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The Power of Learn-and-Earn Programs

Opportunities in higher education that give students the chance to get paid real-word experience while in school help level the socioeconomic playing field and meet industry needs. 

With the rapidly evolving workforce, the need for individuals to upskill and reskill is greater than ever. For students, learn-to-earn programs are a way to gain the skills employers are looking for before they even finish a degree. In this interview, Jane Swift discusses the importance of learn-and-earn programs, their fundamental elements and how Indiana is creating robust career pathways for students to achieve good jobs in the area.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed leaders to prioritize learn and earn programs?

Jane Swift (JS): One of the challenges for higher ed leaders is the velocity of change in the private sector. It’s just astonishing, and it’s unfair to expect them to keep up with the skills and technical capabilities their graduates will need to succeed in our dynamic, technology-driven economy. Partnering with organizations like ours is a proven way to prepare early career hires. Unlike the higher education sector, we can be nimble, pivot quickly and serve as the intermediary between the private sector and higher education. These learn-and-earn opportunities are a terrific way for students to earn money for college or pay for their living expenses. They can give students the skills, experience and social capital to land a great first job right after graduation. They can bring more value to a college degree, which higher ed leaders are concerned with today.

The data clearly show how critical that first job is for college graduates. Too many college graduates are underemployed—around a third are working jobs that don’t require college degrees. A recent study shows that about 90% of graduates whose first jobs after college match their level of education aren’t underemployed ten years after graduation. That’s a huge number. That’s where learn-and-earn programs come in because they can help match college students to industries and employers that can best use their skills and knowledge.

Evo: What are the fundamental elements of a learn-and-earn program that can build more robust career pathways for modern learners?

JS: First and foremost, it’s pay. We need to pay students. If we want to attract diverse talent from the entire spectrum of today’s college students, we need to make sure we’re paying for it. Many students need to make money while they’re in college. We must provide them with that enable them to contribute toward their tuition and cover their expenses.

The second piece is that we need to find them jobs that articulate skill development. Those skills fall into two broad categories: technical skills and soft skills. Technical skills are the specialized skills specific to each industry. Soft skills, which some people call durable skills, are skills that enable individuals to move between jobs and industries and continue to be lifelong learners. Skills such as problem-solving, communication, teamwork and project management—the kinds of things that are somewhat different in a workplace context than what they find in an academic context. College alone isn’t enough to hone those skills, so we need work-based learning programs that truly prepare students for the workforce.

The third piece is mentorship. College students need to be connected with professionals to learn what they need to work in different industries for different employers and make informed decisions about their first job after college and their careers.

Evo: What are some of the obstacles in developing that kind of program?

JS: Our biggest obstacle is that employers are risk averse. The role of organizations like Education at Work is to partner with companies. We can help them identify diverse talent and demonstrate that our programs can prepare these first hires for the various job shortages they seek to fill. We often talk about pathways for students but also want to open new pathways for employers, so they can hire in pools they haven’t thought about. We’re working with large postsecondary, open-access institutions with high percentages of traditionally underserved, middle- and low-income students where these Fortune 500 companies traditionally don’t recruit heavily. It’s our job to ensure that through our program students can perform in their jobs and create value to justify their salary. We’re also preparing students for future jobs and getting employers to invest in that potential.

Evo: How will the Salesforce grant help support and expand a hybrid learn-and-earn initiative? 

JS: This grant will allow us to reach a much larger number of students and employers. Salesforce is helping us set up a state-of-the-art hybrid and remote satellite center in Indianapolis, where we will have cutting-edge equipment that will allow us to hire students from rural areas, urban areas and smaller colleges throughout Indiana. The technology also will let us reach a broader set of employers from around the country and offer more diverse jobs. One of our gating issues is finding enough employers in the geographic regions we serve to pull their early career training and hiring back into the traditional college student population. This grant enables us to expand our ability to offer students new types of work give them more opportunities to create the technical and durable skills they’ll need throughout their working lives.

Evo: What impact do you anticipate from implementing this program?

JS: This program will set the stage for us to demonstrate that we can provide skill attainment to a broader group of students and reach them in various ways. Because we’ll be working with more corporate and skill partners, we’ll be able to demonstrate the value of a work-based learning, early-career training strategy and bring it to other regions of the country, so others will follow our lead. This strategy has the potential to fundamentally change the early-career pipeline, allowing all students from traditionally underserved communities to secure high-quality jobs after graduation.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?

JS: This is an important opportunity for higher education institutions. Families are evaluating postsecondary outcomes based on that high-quality first job. We’re relentlessly focused on the population many colleges and universities struggle to reach. We also help this underserved population who may not understand how to transition from college to a high-paying job that gives them social and economic mobility. We are that lubricant that will help students, policy leaders and corporate and higher education partners achieve the goal of social and economic mobility for students while filling critical workforce gaps to drive economic growth.