill as jobs evolve. And allowing skills to build on each other could also help people eventually build up credit for a college degree.

Seeking a college degree may not be feasible for adults who need to rapidly retrain or upgrade their skills. Pursuing associate’s and bachelor’s degrees all at once requires a significant up-front commitment of both time and money and often requires people to delay earning an income for two or four years. For these reasons, it may not be the right path for mid-career workers who have lost their jobs or want better ones, particularly if they have families to support. Instead, many of these workers need access to shorter-term training programs that can quickly and effectively provide them with in-demand skills and then return them to the job market.

We are wasting economic opportunity behind bars. There are 2.3 million people locked up in the American criminal justice system,17 many of whom don’t have access to skills or credentials. As Third Way has written, “41% of incarcerated individuals do not have a high school diploma or GED. Only 44% of private prisons and 7% of jails offer vocational training, and only 27% of state prisons offer college courses. This leaves too many inmates without access to the skills that could help them upon release so they could return to the workforce.”18

Possible Solutions

There are a number of ways to help more people get the skills to earn a good life outside of a traditional four-year college path. Here are a few:

Apprenticeship America

Third Way has proposed creating a national apprenticeship system as robust and prevalent as our public university system.19 Collectively equipped with $40 billion in federal funding, Apprenticeship Institutes in every state will launch new apprenticeship programs and proactively engage employers, workers, technical colleges, unions, and other organizations that make apprenticeships work. A new, subsidized Federal Apprenticeship Loan will also encourage small and medium-sized employers to join the 50-state Institute system and establish apprenticeship programs. A version of this idea has been introduced by Senators Chris Coons and Todd Young as well as Reps. Donald Norcross and David McKinley.20

The PARTNERS Act (H.R. 989, S. 431)

Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Drew Ferguson, Susan Davis, and Brett Guthrie, as well as Senator Tammy Baldwin, have proposed legislation to fund local partnerships between employers, education and training institutions, community-based organizations, and labor unions. These partnerships would help small and medium-sized businesses develop apprenticeship programs as well as provide mentoring and other support services for workers.

Reemployment Insurance

Third Way has proposed overhauling the Unemployment Insurance system, in part by ensuring that jobseekers can acquire new skills.21 Anyone unemployed would continue to receive income support but could also receive one of the following: 1) A universal training voucher, redeemable for certified programs run by community colleges, unions, nonprofits, or employers; 2) A job search stipend to help defray the cost of moving for those jobseekers who want to pursue opportunities elsewhere in the country; or 3) A bonus if a worker lands a new job before their income support expires.

Lifelong Learning and Training Accounts

The Aspen Institute has proposed the creation of Lifelong Learning and Training Accounts, which workers would be able to take from job to job and could use to pay for training programs throughout their careers.22 Workers and employers could contribute to these accounts, with matching government contributions. Versions of this idea have been introduced by Senators Chris Coons and Mark Warner as well as Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ben Sasse and Reps. Derek Kilmer and Glenn Thompson.23

Expanded Pell Grants for High-Quality Short-Term Training Programs

There are efforts to expand Pell Grant eligibility to short-term postsecondary programs that are at least eight weeks long (currently programs must be at least 15 weeks long). For example, programs exist to train people for in-demand health care positions in eight weeks. We must ensure these programs leave students better off—with credentials that allow them to land good-paying jobs. Third Way has outlined a quality assurance proposal that would make sure federal financial aid dollars only go toward high-quality programs.24

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  1. “Public’s 2019 Priorities: Economy, Health Care, Education and Security All Near Top of List.” Pew Research Center. 24 Jan 2019. https://www.people-press.org/2019/01/24/publics-2019-priorities-economy-health-care-education-and-security-all-near-top-of-list/. Accessed 8 Apr 2019.

  2. Carnevale, Anthony, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl. “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020.” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Jun 2013. https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.FR_.Web_.pdf. Accessed 11 Jan 2019.

  3. “Lumina’s Goal.” Lumina Foundation. https://www.luminafoundation.org/lumina-goal. Accessed 11 Jan 2019.

  4. Pougiales, Ryan and Lanae Erickson. “The Political Case for Becoming Opportunity Democrats.” Third Way. 25 Jul 2018. https://www.thirdway.org/polling/the-political-case-for-becoming-opportunity-democrats. Accessed 8 Apr 2019.

  5. “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary—January 2019.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. 15 Mar 2019. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/jolts.nr0.htm. Accessed 19 Feb 2019.

  6. Stephens, Rachael. “Mind the Gap: The State of Skills in the U.S.” Third Way. 10 Jul 2017. https://www.thirdway.org/report/mind-the-gap-the-state-of-skills-in-the-u-s. Accessed 28 Feb 2019.

  7. “NAM Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey: First Quarter 2019.” National Association of Manufacturers. 5 March 2019. https://www.nam.org/uploadedFiles/NAM/Site_Content/Data-and-Reports/Manufacturers_Outlook_Survey/Q1%202019%20Outlook%20page%20text.pdf. Accessed 20 Feb 2019.

