Access to higher education makes a large impact on a person’s life. Employees with a bachelor’s degree will earn about 84 percent more than employees with just a high school diploma, according to a 2011 Georgetown University report, “The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, and Lifetime Earnings.”
In 2007, the Joyce Foundation created and funded a seven-year-long initiative called Shifting Gears across six Midwestern states. Its aim was to give low-skilled
American workers skills and increased educational opportunities to qualify for the high-demand jobs that require skills beyond those learned in high school — and to encourage states to continue even after the end date.
Contacts from Minnesota and Illinois, both of whom were available to speak with Chief Learning Officer, said the states plan to continue to provide more adult education programs for low-skilled adults.
In the context of Shifting Gears, the term “low-skilled” means low academic skill, explained Nola Speiser, adult career pathways director at the Minnesota
Department of Employment and Economic Development, the state’s principal economic development agency.
“Through this strategy, they shouldn’t be deemed low-skilled,” Speiser said. “They should be deemed individuals who are ready to enter entry-level occupations and have the foundation to grow in an organization.”
Shifting Gears focused on strategies meant to keep low-skilled adults from being left behind in the 21st century economy. At the heart of the initiative are “bridge” programs, which teach basic, occupation-specific skills and link adults in literacy GED programs to college-level occupational programs. Bridge programs aid these adult learners in gaining postsecondary credentials that lead to good jobs.
In Illinois, the number of bridge programs increased to 62 from 23 between 2010 and 2014, according to the Shifting Gears’ September 2015 evaluation report. In Minnesota, the number increased to 84 from 17. In Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, the total number of adult learners in bridge programs more than doubled to 10,345.
More than half of Minnesota’s programs focus on either the health care sector or manufacturing sector, two fields in which adults can earn a decent wage even in a down economy.
Illinois has a similar focus. Sectors with an increasing number of positions opening up include transportation distribution and logistics, manufacturing and health care, according to Jennifer Foster, deputy director of adult education and workforce at the Illinois Community College Board.
There are a large number of people in Illinois who could benefit from higher education, she said. Some 1.2 million Illinois citizens don’t have a high school diploma.
“We have so many individuals who can get on career pathways and who will be able to fill some of the jobs of the future.”
These “jobs of the future,” for both Illinois and Minnesota, have not included traditional office jobs. They refer to key industries, such as health care, and to areas such as information technology and science, technology, engineering and math fields — both of which Foster said Illinois is looking at when it expands its adult learning program.
Still, Foster said many of the skills, such as critical thinking and mathematics, these adults pick up could be applicable in a traditional corporate environment. Also, there are the basic, essential skills taught such as knowing how to dress and act appropriately.
Although the Shifting Gears initiative ended, both Foster and Speiser said Illinois and Minnesota will continue fostering adult education. “[It] really was just the jump-start for Minnesota, and we are at the point where we are growing more than ever,” Speiser said.
In this way, the initiative was a philosophical foundation rather than a short-term solution, said Thomas Norman, the workforce development division director at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
The future of these programs depends on those jobs of the future, which vary by state and which industries are growing there. It also depends on present day business needs. “As an educational entity we are very well equipped to provide [a skilled workforce], but we have to make sure we are listening to what [business] needs are and then be responsive to those needs,” Foster said.
It is a challenge to make sure that education is in tune with business, and that business is in tune with education, she said. But it’s also a great opportunity to prepare individuals with the skills they need to have a career and build the economy.