WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's recent proposal to "train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job" barely scratches the surface of one of the nation's most vexing labor problems.
The "skills gap" between what employers need and job applicants offer already has become a drag on the economy, with nearly 3 million jobs unfilled even at a time of high unemployment.
Researchers at Georgetown University estimate that by 2018, nearly two-thirds of U.S. jobs will require some education or training beyond a high school diploma but not necessarily a bachelor's degree. But large swaths of the U.S. labor force lack the basic math and language skills needed to enroll in postsecondary education courses and the career-training programs that many specialized jobs require. Many who try to overcome these deficiencies through under-funded adult basic-education classes endure waiting lists or end up leaving before completing the courses.
But a handful of states, working with private foundations, local community colleges and area employers, are redesigning their adult basic-education programs to provide career training and remedial course work — reading, writing, language and math — at the same time.
A program in Louisville, Ky., allows low-skilled students to enroll in adult-education courses while attending community college. Other states, such as Minnesota and Washington, pair occupational trainers and adult-education instructors in the same classrooms to provide immediate assistance when problems or questions arise. In both models, participants are taught the specific language, math or reading skills needed to perform the jobs they're being trained for.
The method works best for adults with seventh- to ninth-grade education levels who couldn't pass community college entrance exams.
The colleges consult with area employers to determine which skills are most in demand so participants have the best chance of finding work quickly. The approach has been shown to be effective for jobs that require training certificates in fields as diverse as health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation, and logistics and professional services.
"What we're trying to do is get away from these long sequences where they're stuck in a traditional adult basic-education program for a year or longer, and only when they get their GED are they permitted to enroll in college. There are adult learners that we can double down on and essentially wipe out months of their time and effort by doing two things at once," said Barbara Endel, the program director at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based national nonprofit organization that's helping states revise their adult-education programs.
After losing her job at a Walmart in 2010, 35-year-old Carolina Hernandez of Louisville, Ky., wanted to attend the Jefferson Community and Technical College and become a certified nursing assistant. But her math and writing skills were only at the junior high level because she left school in the ninth grade to help support her family when her mother was stricken with cancer.
Instead of postponing college to improve her math and writing, a special partnership between the college and the Jefferson County Public Schools allowed Hernandez to take remedial courses alongside her college-level biology and sociology courses — on the college campus.
The adult-education course work, which was taught by school-district instructors, also helped Hernandez with her evening studies to earn a GED certificate.
Over the next year, Hernandez not only got her GED diploma, she also obtained her nursing assistant's certificate, passed the state exam and got a job at a nursing and rehabilitation center. This allowed her to leave welfare. She'll soon start work on a registered nursing degree and hopes one day to earn a doctorate in social work.
Hernandez said the best part of her education and training was the example she was setting for her three teenage daughters.
"I look at my daughters and I know that what I'm doing is paving roads for them," she said. "It's showing them that 'My mom didn't finish high school. It took her a long time to do it, but she worked hard and she was dedicated. And if I could just put that kind of hard work and dedication to something in my life, I know I can do it, because my mom did it. She didn't take no for an answer.' "
Educational Enrichment Services, the partnership program that allowed Hernandez to take college and adult-education classes simultaneously, has helped more than 7,000 Louisville students since it was launched in 2003. Unlike remedial courses offered by the community college, Educational Enrichment Services courses are provided free, saving students more than $590,000 in tuition last school year.
While Obama has called for 5 million new community college graduates by 2020, one national group estimates that 43 percent of U.S. adults have such weak math, reading or English-language skills that it limits "their ability to fulfill their roles as workers, family members and citizens."
Only 8 percent of students who take English as a Second Language go on to postsecondary education of any kind, according to the nonprofit Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy.
"These people are working. They have kids. Some have multiple jobs, and they get frustrated. Life happens," said Evelyn Ganzglass, the workforce-development director at the Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy organization in Washington for low-income people.
The result is a mass of low-skilled workers with little or no hope of finding gainful employment that could support families. The problem undermines communities, strains public-assistance programs and makes it harder for the U.S. to be globally competitive.
Studies have found that when low-skilled adults get career skills and remedial education at the same time, they're more likely to stick with the course work. That's partly because they can envision the immediate benefits of their efforts, said Endel, of Jobs For the Future.
Merging job training and literacy skills was pioneered in Washington state in 2004 through Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training.
Designed to serve the state's growing non-English-speaking immigrant community, I-BEST offered English as a Second Language and vocational training simultaneously.
Once a pilot program at 10 community colleges, I-BEST now operates in all 34 of Washington state's community and technical colleges. Evaluations have found that I-BEST students were 15 times more likely to complete their job training than other students with similar deficiencies in standard adult education programs were.
That success led the Joyce, Bill & Melinda Gates, W.K. Kellogg, Kresge and Open Society foundations to award $200,000 apiece last year to Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin to lay the groundwork for similar programs.
After reviewing each state's plans, the foundations gave Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas an additional $1.6 million apiece over three years to implement theirs.
The states hope to replicate the success of I-Best and another paired-instruction program, Minnesota's FastTRAC, which has an 88 percent course completion rate for participants.
Recently, Minnesota's workforce development council recommended expanding FastTRAC to all 25 of the state's community and technical colleges. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton agreed and has asked his Legislature for $4.5 million a year to do so. The goal is to train 3,000 low-skilled adults in new careers by next year.
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