Work-and-Learn Programs: Blueprints to Close the Skills Gap

Written by: Carlos Plaza
Written by: Carlos Plaza

In many industrial fields, such as welding, the number of open positions continues to outpace the number of workers with the skills required to fill them. This ever-growing skills gap has become one of the most pervasive difficulties facing American employers today. In fact, according to a 2014 Business Roundtable Survey on U.S. STEM skills, 97% of the CEOs surveyed stated that the current skills gap is a constant problem for their companies.

Unfortunately, research indicates that the skills gap starts early. Among the 34 OECD countries surveyed in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. ranked 20th in science and 27th in mathematics. With such results, it’s not surprising that the OECD Survey of Adult Skills showed that adults in the United States have poorer literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills compared to adults in other countries.

OECD Adult Skills Survey Policy Recommendations
The issues that lead to poor academic performance are many and varied in a country as diverse as the United States. Therefore, the solution calls for a multipronged approach, such as the one set out by the OECD in the document titled Time for the U.S. to Reskill?. This document was compiled at the request of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education. It contains both the key findings of the Adult Skills survey and policy recommendations designed to strengthen initial schooling, support adult learning, and develop policies to address the needs of those with weak skills. There are 7 key recommendations in total:

Recommendation 1: Take concerted action to improve basic skills and tackle inequities affecting sub-populations with weak skills.

Recommendation 2: Strengthen initial schooling for all, ensuring that all children receive an adequate standard of education, with effective interventions to support the basic skills of those experiencing difficulty.

Recommendation 3: Ensure effective and accessible education opportunities for young adults by using the community college system to support and develop basic skills and offer substantive career options.

Recommendation 4: Link efforts to improve basic skills for employability, recognizing that jobs open up more learning options.

Recommendation 5: Adapt adult learning programs to better respond to the diverse challenges of different groups with varying needs. Work across all levels of government and across the public and private sectors to achieve better outcomes at all ages and stages.

Recommendation 6: Build awareness of the implications of weak basic skills among adults.

Recommendation 7: Construct evidence-based policies and programs.

The American Welding Society is a proud member of the National Network, a group of businesses and industry groups dedicated to creating a world where students and workers have clear pathways to learning and working in meaningful careers, and where employers have a skilled workforce focused on performance, growth and opportunity.
The American Welding Society is a proud member of the National Network, a group of businesses and industry groups dedicated to creating a world where students and workers have clear pathways to learning and working in meaningful careers, and where employers have a skilled workforce focused on performance, growth and opportunity.

Work-and-Learn in Action
It was not within the scope of this document to include methods for implementing these policy recommendations. However, it just so happens that The National Network of Business and Industry Associations (National Network), the Business Roundtable, and the ACT Foundation recently published a guide that includes methods for implementation. It is called Work-and-Learn in Action: Successful Strategies for Employers. This document addresses many of the policy recommendations cited in the Adult Skills Survey.

Work-and-Learn refers to programs that integrate structured education and training with the world of work. Businesses partner with academic institutions, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations to provide students and workers with the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills that American businesses require to remain competitive in the global market. Of course, the most successful work-and-learn programs benefit the learner as well as the business. Connecting theory-based classroom instruction with career development allows students to explore viable career options, attain industry credentials, and earn income while still in school. Moreover, the hands-on nature of work-and-learn programs enable students and employees to acquire skills that they can use to thrive in many different fields. Some of these skills include teamwork, planning, problem solving, business fundamentals, and working with tools and technology.

Work-and-Learn Model Continuum CLICK TO ENLARGE
Work-and-Learn Approaches                                         CLICK TO ENLARGE

Work-and-Learn programs incorporate different approaches depending on the needs and goals of the learners and businesses. The less intensive approaches, such as industry tours and job shadowing, are designed to provide the working learner with general knowledge. At the other end of the spectrum, there are cooperative education programs and apprenticeships that more fully expose students and staff to the workings of a particular field or business operation. The particular mix of approaches depends on the shared goals of the businesses, learners, and community partners involved in the program. The Work-and-Learn in Action guidebook profiles 15 successful work-and-learn programs, each incorporating a different combination of approaches. The profiles are designed to give a sense of what it takes to implement a successful work-and-learn program. Each one is divided into 7 sections: model summary; background; partnership; nuts and bolts; program benefits, results and outcomes; sustainability and overcoming implementation challenges; and words of wisdom. The guidebook provides everything you need to start thinking about what might work in your own community.

Now we know about the problems that are largely responsible for the skills gap, and we have a guidebook with examples on how to tackle the problem at the local level. So, let’s get to work!

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