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Research by Harvard Using New Profit Data Highlights The Need to Better Connect Education and Career

A new white paper highlights challenges and opportunities for the growing field of organizations seeking to connect postsecondary education with employment.

APRIL 7, 2021 — A new white paper released today by Harvard’s interdisciplinary Project on Workforce – Working to Learn: Despite a growing set of innovators, America struggles to connect education and careerhighlights stark challenges and transformative opportunities for the growing field of organizations seeking to connect postsecondary education with employment.

The development of job pathways that integrate work and learning are critical to an equitable recovery and a future where social and economic opportunity are available to all. Workers from underrepresented communities, particularly communities of color, have been most affected by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and traditionally have faced the largest systemic barriers to social and economic opportunity in America. These communities are wellsprings of insight and talent where people are poised to take advantage of stronger pathways to learning and earning amidst accelerating changes in our workforce and economy. 

“Our research showed that many organizations purporting to connect both education and career are still struggling to do so,” said Joseph Fuller, Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School and co-author of the report. “While standout organizations exist in the field, too few programs are linking soft and hard skills, prioritizing evidence, working with employers, or providing wraparound supports.”

The research utilized a unique dataset of 316 applications to an open grant competition for programs seeking to connect postsecondary education and employment. Analyzing these organizations, the report’s authors found:

  • Huge potential to engage employers more deeply: Programs that worked with employers were growing faster than peers, but only about one-third (35 percent) of organizations mentioned that they were working directly with employers. Only about one-quarter mentioned providing learning opportunities in workplace environments. 
  • Opportunities to build bridges between education and employment: Only 16 percent of organizations prioritize relationships with both educational institutions and employers. Success measurement is similarly siloed between education and employment metrics; for organizations that focused on college-related outcomes, only 33 percent also prioritized employment outcomes. 
  • A growing need to develop transferable skills in the future of work: One-third of organizations in the dataset focused on job-specific training, but just nine percent of organizations prioritized foundational soft skills alongside job-specific skills.
  • A critical opportunity for more investment in wraparound supports: Only 13 percent of organizations cited directly providing wraparound supports like subsidies for transportation, housing, or childcare.
  • A growing, but still nascent, evidence base: The most common success metric tracked by applicant organizations (59 percent) was whether participants completed the program. About one-quarter of organizations indicated that they measured employment rates and a similar share tracked college attendance. Causal evidence is more rare; nine percent of applicants cited an existing study, quasi-study, or external evaluation of the program model in their application. 
  • Under-leveraging of technology in some areas: Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the field was heavily skewed towards in-person models. Only six percent of programs were fully online; 11 percent had hybrid models.

“To date, the field is fragmented and often siloed between college and employment missions,” said report co-author Rachel Lipson, Project Director of the Project on Workforce at the Harvard Kennedy School. “But there is vast untapped potential to scale innovations both within and across organizations.”

Postsecondary Innovation for Equity initiative

The data for this research comes from the Postsecondary Innovation for Equity (PIE) initiative. The PIE initiative was developed by New Profit, a nonprofit venture philanthropy that supports social entrepreneurs who advance equity and opportunity in the United States. New Profit asked organizations that considered themselves innovators in the education-to-employment sector to apply to receive an unrestricted $100,000 grant and participate in a peer learning community. Of the 316 applications received, New Profit selected 20 organizations for the first round of grants and support. The full data set from the 316 applicants provided rich material for this analysis of the current state of the education-and-employment field.

Advancing the education-and-employment field

The PIE initiative supports innovators working at the intersection of education and employment to develop new approaches to connect young adults from low-income and underrepresented communities with the postsecondary credentials and work experience needed to access upwardly mobile careers. For example, CodePath.org is leveraging technology to help thousands of college students from underrepresented backgrounds gain the skills and connections they need to launch tech careers; Generation USA is forging close partnerships with employers to rapidly train and place adult learners into upwardly mobile jobs; and the Brooklyn STEAM Center is closing the gap between school and work by enabling New York City public high school students to learn though work experience at dozens of companies located at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard site.

“Scaling and disseminating successful models will be key to systemic change,” notes New Profit Associate Partner Glendean Hamilton, co-leader of the PIE initiative. “Working to Learn points philanthropists and policymakers toward the kind of innovation needed to build a more equitable education-to-employment system in America.”

A virtual report briefing and discussion will be held on April 28, 2021 at 11:00am EDT and open to the public. Please register for the briefing at this link.