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Fifty-state scans identify opportunity for states to pass skills equity policies

Middle-skill jobs that require education or training beyond high school but not a bachelor’s degree make up the largest share of the labor market. Employers looking to fill these middle-skill positions often voice concerns about their ability to find skilled workers. At the same time, limited access to skills training keeps too many people from filling good-paying jobs that can support families. Policymakers can respond to both of these issues by adopting a set of policies that expand equitable access to middle-skill training, credentials, and careers – particularly for those who have faced barriers to economic opportunity.

National Skills Coalition is advocating for states to adopt a set of policies that broadly expand access to middle-skill training, especially for those who have faced barriers to economic opportunity.  These “skills equity” policies are intended to remove barriers that, if addressed, will make it easier for low-income people to access and complete middle-skill training that leads to an in-demand credential and family-supporting job.

NSC has just completed a comprehensive scan of all fifty states and the District of Columbia to identify which states have skills equity policies in place. The scans find that: 

  • Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have established job-driven financial aid policies that provide financial aid to part-time students and those in middle-skill training programs;
  • Nineteen states have established stackable credential policies that support industry-recognized postsecondary “stackable” credentials that can articulate toward a higher level certificate or associate degree;
  • Twelve states have established alignment policies that enable low-income, low-skilled adults to follow pathways toward skilled careers by combining the key elements of integrated education and training; career counseling; support services; a high school diploma; training that leads to an industry-recognized, stackable credential; and industry engagement.

The scans explain each policy, identify which states have skills equity policies in place (including descriptions of those policies) and bring into sharp relief which states have opportunities to adopt new policies. 

The scans are companion pieces to previously released policy toolkits designed to help states develop and enact skills equity policies that can help states bridge their skills gap, help people train for in-demand occupations, and help businesses find the skilled workers they need to succeed.

The toolkits provide resources for policymakers and advocates to advance a skills equity agenda in their state. They describe each type of policy, explain why it’s important for states to adopt such a policy, detail components of the policy, offer examples from states, and provide legislative templates that advocates and state legislators can adapt.

Posted In: Skills Equity
National Skills Coalition hosts first Skills in the States Forum

On October 17-18, nearly 100 workforce advocates from 20 states and D.C. gathered in Detroit, Michigan to take part in NSC’s first Skills in the States Forum. The purpose of the event was for participants to engage with peers and share ideas on how to move skills policies forward in their states.  

The two-day event kicked off with a plenary discussion on state policies for skills equity, where speakers shared ideas on how to expand access to skill building for underserved populations in their states. The discussion was led by NSC Senior State Policy Analyst, Brooke DeRenzis; Emily Price of So Others Might Eat in D.C.; Sarah Labadie of Women Employed, Illinois; and Dr. Corey Wiggins of the Hope Policy Institute in Mississippi. Another highlight from the event was a discussion on Detroit’s economic recovery and how government agencies, nonprofits, and businesses are collaborating to help workers strive in the City’s growing job market. The plenary, moderated by Chauncy Lennon of JPMorgan Chase, featured Wanda Stokes, Director of the Michigan Talent Investment Agency; Jason D. Lee, CEO of Focus:HOPE; and Jeff Donofrio, Detroit’s Director of Workforce Development and Executive Director of the Mayor’s Workforce Development Board.

Participants also had a chance to dive into the topic of investments in skills policies, with a plenary where Jessica Fraser of the Indiana Institute for Working Families; Jerry Rubin from Jewish Vocational Services Boston; and Debra Jones of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office shared budget challenges in their states and best practices for working with partners to address them.

At the forum, NSC launched a series of policy toolkits meant to help states develop and enact “skills equity” policies that expand equitable access to middle-skill training, credentials, and careers - particularly for those who have faced barriers to economic opportunity. The toolkits, which include model legislation, are designed to help states bridge their skills gap, help people train for in-demand occupations, and help businesses find the skilled workers they need to succeed. The toolkits cover policies on  job-driven financial aidSNAP E&Tstackable credentialsalignment, and integrated education and training.

The toolkits fueled a robust discussion on the best ways to influence state policies during a set of concurrent sessions. Workforce Data Quality Campaign also lead a conversation on workforce data policy. During these sessions, participants had the opportunity to discuss a state skills policy issue and possible strategies for advancing it.

In addition to the plenaries and discussions, participants broke out into smaller groups to engage with peers from other states on advocacy tactics and how to expand opportunities for people to enhance their skills, credentials, and careers, and ultimately, their families’ financial well-being.

