Closing the Workforce Equity Gap with Accessible Online Education

By Jim Mayer

Jim Mayer is CEO of CA Fwd, which manages the California Economic Summit. He was a member of the Community College Chancellor's 2016 Task Force on Workforce, Job Creation and a Strong Economy.

Feb 13, 2018 | Economy, Society | 1 comment


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Our growing and collective experience with disruptive technologies is prompting both analysis and angst over the relatively quick infusion of the latest wave of labor-replacing technologies.

McKinsey and Company puts the midpoint estimates of jobs that will be replaced by robots or immobile technologies at 15 percent between now and 2030.  As some jobs disappear, new jobs will emerge, McKinsey observes. Still, even with low unemployment, that trend sends shivers through those helping under-skilled individuals prepare for and acquire jobs that pay well enough to cover life’s basic needs.

These are seemingly divergent and even conflicting trends.  An estimated two million Californians do not have the skills to earn more than minimum wage, yet employers in sectors as diverse as health care and advanced energy are struggling to find skilled workers.  And even if we could solve that problem, hundreds of thousands of Californians who are skilled and employed now may be replaced in the next few years by a drone or a robot,  and may need to learn new skills to be employable.

Lenny Mendonca, senior partner emeritus at McKinsey, and co-chairman of California Forward, recently testified before the Little Hoover Commission that California should prioritize three actions to manage the inevitable.

  • The first is to “do no harm” by trying to enact policies to forestall the transition and instead diminish economic growth and resiliency.
  • The second posits that, as companies embrace technology to increase productivity, the State should proactively craft policies that will improve income mobility now and in the future.
  • Third, governments should aggressively support citizens as they manage the transition.

“This not a robot apocalypse,” Mendonca said.  The state can redesign the safety net and economic security policies, such as creating more portable benefits for workers who change employers or work under contract. And California needs to fully embrace competency-based, life-long learning.

Toward that end, two significant innovations have tremendous potential to solve the immediate skill gap and the anticipated one.

The first is online or technology-based learning. Just as in a classroom, online learning can be dreadful or transformative. But by moving beyond classrooms and campuses, online learning can exponentially increase “access” to education for those can’t or don’t access it now.

California has an enduring and righteous commitment to “open access” to higher education. Community colleges are low cost for all and virtually no cost for low-income Californians. The colleges do not have prequalification requirements and students can start, stop, and re-enroll if life gets in the way of an 18-week semester.

Still, for a wide variety of reasons from transportation, to unpredictable work schedules, to psychological inhibitions about educational institutions, “open access” is not open enough.

The most innovative online programs are systematically lowering those barriers by building instruction and support around the student; what, when, and where are determined by student needs, not the preferences of a professor or the availability of a classroom.

A 10 mile trip from work to school at 5 p.m. can mean a deal-killing hour-long commute in many parts of California. For others, eight week classes are easier to fit around work and family.

Online learning is not a complete solution to a complex problem, but it is a powerful mechanism for transforming the learning experience to improve results, and for potentially transforming institutions that have been slow to reorient programs for student success.

California Governor, Jerry Brown, has proposed a statewide online college, with the other innovations embedded in the design, that could be essential infrastructure for Californians navigating more dynamic economies.

The second game-changer is employer-educational partnerships. Efforts to align training and the workplace are as old as apprenticeships for crafts long ago displaced by now obsolete technologies.

But more comprehensive partnerships may be the best hope for closing today’s skills and equality gaps, and creating the soft infrastructure that will enable employers and employees to anticipate and nimbly evolve the distinctly human roles and contributions in more automated workplaces.

The California Economic Summit in 2017 captured with its Partnerships for Industry and Education Contest some of the innovative programs that are helping Californians develop specific skills, and secure well-paying jobs, from hospitality management to aerospace.

Some of these, like Northrop Grumman’s aircraft technician program northeast of Los Angeles, have broken through stubborn barriers such as the need for remedial learning before taking the curriculum that leads to a credential. Others, like the SEIU Early Educator Training Center in the East Bay Area, have addressed the soft skill deficit, beginning with the soft skills needed to be an effective student.

A common element of the most exciting programs is true collaboration among community colleges or workforce boards, employers, and a civic organization. Today, they are directly solving for the reasons why their clients and students did not navigate higher education and the transition into careers.

Now put the two together: online learning and deep collaboration, and a community would have the hardware and the software to anticipate and adapt.

The trust and cooperation developed to close today’s skills gap could also be deployed in the future when an employer is planning to incorporate new technologies and needs his workforce, even if it is a smaller one, to adapt. The partnership would enable mutually assured survivability.

By building out an online platform, those training opportunities can extend into the workplace and among workplaces. Students could ramp up training on their own time so they don’t have to wait until they are laid off to re-skill.  The new mobility brings education to students when and where they need it.

The allure of science fiction is quickly being eclipsed by the insightful efforts to anticipate what will likely be a very different future for our communities, regions, nation and planet. We can wring our hands in fear and loathing, or shake hands with those who will share that future and want to work together to determine it.

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1 Comment

  1. Washington State already has an accredited statewide on-line education system, which is being widely advertised to maximize educational access. It could be a model for California to adopt instead of starting from scratch.

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