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A $2 Billion Lesson in Getting People Back to Work

April 24, 2020

At a Glance

After the last recession, JFF helped implement a $2 billion federal recovery effort that retrained 400,000 adults for new jobs. In the post-COVID economy, we’ll need more than good programs—we’ll need transformative change.

Jennifer Freeman Senior Director

With 26 million people out of work and the total rising, helping Americans find jobs in a pandemic-battered economy will soon become our nation’s top priority. JFF was a key player in the federal government’s $2 billion retraining effort after the last recession and saw firsthand what worked and what will need to be done differently the next time around.

The most important lesson we learned was this: Using stimulus funds to build hundreds of good but isolated programs is not enough. Nothing less than a complete transformation of our postsecondary and workforce systems will suffice.

The present crisis brings to light the deep inequities in these systems, which too often fail the people who need them most. To counter the recession widely expected as a result of COVID-19, we will need sweeping, systemwide change that enables our most vulnerable populations to gain the skills that are in greatest demand. Fortunately, we won’t have to start from scratch.

We need enduring partnerships, strong leadership, and smart policy to bring about transformative change.

Between 2011 and 2018, JFF supported 256 community colleges and their workforce partners in implementing the national recovery effort known as TAACCCT (the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program). The investments helped expand proven educational models for more than 400,000 adults who lost work or wages as a result of the economic downturn.

In the end, TAACCCT built 2,600 new training programs aligned with industry needs. It also sought to make lasting improvement in the design and delivery of postsecondary education and training for unemployed adults. But only some states succeeded in changing the fundamental ways in which colleges, employers, and other partners work together to build talent pipelines. Now, in conjunction with any new stimulus funding for workforce development, we also need enduring partnerships, strong leadership, and smart policy to bring about transformative change.

Based on key lessons JFF learned from helping to implement TAACCCT, here are three essential elements that should be part of any effort to reskill America quickly and reshape education and training systems for the future.

1. Powerhouse partnerships that permanently change how education and industry collaborate

TAACCCT didn’t invent the idea of cross-sector partnerships. But it did expand them dramatically—by making them a requirement for use of TAACCCT funds.

Longstanding evidence shows the success of efforts in which education, business, workforce development, and community-based organizations (CBOs) work closely together to meet the immediate training needs of jobseekers and employers. Hundreds of these partnerships were formed to meet TAACCCT’s rules, and they designed programs that helped adults gain the skills in greatest demand in local industries such as manufacturing, IT, health care, transportation, and energy. But not all of the partnerships had staying power.

To overcome the next recession, we need to ensure that cross-sector partnerships are built to last across states and regions so they can create career opportunities for individuals and workforce solutions for employers far into the future.

Several states succeeded in using TAACCCT funds to build such systems. Montana built a statewide apprenticeship system for health care workers. Ohio and Iowa colleges collaborated with business to build statewide talent pipelines in manufacturing. And in Maryland, colleges and workforce boards established lasting relationships with more than 250 IT employers to create career pathways to jobs in cybersecurity.

Strong leadership made a huge difference. In states where community college presidents, industry representatives, workforce system leaders, state officials, and CBOs were deeply engaged, the partnerships drove lasting change. The rules accompanying any new stimulus funding must require not only cross-sector partnerships, but also the close involvement of sector leaders who emphasize long-term systemic transformation

2. An entirely new approach to education and training for adult learners

It is becoming widely acknowledged that the traditional college model, with classes based on a semester schedule, doesn’t work for adults aiming to gain new skills while juggling jobs—or a job search—and family responsibilities. Nor does it work for employers. Neither can afford to wait weeks or months until a new semester begins, and the rigid class schedules are difficult to fit into adults’ busy lives.

Understanding this reality, TAACCCT urged participating colleges to draw on evidence about the types of programs and services that help adult learners succeed. For example, TAACCCT encouraged the development of flexible programs that allow adults to access education in convenient locations at convenient times, in accelerated formats and online. Again, TAACCCT didn’t invent these strategies. But it did fund their expansion.

Furthermore, several states created systemwide reforms to implement high-impact strategies, so that all students would benefit, not just those in TAACCCT-funded programs. For example, Missouri, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Rhode Island developed statewide policies supporting what is known as credit for prior learning. Those policies made it possible for adults to enter college having accumulated credit for skills they already possess, eliminating the need to take courses on material they already know. And some colleges scaled TAACCCT innovations across their entire institutions. In Ohio, Sinclair Community College built extensive competency-based programs that reward students based on skills gained, not just time spent in a classroom.

Unfortunately, in many places, such models were the exception, not the rule. They weren’t adopted widely enough to benefit the majority of students. Any new stimulus package with funds for workforce development must require states and colleges to use practices that have been proven successful with adult learners and to scale them systemwide. From now on, evidence-based models must be the rule, not the exception.

3. Remove policy barriers that block transformation

Why is it that accelerated-learning models expanded under TAACCCT were never fully scaled up? The answer is as clear as it is frustrating: The policies that support postsecondary education and workforce development, at the institutional, state, and federal levels, were designed for traditional approaches.

Staff who want to design a single innovative program can often find a way. But to scale and sustain innovative designs, we need meaningful change in a host of policies governing program approval, accreditation, and financial aid, to name just a few.

Some states did make policy changes that encouraged the scale of innovative models under TAACCCT. For example, several states enacted new policies for measuring college readiness, so more adults could avoid remedial classes and start college-level coursework immediately. Other states, including Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts, approved policies that enabled the creation of cross-sector data systems that measured the employment outcomes of community college students. Better data collection has been critical to ensuring that programs keep pace with industry needs.

Any new stimulus package will have greater impact if it is accompanied by a commitment at the state and federal levels to change policies that stand in the way of efforts to implement innovations that help more adults acquire skills that matter in the workplace.

From now on, evidence-based models must be the rule, not the exception.

Finally, and most important, any new stimulus program should provide funding directly to allow the massive number of unemployed and underemployed workers to access the new education and training opportunities that will provide a leg up.

TAACCCT funding could not be spent on tuition or other student supports; it could only be spent on building capacity, such as by purchasing equipment or developing new curriculum. The limitation made it difficult to quickly engage the people who needed training most, especially when they had already exhausted other funding sources.

This is an extraordinarily challenging time. When people can safely return to work, colleges, industry, and community organizations will need to quickly build systems to reskill the nation’s workforce—with support from federal and state leaders willing to update antiquated policies to allow for innovative approaches. Doing so will allow for the transformative change we need to get millions of people back to work and rebuild for an equitable economic recovery.