A special thanks to our steering committee who helped organize the forum. The five-member committee included: Andrew Bradley from Indiana Institute for Working Families; Julie Brown from Dan River Region Collaborative in Virginia ; Melissa Johnson, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute; Alice Pritchard, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities; and Carrie Thomas, Chicago Jobs Council. In addition to the steering committee, the forum was made possible with help from our funders W.K. Kellogg FoundationJPMorgan Chase, and the Joyce Foundation.

To view materials from the forum, please visit the events section of our website here

Posted In: Skills Equity, Michigan

NSC releases toolkits to advance a skills equity agenda

  ·   By Nicky Lauricella Coolberth
NSC releases toolkits to advance a skills equity agenda

Arming people with the skills they need to succeed is crucial for workers, for business, and for our economy. But many people face challenges in accessing and completing training that can lead to a middle-skill career: low-income people, workers with caregiving responsibilities (many of whom are women), immigrants with language barriers, etc. 

To expand economic opportunity for people and build a pipeline of skilled workers for business, we need to create better access to training and credentials that lead to careers – and we need to do so equitably.

That’s why National Skills Coalition is advocating for states to adopt a set of policies that broadly expand access to middle-skill training, especially for those who have faced barriers to economic opportunity.  The policies in our skills equity agenda are intended to remove barriers that, if addressed, will make it easier for low-income people to access and complete middle-skill training that leads to an in-demand credential and family-supporting job.

For instance:

  • Integrated education and training policies can help people refresh basic math, reading, and English skills while training for an in-demand occupation;
  • Job-driven financial aid policies make it possible for students (including part-time students, those in short-term programs, and working learners) to enroll in middle-skill training programs; and  
  • Stackable credential policies allow working learners to balance their education and training with job schedules, family needs, and financial resources.


These are just three examples of state policies that, when properly implemented, can expand equitable access to middle-skill training, credentials and careers.

National Skills Coalition has developed a series of toolkits to help states develop and enact these kind of “skills equity” policies designed to help states bridge their skills gap, help people train for in-demand occupations, and help businesses find the skilled workers they need to succeed.

The toolkits are part of NSC’s skills equity agenda – an effort to advance state policies that expand access to middle-skill training through job-driven financial aid, SNAP E&T, stackable credentials, alignment, integrated education and training, and TANF E&T.

The toolkits provide resources for policymakers and advocates to advance a skills equity agenda in their state. In addition to containing model legislation that advocates and state legislators can adapt, the toolkits describe each type of policy, explain why it’s important for states to adopt such a policy, detail components of the policy, and offer examples from states with model policies. In the coming months, NSC will also release 50-state scans that will identify which states have skills equity policies in place – and which states have opportunity to adopt new policies. 

Posted In: Skills Equity
Ready to work: Seattle creates new on-ramp for immigrant English learners

When a group of stakeholders in Seattle identified that low-level adult English Language Learners were often struggling to succeed in community college, they took action.

The group collaborated with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, the Seattle City Council, and three city agencies -- the Human Services Department, Office of Economic Development, and the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs – to develop a successful model for serving these learners that could be replicated.

After substantial research and development, the Ready to Work (RTW) program launched in 2015. RTW was created as a prototype model of English language acquisition, career development, and employment, offered in a community-based setting. The program’s goal is “to empower and support immigrants and refugees in overcoming barriers on their journey to economic stability, quality jobs and integration into life in Seattle.”  One of the key features of RTW is its commitment to track participants’ progress over a longer time frame than conventional funding streams typically allow.

What It Is: Program Details

Ready to Work combines English as a Second Language (ESL) classes with computer literacy instruction and case management to help immigrants gain job readiness skills and take steps toward economic self-sufficiency.

Classes meet four days a week, three hours a day, for a total of 12 hours per week. Instruction is provided by two Seattle Colleges and Literacy Source (a community-based adult education provider).  The initial program design also includes:

  • Managed enrollment; new participants can join the class only during quarterly enrollment periods
  • Variable length of participation; learners may stay in the class for a few weeks to 6 months or more, given continued progress
  • Community-based learning; classes are held onsite at the nonprofit Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) and at South Seattle College
  • Regular digital literacy; learning opportunities are provided daily to participants
  • Activities integrated into curriculum; for example, field trips and guest speakers are pre- and post-taught

RTW also includes several notable features that go beyond English language instruction, says Glenn Scott Davis, who serves as program and policy specialist for the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA). These features include:

Case Management Navigation and Support. Each quarter, participants receive an average of 10 hours of case management and $250 in support services from ACRS (e.g., discounted public transit passes; gas or grocery cards). “This is an advantage of housing the program at a multi-service nonprofit organization such as ACRS,” says Davis. “Case managers can integrate a multitude of services on-site.” The case managers also help learners to navigate to their appropriate next-step placement at Seattle Colleges or in other education and training programs. Continued case management is available to participants as an ongoing support system even after they graduate from RTW classes.

