Accelerate Recovery: Ensure All Pathways and Credentials Lead to Real Economic Opportunity

Friday, April 24, 2020
Kathleen Mathers

In this challenging economic environment, neither families nor our economy can afford to have individuals pursue dead-end pathways that do not result in credentials with real value in the evolving job market. With personal finances and local, state, and national economies stretched thin, it has never been more important that academic programs align tightly with the demands of the labor market.

The rate and volume of economic change since the outbreak of the pandemic is enough to give anyone whiplash. Millions of people filed for unemployment benefits in a matter of weeks as retail and restaurant establishments shuttered, travel dropped dramatically, and virtually every industry struggled to adapt to a world with limited in-person contact. As of mid-April, job postings — a real-time measure of labor market activity — were 33.7 percent lower overall than in 2019. Job postings in some industries, including hospitality and tourism, were down more than 60 percent compared with last year.

As we look toward recovery, we cannot assume that any – or even most – of the lost jobs will return. Even after social distancing restrictions are lifted and stores are allowed to reopen, consumers likely won’t spend freely again for some time. Many in the retail space will be out of a job permanently, and hospitality will similarly take time to bounce back. The healthcare industry will also be slow while individuals delay elective treatments or even push back needed treatments due to financial concerns and social nervousness. By contrast, new industries will emerge as priorities, and secondary and postsecondary institutions must be ready to respond. 

Understanding exactly which pathways and credentials are, and will become, most valuable through the economic recovery is not simple. The rapid shifts in labor markets make it exceedingly difficult for K-12 and higher education leaders alike to calibrate workforce needs. In particular, school districts and institutions that traditionally rely on government sources for labor market information to align programs or identify high-value credentials will largely be flying blind, as the available data in those sources tend to be months behind. 

Moving forward, K-12 and higher education must commit to using real-time labor market data more frequently than before the COVID-19 crisis to prioritize pathways and credentials that lead to economic opportunity. Burning Glass, Emsi, and JobsEQ, for example, provide real-time data on jobs being posted in the U.S, the skills and credentials sought for entry to those jobs, and other important trends and workforce characteristics that should inform curriculum and instruction in our academic programs. Strategic use of CARES Act funding – particularly targeting vulnerable populations – may help schools and institutions use this data to bring pathways and programs into greater alignment with labor market need.

I anticipate much greater focus in the weeks and months ahead to identify and prioritize high-value credentials in K-12 and higher education as the workforce contracts, and individuals look to engage in shorter-term approaches to upskilling. ESG has and will continue to partner with states and communities to help identify and prioritize high-value credentials. Our Credentials of Value report and toolkit serve as a strong starting point for any community interested in making this a priority. Given the importance of that work to the current crisis, I plan to offer insights in a future blog on that topic. 

Based on lessons from our work with communities and states to build high-quality pathways, I believe there are four main strategies for leveraging real-time labor market information to improve student outcomes. 

Create pathways to high-value employment opportunities. 

The results of more frequent data analysis must be turned into action. Districts and higher education institutions must take what they learn about the trends in demand and employer-valued credentials and apply that knowledge to the design of new programs and the modification of existing programs. Those programs should include embedded credentialing opportunities that employers value for entry into good jobs. 

While it takes time to design, build, and launch new policies and programs in large systems, that process must begin on a solid foundation of labor market data. In the more immediate term, districts and institutions can adapt existing curricula to more tightly align with the skill and credentialing demands of the marketplace. In IT, for example, skill demands change rapidly; schools must adapt their offerings so they’re preparing learners for the job opportunities of today and tomorrow. Through our TalentReady Initiative, five jurisdictions in the DC region are transforming their IT pathways in cybersecurity, networking, software development, and data management so they are responsive to labor market signals.

Retire obsolete pathways in the post-COVID economy. 

Sometimes subtraction is just as critical as addition. Districts and higher education institutions must also eliminate programs that are obsolete to the new economy so that students do not embark on dead-end pathways. The Kentucky Department of Education recently adopted program approval and review processes that limit districts and schools to using state and federal funds for only those career pathways that are aligned with priority industries or top occupations. As a result, nearly every career pathway that didn’t meet rigorous labor market criteria was phased out altogether or transformed to be in tighter alignment. 

Ensure all students have access to high-value pathways. 

Too often, the programs leading to the highest-value careers are not accessible to the students who would benefit from them the most. History shows that an economic recession and subsequent recovery is likely to widen the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. In order for high-value opportunities to be a successful lever for economic recovery and mobility, districts and institutions owe it to families to ensure that programs are high quality and available, especially to traditionally underserved students. Lifting enrollment restrictions – like Indianapolis Public Schools has done – allows students across a district to choose a program of study based on interest and aptitude rather than what is assigned to their zip code. Likewise, Denver Public Schools’s Career Connect Programs are strategically distributed across the city and are available to all students. Enrollment is representative of the district’s racial, ethnic, and income diversity.

Help parents and educators understand the value of different pathways.

Students can only take advantage of newly-identified high-value opportunities if they and their teachers understand what they are, why they matter, and how to access them. Administrators, counselors, and academic teachers typically receive very little training in what the economy values outside of a general four-year degree path. As a result, students and families frequently get less information about the various routes they can take to economic and career success, impacting their ability to select pathways and programs. 

It will be critical for institutions to provide clear information about current high-value opportunities and credentials to educators and parents so that they can in turn provide it to students. Florida legislation, for example, requires school districts to inform parents and students about the return on investment of earning an industry-recognized credential in high school. Districts and postsecondary institutions should also consider taking the lead on creating public awareness campaigns to elevate what they learn about specific high-value opportunities for students and their families.

Now more than ever, alignment between academic programs and the labor market must be a top priority as states and communities look toward economic recovery. High-quality data and frequent analysis can help us keep up with changing demand and equitably equip learners for success.