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Helping Adult Workers to “Upskill”

Many nonprofit organizations and businesses are ­helping adult workers improve their abilities so they’re qualified to thrive in middle-wage jobs. This chapter focuses on such organizations, many of which operate with philanthropic help. Some are quite inventive. Excel Centers, for example, are charter schools operated by regional branches of Goodwill Industries specifically to offer career and technical education to adults who have no high-school diploma and no stable career path. The schools in Indiana and Tennessee, for instance, provide not only detailed career training in scores of different locations, but also a suite of childcare, transportation, coaching, and other services that help students earn not only degrees but also numerous industry certifications. Some student begin postsecondary study as well, via a dual-enrollment option. The Excel Centers offer highly flexible scheduling to make sure the adult enrollees can juggle their education, work, and family responsibilities.

Before sketching some other examples of worthy adult skill training, here are some overarching factors that the dozens of donors, experts, and nonprofit practitioners we interviewed for this guidebook told us were important to keep in mind when offering technical education to adult workers.

Clear pathways

Adult workers need a clear vision of the ultimate rewards before ­venturing into a demanding training program. A career map that clearly shows the benefits associated with various kinds of learning is very helpful.

Condensed time frames and convenient scheduling

Acceleration of coursework is important when dealing with low-income adult workers. A successful model might take what would normally be a nine-month class and condense it to 16 weeks. Low-income workers can’t afford to take off most of a year, but they might be able to swing evening classes for four months.

Positive perceptions of postsecondary education

Low-income workers tend to view themselves as unable to successfully swim in the world of postsecondary attainment. Tangibly demonstrating that college success is possible, through models and successful predecessors, can be very helpful.

Special programs for remedial learners

Some adult learners lack basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Fixing these problems in an accelerated manner while also transmitting core technical skills is something many of the most successful programs have learned to do.

Effective wraparound services

The McKinsey Social Initiative has found that distance to class is the top indicator of whether a new worker will remain on the job. ­Transportation obstacles and other practical hurdles can make or break an adult learner’s success. These are simple things donors can help with.

Examples from the for-profit world

To see where you as a donor might fit into our nation’s system of technical education, let’s start by understanding what actions employers are taking to keep their pipelines of talent from running dry.

Trio Electric is a company with 350 employees that does electrical construction for multi-unit buildings in Houston. Major shortages of qualified technicians have pinched the firm’s ability to thrive and grow. Historically, it and other electrical installers relied on a trade association to tackle training and recruiting. When more than 60 percent of those recruits started washing out when they hit real jobs, Trio Electric decided to take responsibility for training its own workforce. The company launched a four-year internship program, licensed by the state of Texas, in 2012.

The program has proven effective, both for the company and for the individuals enrolled. “It’s a key part of our success,” says Beau Pollock, Trio Electric’s president. “Houston has a skilled workforce, but it’s aging, so we decided to take matters into our own hands.”

Training is conducted at the Trio Electric offices, and then on the job. Each year’s effort begins with an initial class of about 50 students recruited directly out of high school. To identify eligible candidates, Trio Electric partners with local charter schools run by KIPP and Yes Prep. The fact that enrollees will immediately begin earning a $12/hour wage, rising to $22/hour by the end of the four-year program, is an attractive carrot for many students.

The company made a heavy investment in a curriculum and in developing key performance indicators to keep participants on track. The rate of attrition among its apprentices turned out to be half the level in the wider industry. Trio’s trainees are fully prepared for work in approximately half the time it takes a student to go through a traditional classroom environment. They earn a journeyman’s license once they’ve put in around 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and classroom experience.

By 2015, a third of Trio Electric’s workforce was enrolled in its apprenticeship program. In the future, Trio Electric plans to turn the apprenticeship program into a separate department of the company and open it to other organizations looking for a way to train employees. The only constraint, Pollock finds, is a lack of awareness among students that the skilled trades provide excellent occupational opportunities today.

Pollock would love to see donors become more involved in funding feeder organizations, such as the KIPP and Yes Prep schools that he relies on. Intelligent grants, he thinks, could both help prepare opportunities for such training educationally, inform students about the chances that middle-skill jobs offer them for life success, and help set up mechanisms for matching apprentices and other new entrants to the work force with employers in need of talent.

The only constraint is a lack of awareness among students that skilled trades provide excellent opportunities today.

An appealing corporate-nonprofit-foundation partnership that exists today in Dallas links Omni Hotels to a Christian workforce development group called HIS Bridge Builders. The two linked arms when the hotel chain was planning to build a new downtown property and needed to fill a variety of positions. They created a training track that equips low-income, unemployed, or working-poor residents to succeed at hospitality-industry jobs. To date, the program has made more than 135 job placements.