Workshop Thursdays. These regularly scheduled events include field trips to cultural resources such as the Seattle Art Museum and public libraries; visits to area employers such as Nordstrom, Starbucks, and the PCC grocery chain; and visits to pre-apprenticeship programs.  On other Thursdays, guest speakers visit the classroom to help participants learn about opportunities for job training as home care aides and child care assistants; improve their financial literacy; and find out about childcare resources. Human Resources staff from industry partners also conduct mock interviews to help participants prepare for the job market.

Contextualized instruction. “[Classes] focus on contextualized learning, with a lot of visual aids and group work,” says Davis. “It’s not necessarily [industry-specific], but career development starts from the very beginning [of the program], and we expose people to a wide range of careers.” Teachers and case managers help participants gain a deeper awareness of their existing talents and strengths – a fundamental building block of a self-directed career plan.

Who Is In the Classroom? About the Participants

RTW’s target audience is adult English Language Learners who are seeking initial employment or a better job. Participants typically score at the lowest levels (1-3) of the National Reporting System for adult education. In addition, participants’ literacy and communications skills even in their first language vary widely.

Among participants to date, the top countries of origin are Ethiopia, Vietnam, China, and Mexico. Fully two-thirds (67%) of participants have less than a high school diploma, including 28% who have not even attended high school.

In order to reach potential participants, RTW works with a wide range of community partners to publicize the program and its eligibility criteria.

Multilingual outreach flyers are available in Chinese, English, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese and other widely spoken languages.

Participants are referred through numerous avenues, including ethnic and community based organizations, ethnic media, and other service providers.

All Together Now: Program Partners

In addition to the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, RTW’s lead partners include: HomeSight (a nonprofit community development corporation), ACRS, Literacy Source, and two Seattle Colleges (South and Central).

Nearly two dozen other organizations, including city agencies, community and faith-based organizations, and businesses, serve as recruitment, referral or employment partners for the program.

 “The intent of Ready to Work was never to compete with existing adult education programs, but to demonstrate the efficacy of a focused, community-based model that can be replicated on a larger scale to collectively produce better outcomes for learners with lower levels of English,” says OIRA’s Davis. “What we’re doing is developing organic ties between the RTW program and those next-step trainings – not just at college, but also community-based and industry-based short-term trainings – that can help people get quality jobs sooner rather than later.”

RTW has been deliberate in building its initial partnerships with business. “We have started the process of cultivating targeted relationships across sectors with quality employers,” says Davis. “That way, even if people end up in a job that [has a lower starting wage], it will have other benefits and a work culture that is supportive of ongoing learning and mobility.” 

Paying For It: The Funding Source

The city is using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to initially support Ready to Work, with the nonprofit HomeSight serving as the project’s fiscal agent.   These funds are distributed through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to communities around the country. They are flexible in design and can be used for a wide variety of activities, including employment and training services for people with low- and moderate incomes.

Other funding sources for RTW include Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Title I funds from the Workforce Development Council, and Washington State funds for adult education through the Seattle Colleges.

The Broader Context: Using Municipal Priorities as a Springboard

While many cities receive CDBG funds, relatively few have used them for programs serving jobseekers with limited English skills. One factor in Seattle’s approach is its ongoing Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), the City’s commitment to eliminating racial disparities and achieving racial equity.

“The City requires all of its programs to use the racial and social justice toolkit,” explains Davis. “It really helped us be able to define and talk about the Ready to Work program…we aren’t [just] looking at this in terms of access or opportunity, but in terms of equitable outcomes.”

In part, Ready to Work was born out of the recognition that “what transforms people’s lives in the short term is a really good learning experience and a really good job experience,” adds Davis. “One of our core goals is to empower participants as self-directed learners who can make informed decisions…which is key to attaining economic stability and full integration into the life of Seattle.”

Measuring It: An Outside Evaluation

Early results from RTW are strong, says Davis: “Our attendance, retention and completion rates are very high -- we think that shows what people are getting out of the program.”

But Ready to Work isn’t relying on anecdotal findings or even traditional program output data to prove its value. Rather, OIRA has contracted with the well-known firm RTI International to conduct an in-depth third-party evaluation of the program.

