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Defining a Workforce Development Training System

To fully connect higher ed and the workforce, it is critical that works are aware of and have access to training and opportunities unique to their region.

For many, postsecondary education pathways and the workforce have been like two parallel lines—close but never really meeting. This gap has resulted in a mismatch. Either learners often find themselves inadequately prepared for the realities of the working world, or they are staring at a plethora of options, unsure how to prepare for them.

Today in the U.S., over 60% of workers don’t have a four-year degree, and many traditionally marginalized workforce populations opt for nondegree education and training programs. The U.S. invests heavily in these pathways, spending significantly on community college degrees, apprenticeship training, nonprofit programs and workforce learning.

Yet right now, the postsecondary workforce development training sector is largely conceived of in silos, in which apprenticeship programs are different from associate degrees, which are different from tech boot camps and so on. Funding mechanisms are stratified, and data sources are typically tied to an organization’s structure or government interaction.

Such a siloed view is deeply flawed and continues to reinforce the parallel lines that are close but never meet. For learners seeking a postsecondary pathway that leads to a good job, the program’s funding source, the provider’s tax structure and other operating mechanisms are largely irrelevant, as they are for employers looking for a training partner and providers looking at other local offerings.

To meet the learners’ needs and find mechanisms to turn parallel lines into intersecting ones, it is time we have a system-level understanding of the U.S. postsecondary workforce development training sector. We consider workforce development training providers entities that:

  1. Help workers navigate the labor market and connect to employment
  2. Provide short-term (i.e., less than two years) postsecondary opportunities (i.e., the maximum requirement is a high school diploma) that help workers and learners develop work-relevant skills in service of job attainment

To our knowledge, no comprehensive system-level view of workforce training providers exists, so we created it. The Workforce Almanac is an extensive directory encompassing publicly funded or supported workforce development training providers in the U.S. It amalgamates data from four major public datasets, presenting a holistic view of the system.

For the first time in history, we know there are nearly 17,000 workforce development training providers in the country—roughly one training provider for every 10,000 individuals in the U.S. labor force or 1 for every 400 unemployed persons.

While the number of providers alone is a less than comprehensive measure to compare communities, it does help us quantify for the first time how many training providers are in national, state and local provider ecosystems. It also helps us identify outlier communities that might be worth examining further and gives us a sense of the distribution of service provision.

Interestingly, across the four regions of the U.S. (West, South, Midwest, Northeast), the volume of providers per U.S. labor force is quite consistent. However, that changes on a state-by-state level, where the volume of providers has a significant spread, suggesting inequity of access. For example, the number of workforce training providers per 100,000 people in Maine’s labor force is 32.4, and in Alaska, Wyoming and S.C., it is about 24. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Minnesota, Texas and Nebraska, it is about 6 or 7.

Unfortunately, the spread widens even more on a county level, where 44% of counties in the U.S. lack a single workforce development training provider, and about 5% have more than 30. Additionally, only 12% of counties have at least one of the four types of providers captured in our data set—a community college, WIOA-eligible program, registered apprenticeship program and nonprofit program.

Given that counties in the U.S. average between 800-2800 sq. mi., individuals in the 44% of counties without service provision or in the 88% of counties that might not have the type of training provider they need face significant time and transportation barriers to access.

Furthermore, workforce development training providers are slightly more likely to be in counties that have a population with a bachelor’s or graduate degree and slightly less likely to be in counties that have higher numbers of a population with only a high school qualification, equivalence or less. Again, this gives us pause over whether the communities seeking their support have access to service provision.

Zooming back to the national landscape, our analysis of the nearly 17,000 workforce development training providers in the U.S. identified fourteen categories of providers, and we could categorize about 80% of them into our schema. 40% of those categorized are job training nonprofits, a little more than 33% are higher education institutions, and the remaining quarter is split pretty evenly between for-profit and apprenticeship providers. These categories are our emerging and still forming schema to categorizing providers in the system in a way that focuses on offerings instead of funding sources, taxation status or operating model.

However, this approach has helped us discern that each U.S. state relies on its unique mix of workforce training providers and that no two states are the same—a finding that makes sense given each state and local economy’s unique and specialized realities. Massachusetts, for example, heavily utilizes registered apprenticeships, whereas D.C. has much greater access to workforce development nonprofits, and South Dakota relies on higher education institutions proportionally more.

As we move forward with the Workforce Almanac, our vision is to increase the depth of data points we have access to, so we can deepen our understanding of the workforce development training provider landscape and offer open-access data to practitioners, legislators, researchers and others to use to close the gap between the parallel lines of postsecondary education pathways and the workforce.

Learn more about the Workforce Almanac methodology here: Alexis Gable, Tessa Forshaw, Rachel Lipson, and Nathalie Gazzaneo (October 2023). “The Workforce Almanac: A System-Level View of U.S. Workforce Training Providers.” Published by Harvard Kennedy School.

Try out the Workforce Almanac here: