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Building Career Pathways and Opportunities that Benefit Workers and Employers

JFF and Penn Foster are teaming up to offer a unique educational platform that will remove barriers to upskilling, create new career prospects for low-skill individuals, and strengthen the corporate talent pipeline.

By Stephen Yadzinski, acting general manager, JFFLabs

Sequoia Ventress was a working mom making ends meet in retail when she took a chance on herself and her future by pursuing an opportunity to earn a high school diploma made possible by her employer, Walmart.

She earned her diploma through Penn Foster’s accredited online high school program while studying in Walmart’s Live Better U, an educational benefits program the retailer offers in partnership with Guild Education.

And she’s not alone. The effect of the skills gap that’s crippling the workforce in the United States is not missed on those who are stuck in the middle of it.

In short, she was being left out of the type of career that would help her earn more — and she knew it.

In a traditional high school, with very few credits to transfer, Ventress would have had to start from scratch; a daunting task for a busy working mother whose departure from education channels left her feeling defeated. However, Penn Foster accepted her credits and the personal development Ventress experienced through enrollment and her subsequent academic journey.

She finally has career aspirations that feel attainable. Her perseverance taught her discipline and confidence, and gave her a framework for succeeding in her goals. She’s brought those new life skills with her to the workplace and into her family life. Education has been a catalyst for Ventress to improve her own life and subsequently impact the next generation of workers.

Now she is a high school graduate, holding a credential that earns workers, on average, an additional $4 per hour. After Penn Foster, Ventress went on to obtain another credential — one that enabled her to work as a medical assistant, a middle-skill job that’s projected to grow dramatically in the coming years. She credits Walmart for removing the barriers she had previously faced. Walmart helped her earn more and put her on a path toward meaningful, gainful employment by enabling her to enroll in the Penn Foster High School program.

A learning company focused on creating access to in-demand training and education, Penn Foster currently enrolls more than 250,000 new students each year in its accredited online high school, career school, and college programs. The company is now entering into a partnership with JFFLabs to further develop its technology and programming and expand its regional reach.

Skills Gap: What It Means for Workers and Businesses

Ventress is one of thousands of working learners who have been barred from economic mobility because they were unable to formalize their skill attainment with an academic credential like a high school diploma or a skills certificate. The changing face of today’s workplace demands that individuals increase their job readiness by developing new skills at a continuously accelerating pace.

The traditional model of investing in one’s education until approximately age 25 no longer holds true. Rather, lifelong upskilling is now widely understood to be an essential undertaking that involves keeping up with new technical and soft skills.

The next few months will also determine whether or not businesses and policymakers choose to look beyond short-term relief measures and toward long-term, big picture workforce investments. The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the nation’s skills gap–the ever widening disparity between employers’ needs and workers’ competencies. As it turns out, this might be the best time ever to invest in skills for employees both in and temporarily out of the workforce.

Shifting Corporate Responsibility in Training

The bottom line is that corporations need well-rounded workers with employability skills (often referred to as soft skills, human skills, or 21st century skills, etc.), and workers need clear pathways for career growth and economic advancement that are free from financial burden and risk. In response, corporations themselves are becoming new centers of education and training, increasingly taking on a centralized role in lifelong learning — a role that involves offering high school and higher education opportunities to U.S. workers and students.

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As services and schools at all levels heel turn to online learning solutions, a trend that accelerated following the coronavirus outbreak, companies should be in lock step with the shift to digital platforms. And this shift reflects new trends in which businesses can achieve high-impact returns while generating social impact.

Many companies are taking the lead in providing free upskilling, reskilling, and outskilling programs to jobseekers and incumbent workers alike via “in-classroom” experiences that use personalized, virtual learning to blend hard- and soft-skills training.

The paradigm shift has fundamentally changed the relationship between employers and their workforces. Corporations are essentially partnering with their employees to further economic advancement for all, including identifying future-focused skills and career pathways outside of the organization.

