Are workers ready for skills training? The problem with seeking growth before stability.

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WorkLab, Supporting Students Journeys
© WorkLab Innovations


Nontraditional students are balancing multiple variables in a system that isn’t designed to meet their needs.
Any organization delivering skills training can provide the supports to help their students succeed.

Employers need a strong pool of available labor with the skills and knowledge to sustain and grow their business, adding more jobs to the economy. No arguments there. Foundations and community organizations want to see lower-wage workers get the qualifications they need for the kind of jobs that can support a middle-class family. Again, wholeheartedly agree. 

To me, the question is, are we doing the hard work to meet these learners where they are so that we can achieve that vision of a strategically trained workforce? The people who are in most need of career training are often least able to take advantage of it. 

If you’re struggling to patch together childcare between relatives with an unpredictable work schedule, how will you manage adding hours a week of training or classes? If you’re working two jobs to just make it to your next paycheck, how will you afford to cut back your shifts? If your supervisor won’t adjust your schedule to accommodate your program, if you’re caring for your elderly father at night and there’s never time to study, if you’re behind on your rent and not sure where you’ll be living next month, how can you put in the time and energy needed to succeed?

The financial investment in workforce development is enormous. An estimated $300 billion a year is spent on everything from federal and state jobs programs, workforce training and certifications, community college, and employer training. But only one third of students attending community colleges earn degrees; that’s half the graduation rate of four-year schools. 

Nontraditional students and trainees are balancing full-time jobs and family and financial obligations in a system that isn’t designed to meet their needs, and when they fail to complete their programs, the return on that huge investment is lost.

Joyce Rohrer of The SOURCE, an organization in Grand Rapids that increases the work/life stability of lower-wage workers in partnership with their employers, has seen workers struggle with these challenges firsthand. 

“We found the stabilization piece took the longest when people were getting ready to start a training or education program. They needed the most support and coaching. There are a lot more barriers that nontraditional students have than those institutions were originally established for.”

In one survey of potential adult learners, more than half said fear kept them from even trying to return to school. Programs like the Sustainable Workforce Model give workers the support and strong foundation they need to follow through on their training and ultimately reap the benefits. 

“Students wonder if the program they’re looking at is a good fit, or whether or not they meet the prerequisites or will qualify for positions post-training. The job exploration piece can be really important.” says Rohrer. “There’s also a lack of student loan counseling, and we see a lot of folks where it’s been ten years since they went to school but they’ve used all their Pell Grants. That’s something we try to coach people on. Training needs to be both available and accessible.”

Any organization delivering skills training can provide support to help their students succeed. Offering daycare onsite or designing programs with flexible schedules can make a huge difference. Structuring trainings in cohorts can give workers a support system of people going through the same challenges. And soft skills training in issues like navigating conflict and the hidden rules of work can prepare workers for jobs that are built around a middle-class value system.

Even something as well-meaning as tuition reimbursement places the burden on workers to have that $2,000 up front when they might be worried about getting their rent paid. Shifting to the employer paying the cost directly can be a game-changer.

Company leaders can also promote an understanding and appreciation of the strategic importance of advancing their workforce to managers and supervisors. If you’re going back to school and your supervisor doesn’t empathize with what you’re going through, maintaining that balance becomes much harder. Having a supervisor who will support and accommodate you through the process raises success and retention rates.

The triple bottom line promise of workforce development is clear—good for the worker, good for the employer, good for the community—but to meet that potential, it’s essential to invest in stabilizing the workers we need to upskill, giving them the foundation they need to persist and succeed.