In addition to four to six weeks of training, their model includes on-site job coaching, counseling, mentoring, and income supports. The coaches reduce attrition rates and help the employees stay around long enough to advance in skills and responsibilities.

HIS Bridge Builders operates another training program for ­ex-offenders. It prepares them to work outdoors with a commercial landscaping company. If the individual referred to them doesn’t yet have the basic social capacities for job-holding, HIS Bridge Builders sends them to the Bonton Farms, a nonprofit that provides intensive life-skills training, plus assistance with things like obtaining a driver’s license.

While corporations making alliances to provide CTE training are often aiming to fill open positions, the firm Norton Healthcare is mostly aiming to help its entry-level workforce gain the skills needed to move up in the company. As one of the largest health-care providers in ­Kentucky—with 40 locations and 13,000 employees—Norton particularly hopes that training incumbent workers might help it address shortages in hard-to-fill areas, like qualified nurses. Specifically, the company hopes that the certified nursing assistants it employs as lower-tier staff will consider “credentialing up” to become registered nurses (which could nearly double their wages).

Norton provides multiple pathways to help existing employees rise. It builds its classes around their present work schedules, for instance. The company’s commitment to internal employees is one reason Norton Healthcare’s five-year employee retention rate is a high 85 percent. “We definitely see a loyalty in those we invest in, and a commitment,” says Norton’s Jackie Beard.

Nonprofits that prepare workers

We encourage readers here to consult the 2015 Philanthropy ­Roundtable guidebook Clearing Obstacles to Work. Though most of the nonprofit organizations profiled there are focused on securing entry-level work for troubled populations, many—like Cincinnati Works and the ­Chicago-based Cara Program—have also made job advancement an important part of their efforts. Following are profiles of four charitable organizations that run successful efforts specifically to pull workers up to middle-skill level.

Per Scholas

When it comes to imparting technical knowledge and skills to struggling populations, there are few organizations better known than Per Scholas. Launched two decades ago, its original mission was to bridge the tech divide in the South Bronx. It has since expanded into IT-related workforce development for low-income residents.

Refurbishing old computers was one of the early tasks of the group. This required training six people in computer basics. They all left the nonprofit six months later because they now had skills that qualified them for well-paying private-sector jobs. “We immediately realized there was an opportunity there to create a workforce development program around IT,” says president Plinio Ayala. “So we began to solicit input from local employers to see what they needed. We redesigned our entire curriculum.”

Per Scholas has expanded to six locations—Atlanta, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., in addition to New York. All offer eight-week training programs that lead to quick job matches (the goal is a placement within 90 days of completing the program). Successful completion gives the participant an industry-standard CompTIA credential. While serving very poor individuals—90 percent minorities and a third women— Per Scholas maintains a graduation rate of 86 percent. More than 8 out of 10 graduates find technical work right away, at an average starting salary of $39,000, often with benefits. This compares to average annual earnings when participants come in the door of $7,000.

When the Per Scholas branch in the South Bronx learned that local software consulting company Doran Jones planned to offshore 150 software testing jobs, the nonprofit offered an alternative. It partnered with Doran Jones to create a training center, now called the Urban Development Center, and trained 150 workers for placement in the imperiled jobs. Salaries for the graduates began at $35,000 per year and jumped to $50,000 the second year.

Per Scholas has attracted philanthropic support from major foundations and corporations including the Robin Hood, Pinkerton, Tiger, and Kellogg foundations, New York City ­Workforce Funders, Capital One, and JPMorgan Chase. JPMC donated close to $1 ­million five years ago to launch the expansion of Per Scholas nationwide. The financial services firm Barclays has also made major cash gifts in recent years, and provided upward of 200 volunteers per year to the nonprofit.

Brooklyn Workforce Innovations

Brooklyn Workforce Innovations helps jobless or low-income New Yorkers find family-sustaining careers. And it does this within walking distance of some of the roughest neighborhoods in the five boroughs of New York City. BWI doesn’t just focus on helping workers get a job—it aims for placements where steady upward growth of responsibility and wages is possible.

BWI training allows the student to obtain industry-recognized credentials, and then two years of job-placement and career services. Instruction in conflict resolution, networking, and customer service is included to make graduates well-rounded and ready for work. The group recruits from all five boroughs and looks for people who are ­trainable and ­motivated to work. The nonprofit culls around 700 trainees from about 5,000 annual applicants. The selection can be rigorous and includes an interview, try-outs (a day or two in a training-like environment to make sure they are well suited), and in some cases homework assignments and drug tests.

