NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – In the midst of the long-stalled economy, growing numbers of displaced adult workers are enhancing their chances to return to the workforce through occupational training offered by their home state’s labor department.
Rutgers researcher Heather McKay proposes an alternative to such vocation-specific credentialing. Heeding President Obama’s call for more Americans to complete college, McKay believes unemployed adults only a handful of credits short of their college degree would benefit in the long run by completing their requirements to graduate.
McKay, who directs the Sloan Center on Innovative Training and Workforce Development at Rutgers’ Center for Women and Work (CWW), recently became the university’s first recipient of a Lumina Foundation for Education grant. With the four-year, $800,000 award, she has begun a four-state study that will emphasize online education leading to degree attainment for adult learners who are three to 12 credits short of their associate or bachelor’s degree.
McKay has worked extensively on online education systems, including the evaluation of an online learning information project funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, for workforce development systems in Colorado, Maine, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. She also helped evaluate the effectiveness of computer-based learning for New Jersey’s pilot Prison to Community Project for women inmates, and her expertise brought an invitation to work with the Obama transition team.
During the first two years of the Lumina grant, McKay will work with labor department officials, colleges and universities, and clients in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, with a goal to help a total of 1,200 unemployed workers finish their degrees through the states’ workforce development system. The two remaining states will be determined after two years.
McKay’s center will partner with the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, a national nonprofit with a mission to “re-imagine everything about working and learning in the global economy." The coursework – select courses in high-demand disciplines – required for degree completion will be provided by member institutions of the Southern Regional Education Board, an online clearinghouse/coalition for information about returning to college.
“It really will be a policy change, to get states to shift scarce workforce training dollars from short-term to long-term credentialing,” McKay said, adding she expects to encounter numerous obstacles during her extensive field work and interviews with various stakeholders.
Identifying unemployed workers eligible for degree completion is one. Getting colleges to buy into the program is another. For example, she cited the Obama administration’s decision to invest heavily in community colleges. But rural Pennsylvania, McKay said, doesn’t have a strong community college system. “We’ll have to ‘recruit’ higher education institutions to offer online coursework in the state’s high-demand fields, such as energy and plastics, so that when clients complete their degrees, they will have opportunities for employment in well-paying jobs with benefits."
McKay believes that one-stop, online degree-attainment programs will offer clear benefits to participants. “Adult learners have a variety of family and personal responsibilities that make fulfillment of their requirements on site difficult,” she said. “Some encounter difficulties with transportation or child care arrangements. The schedules of shift workers can present challenges. Certainly, financial considerations can be problematic although, while not cheap, taking courses online can be less expensive than attending a college in person.”
McKay’s goal is to create a network of states that will invest workforce training dollars in online academic degree completion for unemployed workers that eventually will enhance their employment and earnings prospects. She anticipates participation by many women, who often work in lower-paying fields and who could potentially improve their marketability with a college degree.
Upon completion of the field work, CWW will partner with Rutgers’ John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development to prepare a final report that includes a manual of replicable best practices and a policy brief on transitioning toward degree completion in state workforce development systems.
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