Notably, Walmart — currently the world’s largest retailer — has one of the most comprehensive employer training programs in the country. The company’s Live Better U, the program Ventress enrolled in and graduated from, meets Walmart associates where they are on their educational journeys by creating access, removing barriers, and empowering workers to learn new skills that help them advance in their academic and professional pursuits. The program includes a debt-free $1-per-day degree program, free high school completion, affordable higher education options, and free foreign language courses.

Middle-Skill Jobs Matter

Middle-skill jobs–historically the on-ramp to the middle class–require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year higher education degree. Prior to the economic disablement brought on by COVID-19, middle-skill jobs accounted for 53 percent of the U.S. labor market, with only 43 percent of the nation’s workers trained at the middle-skill level–a crippling skills gap across industries such as health care, sales and service, communications, artificial intelligence, information technology, and the trades. Media coverage on higher education and career preparation primarily focuses on four-year college degrees even though non-traditional students make up nearly three-quarters of the higher education population.

As economists struggle to forecast how long economic recovery will take, and what the post-pandemic U.S. labor market will look like, critical questions remain. Why has trained talent been so hard to come by? Why have our current systems and conventions been failing both businesses and workers?

Until now, few stakeholders have actively joined together to address the need for an employer-led, skills-development system that provides career path acceleration as well as economic mobility.

The clearest approach to addressing this continued training gap in middle-skill careers is corporate inclusion and catalytic, collaborative alignment with businesses and corporations at the helm.

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The Impact of Employers

A deep and unparalleled recession is looming in the U.S. Traditionally, major corporations huddle and often play a critical role in times of crisis. Now more than ever, how can the leaders of the nation’s largest companies drive positive impact for workers, learners, and communities?

And where will they turn to for training?

In order to meet these companies’ distinct training needs, an organization must know how to do the following:

Leverage technology to increase learners’ ability to retain information by connecting with them at a level commensurate with their education and work experience.

Integrate new training and technology into existing systems and workflows.

Optimize existing talent and provide immediate opportunities for application.

Design consistent work-based learning experiences across an employer’s locations.

Innovate at a pace that accommodates the increasingly dynamic future of work, simulating real-world situations.

As an educational institution and upskilling platform focused on helping adult learners and opportunity youth to launch, accelerate, and thrive in their careers, Penn Foster is poised to meet these needs. With the help of innovative partners and forward-thinking clients, Penn Foster is building a national movement to upskill 1 million middle-skill workers a year.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic–and in line with its mission–Penn Foster has launched a Personal & Professional Development Resource Center for employers and organizations to offer to furloughed workers. Temporarily displaced employees can utilize the digital platform to upskill, access state-specific unemployment benefits guidelines, and even learn to meditate.

Connecting Education to Employment Outcomes

Penn Foster, a learning company focused on creating access to in-demand training and education, has had the same mission since its founding: to prepare people for the future of work. In that time, the way we work has changed dramatically, and yet Penn Foster continues to innovate, creating new conditions for success and then connecting that skills attainment to gainful employment for companies like Penske Truck Leasing, Ford-UAW, Banfield Pet Hospital, Adecco, and MetroPower.

Over 50 foundational career skills courses act as a gateway to career progress, building mastery across technical and soft skills to help students stack micro-credentials toward more gainful employment. Penn Foster’s expansive, accredited career and academic offerings span more than 150 programs, providing training that is integral to a myriad of industries deeply impacted by the skills gap–training that can create a pathway to an apprenticeship, for example, that opens the door to an additional $10 an hour

Most notably, Penn Foster works directly with employers to chart and create upskilling programs for employees, addressing that ever-widening gap in middle-skill careers. The company is in close touch with the changing realities of work, and has responded to the current health crisis swiftly and on multiple levels. The United States is now officially the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, and experts say a massive expansion of testing is essential to containing the spread In March of this year, Penn Foster partnered with Southern New Hampshire University and Guild Education to create a free training for healthcare workers on how to conduct safe and accurate testing for COVID-19. More than 3,000 learners have already enrolled, and that number will likely only grow.

Creating Conditions for Success

At first glance, Penn Foster is an online learning platform like many others. Where Penn Foster has differentiated its offerings is in the way it caters to the needs of working learners, blending content, technology, and human intervention.