BWI currently provides four sector-based training programs and one general job certification:

  • Brooklyn Networks trains participants to install telecom cable. It runs for five weeks and leads to certification in low-voltage installation, equipping graduates to install telephone and computer lines, entertainment systems, and security networks.
  • Brooklyn Woods provides seven weeks of training in woodworking and cabinetmaking. It cycles through five classes each year.
  • Made in NY offers five weeks of training for careers in TV and film, leading to a certificate from the New York City Major’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting, plus two years of job placement assistance.
  • Red Hook on the Road is a commercial driving class. Four weeks of training leads to a professional license good for trucks, school buses, and airport shuttles.
  • New York Drives helps participants get a state driver’s license so that isn’t a career obstacle.

In its latest year, BWI graduated 94 percent of students, resulting in 592 new hires and a 305 percent average wage boost. The nonprofit enjoys strong donor support from groups like the Gimbel, Price Family, Weinberg, Robin Hood, Capital One, RealNetworks, Tiger, and Brooklyn Community foundations.

BioTechnical Institute of Maryland

A prime example of a nonprofit using a potent economic sector—health care—to draw struggling populations into viable work is the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland. It was founded in 1998 to meet growing unmet demand in Baltimore for entry-level biotechnology workers. The program targeted single mothers in their late 20s or early 30s. Seventy percent of participants arrive at BTI’s doors either unemployed or underemployed, and 93 percent of its students are minorities.

BTI has developed a robust pre-training program that instructs in professionalism at work, math skills, and basic technical terminology and information. Then there are ten weeks of training in essential laboratory skills. Finally, participants are placed in an internship that encompasses 100 hours of work at a local employer, with BTI covering the costs of the internship. Participating employers often end up hiring the lab interns. On average, BTI graduates expect a starting salary in the range of $28,000 per year, which for the median participant is a 200 percent increase in income.

BTI also offers graduates refresher training and more advanced instruction through its social enterprise, BioSci Concepts. “We’re always looking to emphasize to our participants and graduates that we don’t want this program to be an end. We want it to be the beginning of their continued academic and professional development,” says BTI director Kathleen Weiss.

We are adamant that our training should be directly related to what employers are looking for.

Many graduates eventually pursue subsequent credentials or postsecondary education. The BTI program alone entitles participants six credit hours toward an associate degree in biotechnology from Baltimore City Community College. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a typical biological technician with an associate degree earned $41,290 in 2014.

Critical early support for BTI came from the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, which funds workforce development as one of its core areas. Other mainstay supporters include the Charles Bauer, Casey, Weinberg, and Wells Fargo foundations. “We believe strongly in the model of ­training city residents in response to local demand for entry-level biotechnicians,” says Marci Hunn of the Weinberg Foundation.

Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare

Another effective nonprofit located in the Charm City is the ­Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare, which works with seven city hospitals to identify worker shortages and fill those positions. BACH does not provide training directly. Instead the group works with area ­nonprofits, community colleges, and employers to train men and women it has recruited and screened.

“We are adamant that our training should be directly related to what employers are looking for,” says BACH executive director Laura Spada. “So we are constantly talking to our community partners about training that is current and in-demand.”

The organization mainly focuses on filling posts for medical laboratory technicians, nursing assistants, nurse extenders, pharmacy technicians, radiologic technicians, surgical technologists, and respiratory therapists. In the latest year, the program successfully placed 135 candidates in jobs. BACH has also fine-tuned a career-mapping system that shows workers, in vivid detail, the steps needed to advance from entry- to mid- to high-level positions in the medical field—exactly what credentials and education will be needed for each step, and the pay increases that can be expected. Spada says her organization’s career maps are used by high-school guidance counselors to advise students on vocational paths, and by career coaches in hospitals who help existing employees upskill.

Like the BioTechnical Institute, BACH works primarily with minority populations, about two thirds of whom are older single mothers with school-age children. Supported by a number of local philanthropies—including the Weinberg, Abell, and Casey foundations—BACH is looking to expand its reach to new populations in the near future. Marci Hunn of Weinberg admires the program for helping employees, employers, and patients alike. “BACH provides healthcare workers with opportunities for advancement and wage increases. It improves employee retention at job sites. And it produces better patient care outcomes.”

Connecting adult learners to the jobs of the future

Workers who excel in the future will often be those who mesh comfortably with technology and machines, argues economist Tyler ­Cowen in his 2014 book Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. As we’ve explored in this chapter, CTE training is a prime route to those types of jobs. Training for adults has the potential to improve the national economy, transform individuals, and reinvigorate entire families. It can strengthen marriages, give children more stable homes, and strengthen neighborhoods. It can also reduce strident political debate over economic inequality and fair wages by significantly lifting the economic prospects of all Americans.

What role might you play as a donor? Bringing your creativity to bear in this arena could yield significant dividends. In our final chapter we will offer some ideas to spark your thinking.

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