All interested parties are aligned on one thing when it comes to both U.S. competitiveness and wages—the paramount need to upgrade worker skills. President Obama has made the earning of credentials and degrees one of his signature issues and community leaders at every level are now focused on training and skill enhancement as much, if not more, than they were on employment.
What is not being fully recognized, however, is what it will take to move people, especially low-wage workers, in the direction of skill attainment. People need income to live, and work is what provides that income. Juggling work and training with life’s many responsibilities is difficult and the benefit of training and credentialing often seems remote and uncertain.
Grant Associates’ experience in operating workforce programs in several states, both One-Stop centers and programs for various target populations, tells us that the concept “if you build it, they will come” does not always apply. More than five years ago, with endorsement from the New York City Department of Small Business Services, which provided the funding, we established Education Centers within one of the city’s One-Stop centers. We worked with the Council for Adults and Experiential Learning (CAEL), an organization that provides career navigation and education counseling for employees. The notion was that the prominence of an onsite Education Center would increase our customers’ interest in learning skills that could lead to advancement—either before employment or once they got a job. We also retained organizations that would provide online training and credentials, with onsite counselors to provide case management that would lead customers to course completion. At the city’s direction, and with special funding, we later established a program dedicated to the advancement of people already working through training and education. More recently, we set up a case management system for students to assist them in completing courses as part of our consulting to a sector program funded under a Social Innovation Fund grant. Each of these efforts was extremely labor intensive and expensive. And even with these supports in place, getting working people to focus on skill development was a huge challenge, often requiring financial incentives to get them to pay attention.
What has not yet received sufficient focus is engaging businesses in supporting their employees in career advancement, using a carrot for course completion: a wage increase. While the country argues over minimum wage levels, an individual company can make changes on its own, tying a real pay increase to completing a course or earning a credential. If such a company provided employees with guidance on which course(s) to take and simplified the process for earning the credential, it would have a full package of incentives and support for upskilling. All of the resources a company needs to build this type of system already exist. The result would be increased wages and, at the same time, pushing people to build their skills.
A company would benefit from such a program in multiple ways, not the least of which would be building its brand as a community leader and as an employer of choice.
We could use a national movement in this direction. The country had such a movement before for hiring people on welfare when President Clinton established the Welfare to Work Partnership—and that was a watershed moment in our country’s effort to move low-income people into the workforce. Let’s at least start this type of dialogue about businesses engaging in upskilling and credentialing.
To learn more about why upskilling and credentialing workers matters, visit the Business Champions website, whose mission is to help more companies build a next-generation American workforce.