Layering different types of human support (academic, career-focused, and motivational) with predictive intervention modeling and an array of skills-based content ensures that learners are preparing for the next steps in their careers.

The flexibility afforded to working learners like Ventress is essential to fostering progression. As a mother and an employee, Ventress, like many Penn Foster students, has commitments that restricted her ability to set aside time for learning. Removing travel time to an on-the-ground learning facility, fixed classroom schedule, and cohort-based classes can also remove barriers to a working learner’s economic progress.

Penn Foster’s solution succeeds because of the integration between: :

● A mobile-enabled platform that delivers modular content and services at scale.

● Robust credentialing architecture that provides incremental evidence of learning.

● Coordinated human- and tech-enabled efforts that help learners to overcome academic, financial, technical, and motivational barriers.

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Scaling Impact through Alignment

The need for solutions-oriented partners has never been greater. Penn Foster is actively building a coalition of purpose-minded leaders, and will inevitably become a force multiplier for scaling impact and rewiring the workforce development system.

Penn Foster’s commitment to scaling its accessibility warrants strategic partnerships with employers as well as diversification into new and innovative channels. With the goal of delivering job readiness to over a million people annually, Penn Foster partners with progressive organizations to prepare the workforce of the future, skill by skill. Employing a highly analytical and diagnostic approach, Penn Foster helps its partners to identify the greatest talent gaps and impediments to maximum social impact and sustainable growth. Penn Foster’s team of experts designs tailored, scaled solutions that:

  • Generate demand across employee populations.
  • Educate learners with contemporary learning tools, engaging content, and industry-aligned assessment.
  • Motivate learners to engage, progress, and achieve measurable career development.
  • Empower supervisors and training managers to integrate and support both online and hands-on learning experiences at scale.
  • Equip executives and management with sophisticated analytics and decision-making tools

How Does JFF Fit In?

JFF’s mission is to build a society in which everyone has the opportunity to access the skills, resources, and credentials they need.

In this unprecedented time, JFF is taking its mission more seriously than ever by calling on business, education, and government leaders to take bold, proactive measures that support our most vulnerable learners, workers, and families. A workable future and economic advancement for everyone will depend on innovative, sustainable, and collaborative solutions.

The launch of JFFLabs established an accelerator to provide a critical connection between traditional systems and new technology, financial models, and forward-leaning leaders. This is made possible by the effort to support mission-aligned organizations and startups that are solving meaningful market problems, resulting in greater opportunity for students, workers, and employers alike.

JFFLabs is positioned to further develop the technology, programming, and regional reach necessary to support workers who have benefitted from Penn Foster’s tried and true methodology.

A partnership to further these complementary missions would maximize social impact by creating equitable and replicable corporate talent solutions designed specifically for the Fortune 500 sector. Penn Foster’s delivery capacity and training track record, aligned with JFF’s ability to maximize strategic identification for specialized support, directly addresses 21st century business and corporate talent management goals.

Corporations as Centers of Education and Training

Grounded in the framework of JFF’s Corporate Action Platform, Penn Foster and JFF will work together to identify target corporate partners and financial investment opportunities needed to develop regional pilot programs that JFF is poised to lead.

In the newly paralyzed U.S. economy, real unemployment has now surpassed 20 percent. Low-income workers and those without learning and earning credentials will be severely and disproportionately impacted. Focused, relevant, and time-sensitive partnerships like that between Penn Foster and JFF can not launch soon enough.

Tracking key performance indicators and impact outcomes will signal to the market how to design and implement equitable talent solutions, establishing Penn Foster and JFF as leaders in the field.

Simply put, this shared success will shine a light on what’s possible as more and more corporations become centers of education and training.

Stay tuned for updates on this program, and if you’re interested in driving change with us — let’s work together. Email us today.

JFFLabs provides a critical bridge between traditional training systems with new models and relationships to catalyze the critical work of preparing today’s workforce for the Future of Work, and the economy and careers of tomorrow. We do that by accelerating, incubating, advising, and investing in workforce and education innovations. This is the second in a series featuring partner impact stories and opportunities. www.jff.org/labs

Written by

JFF (Jobs for the Future) is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States.

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