Bridging the Education-Workforce Divide: Perspectives from Kentucky and Virginia Champions Network Members

At a time when employees may change careers a half dozen or more times in a lifetime, the linear path from high school to college and employment is increasingly insufficient. Automation and the gig economy are changing the traditional career paths that defined 20th century America.

Today’s students may need several entry and exit points to and through higher learning throughout their lives. These pathways criss-cross traditional higher education, workforce development, apprenticeships, and non-degree courses. While the United States invests $1.1 trillion in postsecondary education and training, according to a new report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, what are we receiving in return, and is federal policy encouraging, or creating barriers, for institutions and other entities to foster flexible pathways between education and employment?

To address this question, we convened our second Champions Network event entitled “Bridging the Education and Workforce Divide,” featuring Dr. Aaron Thompson, President of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, and Dr. Jason Smith, Partnership Executive Director of Bridging Richmond.

Our event convened a cross-section of policymakers, congressional staff, and advocates for a fascinating discussion of the connections and barriers that exist between the nation’s higher education and workforce systems. As was highlighted throughout the conversation, state, local, and community-based agencies are increasingly taking a leading role in fostering collaboration between the sometimes siloed systems of higher education and workforce.

The Champions reflected on the intersections between higher education, employers, and other providers of higher learning that are stepping in to help prepare students for work. Both Champions stressed how lifelong learning is essential in today’s workforce, and higher education must adapt to accommodate all of today’s students.

A voice in favor of stronger linkages between education and workforce systems, Dr. Thompson spoke about the need to have employers at the table to help design credentials and pathways that foster the skills and competencies demanded by employers. Dr. Thompson stressed that employers and higher education leaders must work together to create pathways for students, especially for those who do not feel they need to follow the traditional four-year university pathway.

Kentucky has increased its efforts to use data and measurement to ensure students are on track to success and well-prepared for career success. The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education now disaggregates data by demographic groups and examines completion rates, among other metrics, to determine how to improve student outcomes across the state.

Following the roundtable event, Dr. Thompson met with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Congressman Brett Guthrie (R-KY), along with staff from the offices of Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Representative Harold Rogers (R-KY), to share stories of impact in  Kentucky and ongoing efforts to strengthen alignment between higher education and workforce needs.

Meanwhile, Dr.Smith’s organization, Bridging Richmond, engages in local efforts to break down the silos between education and social service agencies serving local students, families, and employees, with the goal of creating more direct access to wrap-around supports and services.

Dr. Smith noted that many institutions of higher education are often under-equipped with the types of resources that can help students maintain a delicate balance between study, work, family and community. For many students, housing, income, and food insecurity and challenges accessing other basic needs represent some of the most pernicious barriers for individuals who are returning to education in pursuit of new skills and career advancement. Bridging Richmond advocates for improving the coordination of support services across agencies to streamline access to resources and benefits for students.

While just a few examples of efforts underway in Kentucky and Virginia, Dr. Smith and Dr. Thompson’s stories offer powerful insights for federal policymakers, who can learn from the innovative and evidence-based work happening across the states. For more, read Dr. Thompson’s and Dr. Smith’s profiles on our Champions Network page, and learn about the five key federal policy principles that these state and local leaders support.