Using Life Skills to Enhance Workforce Equity
The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified gaps in educational and job opportunities, and it is time for a new approach to bridging the gap between education and jobs.
People of color in the workforce have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, relative to white employees, with higher unemployment rates among racial and ethnic minorities. African American and Hispanic students, meanwhile, were more likely to take leaves of absence from higher education, and are now enrolling at lower rates. And during the pandemic, African American and Hispanic students with lower incomes were more likely to study remotely and have less access to computers and high-speed internet.
A growing trend in corporate America was focusing on increasing economic mobility before the pandemic hit by reducing hiring bias through the implementation of skill-based hiring practices that reduce blind dependency on degrees as gateways to jobs. We found that half of U.S. employers were either considering or already engaged in this skill-based recruiting approach in a 2018 national survey, which was at the time attributed to both a tight work market and an interest in more egalitarian recruitment. Moreover, recent research has supported the idea that tens of millions of Americans, many of the people of color, have the potential to move into higher-wage jobs, but are restricted by the focus of employers on educational qualifications, particularly degrees.
Employers have also shown signs that the connection between qualifications and economic opportunities has been rethought. The pandemic economy and a growing social justice movement are now amplifying that, which has led to an even greater emphasis on diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) strategies among employers. For example, earlier this month, a coalition of 80 major companies led by the Business Roundtable launched a new initiative to “advance racial equity and justice and reduce the gap in economic opportunity in colored communities,” rooted in new recruiting and promotion approaches.
Rethinking Education in the Work Force
This is a moment to rethink how education and the workforce interconnect because of this confluence of economic and social influences.
Too often, in the past, the road to economic opportunity was painted as a false dichotomy: either seeking formal schooling or working experience; degrees or apprenticeships; training for college or following up on vocational education.
However, there is a way to incorporate formal schooling with the practice of real-world work, both theory and application: experiential learning. However, access to experiential learning experiences for all audiences is not uniformly available. And Black and Hispanic students are more frequently tracked into lower-skilled jobs in programs that aim to help students prepare for high-paying STEM careers than other students in such programs.
Experiential Learning Can Enhance Career Trajectory
In response to demands for employability and improved educational results, experiential learning has recently received a groundswell of interest worldwide. This has recently implied funding for apprenticeships from governments and employers. However, several more common and often more flexible models are also included in the experiential spectrum, including internships, cooperative education, realistic placements, and increasingly online projects that have been emerging since the pandemic.
The small but growing body of experiential learning research indicates that by promoting practice and input, increasing student engagement, and helping students achieve higher rates of jobs and salaries, it can provide superior educational results. However, access is a key problem in scaling up these models—especially access to intentionally designed, academically integrated work experiences that are linked to quality educational credentials.
Experiential Learning Can Give a Boost to People of Color
While experiential learning is not a panacea, it is an under-used model that can help students and employees of color achieve greater educational and economic opportunity. Students work on real-world projects in such programs that allow them to apply their academic knowledge while gaining practical skills and technical abilities. Being able to exercise their talents in a supportive atmosphere while participating in contemplation allows them the ability to improve their confidence that they can perform activities and mindsets that are competent and career-related. In other words, students can build their self-efficacy, which is important to all students, but in the STEM workforce pipeline, it has been recognized as particularly important for women and students of color.
These interactions often encourage students, often through the relationships they create with industry professionals, mentors, and peers, to learn the soft skills that employers believe they want. For example, working in an office or manufacturing environment allows students to learn ways of knowing, being, and acting that is very different from the behavior expected in a typical classroom environment. Real-world job experience also helps students to build vital social and cultural resources and professional networks and allows a range of career opportunities to be found and explored.
However, to better exploit experiential learning for equity, business partners and educators need to be mindful of the weaknesses and possible prejudices of their own experiences. Via experiential learning, interacting with students helps managers and supervisors to diversify their workforce, face and consider diverse views, and focus on perceived prejudices. Learning facilitators – educators and employers – must be able to see the strengths and potential of learners, considering long-standing assumptions, to interact with students and develop their self-efficacy. Student and group knowledge is used to culturally support pedagogies of experiential learning and can offer new ways of solving problems and innovation within the industry.
Focus on Equity
We have long been recognized at Northeastern University for the century-old experiential learning style of the organization. Increasingly, we play a role in studying these models, engaging employers, and piloting new approaches to these issues. A cultural commitment and strategy, structure, and resources are needed for high-quality experiential learning. Increased understanding and ability among educational institutions and employers would be needed to scale up the approach to benefit all students.
It is important to build the infrastructure to expand access to experiential learning possibilities, particularly for students of color and in the institutions and programs that could most benefit from it.
Consider, for instance, the community colleges of America, where the student body today is predominantly non-white. As engines of economic mobility, two-year institutions are known, and several community colleges are early leaders in the integration of work and learning.
Interest in experiential learning also applies to K-12 education, where the model is adopted alongside other formats by project-based learning. Via the Network for Experiential Teaching and Learning (NExT), Northeastern University and K-12 school partners collaborate throughout the year, exchanging models and best practices for teachers, students, and industry.
It is also necessary to eliminate obstacles to student involvement, and research has indicated that these often include a lack of placement opportunities in their region or discipline; conflict planning; or the reluctance to take on work given other responsibilities.
A much wider pool of employers and industries participating in the education system and providing and managing student employment and project opportunities would also be needed to increase access to experiential learning. Employers aim to diversify their workforce and build new pipelines of early talent. But they often do not know that experiential learning projects, rather than just a community involvement initiative, maybe a strategic recruiting vehicle incorporated into their wider human resource planning. Employers should take advantage of toolkits, best practices, and a greater understanding of experiential learning initiatives’ ROI, all areas requiring more realistic work and research.
Finally, the expansion of experiential learning opportunities can also be shaped by government policy (particularly given a new presidential administration in 2021). For example, Canadian provinces such as Ontario provide employers with refundable tax credits to enable students to experience cooperative education. And, to help institutions, educators, and employers structure and offer experiential learning experiences to students, progressively in digital and mobile formats, a whole new class of technology companies and systems is emerging.
John Dewey once wrote that there is a “risk of creating an undesirable divide between the experience gained in more direct associations and what is gained in school.” It is now time for learning to expand outside the classroom walls, in more equal ways, in line with the studies of this past year and the assumptions that the education environment was forced to face in 2020.