Key outcomes being tracked include:

  • Language Skills: Continued level gains; progression in English skills
  • Participation: Attendance in classes and workshops; quarterly course completion and attrition rates; advancement in next-quarter RTW classes and higher level non-RTW programs
  • Employment and Self Sufficiency: Initial and second job placements; progression to self-sufficiency; and retention and advancement
  • Educational Advancement: Advancement to and progression in next-level courses and/or programs and beyond
  • Continuing Participation in English Language Acquisition: Finding ways of engaging employed RTW grads in ongoing English language learning


“A big challenge for so many adult ESL programs is the lack of long-term tracking [of participant outcomes],” says Davis. “So that is what we're attempting to do here. We want to track the longer term impact of our investments in Ready to Work and determine the efficacy and replicability of the model in Seattle and elsewhere.”

The RTI report is expected to be released in Summer 2016.

Next Steps: Learning and Looking Forward

While the Ready to Work program is still in its initial phase, Davis and his colleagues have already begun to identify early lessons. A particular area of focus has been how to ensure that participants have a smooth and successful transition to their next educational or vocational step.  

A key challenge is that while participants may have the desire to seek ongoing education and training following the RTW program, most have an urgent need to find employment.  “We look for the best possible immediate job options,” says Davis. Complicating factors, he explains, is that desirable pre-apprenticeship programs in construction and childcare certification require higher levels of English proficiency. “Our ACRS case managers work with college staff to smooth the transition and place learners in the most appropriate next-level ESL class for their particular goals,” he says.

Another major learning from RTW thus far is that immigrant English language learners follow a variety of paths to economic stability.  One size does not fit all –nor should it, according to Davis.

In particular, while RTW serves participants who are pursuing educational paths leading to college certification (and eventually to the quality jobs that require those certifications), as well as participants who were professionals in their home countries and seek to return to professional jobs, the program also recognizes that the needs of other participants who are not yet equipped to take those paths.  

Going forward, Davis says, RTW will be digging deeper into the question of how to most effectively facilitate learners’ transitions to short-term, industry-focused skills training programs with strong English language supports that can lead to a quality working-class job.  “Where such programs do not exist, OIRA will work with colleagues in the City of Seattle and with our key community, adult education, college, workforce development, and employer stakeholders to nurture new programs,” he says, “in order to provide these participants with equitable pathways to quality jobs.”

In the months ahead, Davis and his colleagues will be tackling these and other questions – including big-picture questions around supportive services, social benefits, and job-creation/job-quality strategies. These structural questions go beyond any single program or institutional actor, and Seattle is looking across the country for ideas to inform its efforts, including to New York City’s Career Pathways initiative.

Tackling structural challenges is nothing new for Seattle, of course. From the citywide Race and Social Justice Initiative to the much smaller Ready to Work program itself, city officials and stakeholders are using a fresh lens to examine long-held assumptions. The picture looks promising.  

Posted In: Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Adult Basic Education, Immigration, Career Pathways, Skills Equity, Washington
Federal agencies issue joint letter of commitment on career pathways

Thirteen US government agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, the Social Security Administration, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs, have issued a letter of commitment affirming the importance of aligning workforce and education systems to support career pathways.

The letter is directed toward state, regional, local, and tribal officials as well as other stakeholders in adult education, workforce development, and human services. It encourages these stakeholders to connect to offer necessary skills training and support services to ensure participants in career pathways have success in their career search and progression.

The letter emphasizes the role of two federal initiatives in supporting the creation of effective career pathways: the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), and the Vice President’s Ready to Work: Job-Driven Training and American Opportunity report. A federal definition of career pathways was formally codified in WIOA, intended to improve systems alignment. You can find more information in NSC’s Aligned by Design webinar and fact sheet series.

The joint letter is an outgrowth of the Obama Administration’s interagency Skills Working Group, which launched in 2014. The Working Group coordinates skills-related activities across the White House National Economic Council, the Office of Management and Budget, and the thirteen Federal agencies listed above. In 2014, Working Group members held a National Dialogue on Career Pathways in which NSC staff participated.

The letter lists a number of ways in which federal agencies have already incorporated career pathways approaches in their investments, technical assistance, and other activities. These include the release of a Career Pathways Toolkit from the Department of Labor, the release of a report on the evolution of career pathways from the Department of Education, and the creation of a multi-agency Career Pathways Exchange, which provides a free monthly newsletter and other online resources.

In addition, the Department of Education has a current funding opportunity open for the Performance Partnership Pilot, or P3 initiative. These grants allow states, localities and tribes flexibility in the form of blended funding and waivers of certain programmatic requirements in order to test innovative strategies to improve outcomes for disconnected youth. While not limited to career pathways approaches, the P3 initiative does explicitly permit their use. The P3 initiative is a joint effort of the Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the Institute for Museum and Library Sciences. 

Posted In: Career Pathways, Skills Equity