Changes in the economy, technology and the future of work are already having broad implications—but the benefits are not distributed equally.
Put simply, education resources are scarce for the working class. Today, the federal government invests $139 billion in postsecondary education, of which the lion’s share is for financial aid for those who are enrolled in undergraduate degree programs. Out of the $170 billion that employers invest in formal training each year, the majority of that funding (58 percent) is channeled toward workers who have already earned bachelor’s degrees and work in higher-paying professional and managerial positions. In fact, we are already leaving behind a significant swath of our population, who are not prepared for a shifting job market and who are not well served by traditional colleges that expect learners to stop their lives and come to campus for long periods of time.
Venture capital, too, disproportionately flows to solutions aimed at the well-educated, rather than the most underserved. 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.” Regrettably, these innovations repeat the mistakes of the traditional learning ecosystem: They are designed to serve those already poised to succeed in the workplace, rather than fulfilling the democratic ideal of education to connect all Americans to economic opportunity and prosperity.
We have to meet learners where they are by scaling flexible and targeted programs that meet the needs of both adult learners and employers.
We need to find solutions that work for a greater number of working-class Americans—and then scale them. In our report, On-ramps to Good Jobs: Fueling Innovation for the Learning Ecosystem of the Future, we highlight some seedling efforts with demonstrable outcomes.
The on-ramps we examined serve adults who are not earning a living wage—some without high school credentials. A number of programs specialize in working with formerly incarcerated adults. Many participants receive public assistance such as Medicaid or SNAP services. So while they share design elements with so-called last-mile training providers—short-term, very targeted training programs that address skills bottlenecks in fast-growing technical fields—they focus on serving the most vulnerable populations.
On-ramps solve for education and hiring frictions by offering wraparound supports that range from access to legal services, counseling services, affordable childcare, housing and transportation vouchers, as well as support with government benefits applications. Many of them layer on additional services, such as cognitive-behavioral therapies or legal services, to help formerly incarcerated adults navigate systems and address specific needs.
As an example, JobTrain provides adult basic education, coupled with intensive services that address learners’ more personal issues before they enter career-specific training. This approach is especially critical for highly marginalized populations, such as the formerly incarcerated, a core population of the 190,000 people JobTrain has already educated. “Our theory is, if we can stabilize somebody prior to and during the training, they’re going to persist and complete the training program,” explains CEO Barrie Hathaway.
These targeted, short-term training programs reduce time to employment, the costs of participation and the uncertainty around job outcomes, compared to traditional education and training programs. Crucially, they all develop strong employer partnerships and commitments to hire through apprenticeship and internship models, as well as proactive job placement services. Many on-ramps boast strong job attainment rates—some as high as 91 percent—while others help participants double, triple or even quadruple their earnings.
On-ramps are relatively new—we found only 65 available in the U.S. to date, serving 100,000 adults annually nationwide. But there are not enough of them—yet—to meet the needs of the 44 million already being left behind by the future of work.
It’s time to upend our funding models and invest in more on-ramps. We’re calling on the smartest social impact investors, philanthropists and entrepreneurs to build with urgency, fund, and scale faster way more of these on-ramps to better economic opportunities.