It was standing-room-only for National Skills Coalition’s recent Congressional briefing on adult education and upskilling. More than 65 Congressional staff and other attendees packed a Senate briefing room to hear from state leaders about effective policy approaches for helping American adults to build skills and advance in the workforce.
NSC Director of Upskilling Policy Amanda Bergson-Shilcock kicked off the briefing with an overview of the issues. Amanda explained the crucial role of federal policy in creating “on-ramps” that enable adults with basic skill gaps to access educational opportunities that equip them for middle-skill, family-sustaining jobs.
Choices that Congress makes in the coming months as key legislation is reauthorized will affect how many adults are able to pursue upskilling opportunities and how successful they are able to be, she said. Reauthorization for several major federal investments -- the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, Higher Education Act, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – can be strengthened to better support upskilling.
Amanda thanked Senator Jack Reed (RI) for his office’s assistance in arranging the briefing, and for his longtime advocacy as a champion for adult education. NSC is a supporter of Senator Reed’s proposed CTE for All Act, which would foster tighter connections between Perkins Act programs and adult education programs.
Next, Amanda shared highlights from NSC’s recent Foundational Skills in the Service Sector report. The report found that approximately 20 million service-industry workers have limited literacy or numeracy skills. While some companies are investing in upskilling opportunities for their current employees, strong public policies are vital in bringing these isolated examples to scale.
Attendees then heard from three state leaders with robust experience in supporting adult learners and talent development initiatives:
- Anson Green, State Director, Adult Education and Literacy, at the Texas Workforce Commission
- Reecie Stagnolia, Vice President for Adult Education at the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, and incoming Chair of the Executive Committee for the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education
- Alex Hughes, Vice President for Talent Attraction and Retention at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce
Anson discussed the pioneering work done in Texas to bring a wide variety of education and workforce investments under one roof. He shared an illustration from the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) that shows the numerous federal programs and investments that are being coordinated and braided together in the state. Anson also explored the important role of workforce data in evaluating performance outcomes and improving services to participants. A particular area of focus is better aligning Perkins Act postsecondary outcomes with Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act performance outcomes.
(View NSC’s policy recommendations for Perkins reauthorization.)
Next, Reecie shared his perspective on the needs and opportunities for adult learners in Kentucky, including a 1-page fact sheet on Kentucky adult education. The state has implemented a range of interventions designed to help adults with basic skill gaps to regain their footing and pursue middle-skill credentials. A key issue, he said, is the “benefits cliff” that many participants face when trying to transition from public benefits to employment. Improving public benefits programs to allow individuals to make a more gradual transition could help more people pursue labor-market opportunities.
Finally, Alex explained why the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce sees talent development as an economic development issue. “Ten years ago, the number-one question from businesses considering a relocation to Nashville was about real estate,” she said. “Today, real estate is number four or five – and finding a skilled workforce is number one.”
That is one of the reasons the Chamber has prioritized involvement in education and workforce-related policy advocacy at the state and regional level, she said. Among its areas of focus are supporting Tennessee Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, which aims to help 55 percent of state residents attain a postsecondary credential by 2025.
(Learn more about the Nashville Area Chamber’s work in their workforce report, Strengthening the Middle Tennessee Region 2020: Building a Vital Workforce to Sustain Economic Growth and Opportunity, and their broader 2016 Vital Signs report.)
Both Anson and Reecie also delved into the issue of Integrated Education and Training (IET), a proven model for helping adults build basic skills such as reading and math while simultaneously training for a specific industry or occupation. Reecie discussed how his state is incorporating findings from the Accelerating Opportunity Kentucky (AO-KY) initiative into their broader services for adult learners.
Anson shared information about the widespread implementation of the IET model in Texas, and the two policy memos that the state has issued in recent months to help local adult education providers understand their options for implementing IET approaches. Both men emphasized the importance of IET and other contextualized programs that provide wrap-around support services to help adults persist and complete education and training programs.
Later this summer, NSC will be issuing a policy proposal related to career pathways for low-skilled workers under the Higher Education Act. Get a sneak peek at our thinking in the Upskilling section of our Skills for Good Jobs federal policy recommendations, published last November.