There is a skill gap in American education. Employers say they are unable to fill certain high-paying jobs in growing sectors such as advanced manufacturing, nursing and allied health occupations, and skilled trades. But students are often unclear on how to train for these jobs.
To help steer more students to high-wage, high-skill jobs, the 2009 government stimulus plan included a $2 billion program called TAACCCT, or Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training. The program has a special focus on helping nontraditional students, especially those who have seen their previous careers disrupted by economic changes and who choose to start over in a high-demand field.
RTI has received several TAACCCT grants to support the efforts of community colleges or consortia of community colleges in different states by leading independent evaluations of their programs.
Comparing Student Outcomes, Identifying Program Challenges, and Recommending Sustainable Improvements
Colleges in five states—Montana, Illinois, Kansas, Hawaii, and Colorado—have engaged us to help evaluate and improve their career training programs. The institutions and fields of study with which we work vary, but the overall goal is the same: to help students gain an education that prepares them to work in a field where job openings have been difficult to fill.
In our TAACCCT-grant-funded work, we serve as third-party evaluators of student outcomes and other aspects of career training programs. We take a quasi-experimental approach to our evaluation, comparing outcomes of students who participate in TAACCT-funded programs to those who have not. But since student outcomes cannot be assessed until programs and strategies have been in place for two to three years, we also work with the schools to ensure the project meets desired goals.
Through site visits, interviews, and meeting observations, we identify the challenges project staff face and recommend changes that will help sustain the programs, both at the college and at the state level. For example, we look at how colleges recruit, retain, and place students to identify the potential for students to fall through the cracks and recommend additional student supports. We also examine how colleges collaborate with one another to implement programs and recommend policy changes that may make collaboration easier. We document results for the Department of Labor and for the colleges we serve, keeping track of whether students complete their programs, whether they find jobs, and how much they are earning, among many other factors.
Common threads in our recommendations include supporting the sustainability of the grant activities. For example, schools can establish ”stacked and latticed credentials,“ meaning students can earn industry-specific certifications or other qualifications every semester, instead of having to go through an entire two-year program to rack up a credential. Although one-semester certificates are not as helpful to job seekers as completed degrees, they do provide some help, as well as a way for students who leave school to return more easily. For schools that have established these credentials, we evaluate the impact on students and faculty and whether these new programs are implemented in ways that are sustainable.
Other recommendations center on a new role—that of workforce navigator—created by some colleges to put a human face on the link between education and industry. Workforce navigators both recruit new students and partner with employers to place graduates in jobs, similar to the way guidance counselors have traditionally helped students looking to transfer to four-year schools. We recommend colleges plan for sustainability of these positions, since workforce navigators provide crucial links for students in career and technical fields.
We have also recommended that colleges start offering classes at night and on the weekends, which helps attract and retain students who work full-time or have other daytime commitments. Overall, we support the creation of more options for students to combine work with education.
Paving the Way for Successful, Sustainable Relationships
Our projects in high-wage, high-skill career training are in different stages of completion. In some states, we have reached the recommendations stage; other evaluations are in early phases.
For example, we work with a Montana consortium called RevUp on training programs offered by 13 community colleges in energy technology, commercial driver’s license, and advanced manufacturing. So far, the colleges involved have implemented stacked credentials and hired workforce navigators. Efforts to put some classes and programs online are underway, and the project has provided an opportunity for the schools to collaborate. Our role is to evaluate the effectiveness of these changes.
With so many ongoing projects, we expect to continue to make an impact in this field for years to come. The results will be better stewardship of public funds, a stronger applicant pool for employers, and countless opportunities for individual students to build better careers and lives.