  8. “Demand Remains Strong for Middle Skills.” National Skills Coalition. 6 Feb 2017. https://www.nationalskillscoalition.org/news/blog/demand-remains-strong-for-middle-skills. Accessed 15 Mar 2019.

  9. “Immediate College Enrollment Rate.” National Center for Education Statistics. Feb 2019. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cpa.asp. Accessed 11 Feb 2019.

  10. “Undergraduate Retention and Graduation Rates.” National Center for Education Statistics. May 2018. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_ctr.asp. Accessed 27 Feb 2019.

  11. Barshay, Jill. “3.9 Million Students Dropped Out of College With Debt in 2015 and 2016.” The Hechinger Report. 6 Nov 2017. https://hechingerreport.org/federal-data-shows-3-9-million-students-dropped-college-debt-2015-2016/. Accessed 8 Apr 2019.

  12. Myers, Ben. “Who Lives in Education Deserts? More People Than You Think.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 17 Jul 2018. https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/education-deserts. Accessed 11 Mar 2019.

  13. “Apprenticeship Toolkit: Frequently Asked Questions.” U.S. Department of Labor. https://www.dol.gov/apprenticeship/toolkit/toolkitfaq.htm#2b. Accessed 13 Feb 2019.

  14. Ayres Steinberg, Sarah and Ethan Gurwitz. “The Underuse of Apprenticeships in America.” Center for American Progress. 22 Jul 2014. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/news/2014/07/22/93932/the-underuse-of-apprenticeships-in-america/. Accessed 27 Feb 2019.

  15. Stephens, Rachael. “Mind the Gap: The State of Skills in the U.S.” Third Way. 10 Jul 2017. https://www.thirdway.org/report/mind-the-gap-the-state-of-skills-in-the-u-s. Accessed 28 Feb 2019.

  16. Kasriel, Stephane. “Skill, Re-Skill and Re-Skill Again. How to Keep Up With the Future of Work.” World Economic Forum. 31 Jul 2017. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/07/skill-reskill-prepare-for-future-of-work/. Accessed 21 Feb 2019.

  17. Wagner, Peter and Wendy Sawyer. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018.” Prison Policy Initiative. 14 Mar 2018. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018.html. Accessed 15 Mar 2019.

  18. Amoyaw, May and Gabe Horwitz. “Workers Need 21st Century Skills. Here Are Five Ways to Help.” Third Way. 1 Nov 2018. https://www.thirdway.org/memo/workers-need-21st-century-skills-here-are-five-ways-to-help. Accessed 15 Mar 2019.

  19. Amoyaw, May and David Brown. “Apprenticeship America: An Idea to Reinvent Postsecondary Skills for the Digital Age.” Third Way. 11 Jun 2018. https://www.thirdway.org/report/apprenticeship-america-an-idea-to-reinvent-postsecondary-skills-for-the-digital-age. Accessed 27 Feb 2019.

  20. “Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill from Sens. Coons, Young, Moran, Brown & Reps. Norcross, McKinley Expands Registered Apprenticeship Programs in High-Growth Job Sectors.” Office of U.S. Senator Chris Coons. 28 Mar 2019. https://www.coons.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/bipartisan-bicameral-bill-from-sens-coons-young-moran-brown-and-reps-norcross-mckinley-expands-registered-apprenticeship-programs-in-high-growth-job-sectors. Accessed 4 Apr 2019.

  21. Horwitz, Gabe, Rachel Minogue, and David Brown. “Unemployment to Reemployment: An Idea to Modernize the Safety Net for the Digital Age.” Third Way. 18 Sept 2018. https://www.thirdway.org/report/unemployment-to-reemployment-an-idea-to-modernize-the-safety-net-for-the-digital-age. Accessed 12 Mar 2019.

  22. Fitzpayne, Alastair and Ethan Pollack. “Lifelong Learning and Training Accounts: Helping Workers Adapt and Succeed in a Changing Economy.” The Aspen Institute. 24 May 2018. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/lifelong-learning-and-training-accounts-2018/. Accessed 27 Feb 2019.

  23. “Warner & Coons to Introduce Bill to Promote Lifelong Learning & Worker Training.” Office of U.S. Senator Mark Warner. 16 Nov 2018. https://www.warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2018/11/warner-coons-to-introduce-bill-to-promote-lifelong-learning-worker-training. Accessed 8 Apr 2019;

    “Klobuchar, Sasse Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Help Equip American Workers with the Skills and Training they Need to Compete in Today’s Economy.” Office of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar. 27 Jun 2018. https://www.klobuchar.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2018/6/klobuchar-sasse-introduce-bipartisan-legislation-to-help-equip-american-workers-with-the-skills-and-training-they-need-to-compete-in-today-s-economy. Accessed 8 Apr 2019.

  24. Whistle, Wesley, Tamara Hiler, and Michael Itzkowitz. “Protecting Federal Dollars Flowing to New Short-Term Programs of Higher Education.” Third Way. 6 Jun 2018. https://www.thirdway.org/report/protecting-federal-dollars-flowing-to-new-short-term-programs-of-higher-education. Accessed 15 Feb 2019.


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