Solving Post-Education Employment Issues: Jane Oates of WorkingNation Shares How Vocational Education Can Help Solve Underemployment
In the current market, employers are having difficulty finding the right workers to fill vacancies. Meanwhile, many workers are still unemployed or underemployed. So, how can education bridge this gap? According to Jane Oates, president of WorkingNation, educational institutions are trying to solve this problem by putting more emphasis on vocational education.
“You know in the olden days, people saw Career and Technical Education as kind of, if you can’t do something better you go, you know, into the vocational areas,” says Jane. “Now, the best and brightest are going into some of these CTE fields, particularly in […] the fields that are I.T. related, but all across the board.”
Major student debt has also impacted people’s choices about continuing their education. Jane says colleges and universities should adapt their policies on credits, so if students have to take breaks for financial reasons, they can continue their education later down the line.
“Higher ed two and four-year institutions have to become more welcoming to students at every age, so that they can step in and out of higher education with, you know, bite-size chunks almost. Because if you’re working full time, you are not going to be able to take nine credits a semester,” says Jane.
Listen in to our interview with Jane Oates to learn more about the changing job market and innovative educational resources that can lead to employment.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech Times. Today we’re speaking with Jane Oates of WorkingNation. She’s a featured keynote speaker at EdTech Times’ work+EDU event. Jane, welcome. And we would love to have you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about WorkingNation.
Jane Oates: Thank you, Hester, so much. First of all, I want to tell you I’m delighted and so looking forward to the conference. WorkingNation was started about three years ago. I’ve been with them for a little less than a year and I’m now the president. They are a nonprofit media company founded and working every day to tell stories about solutions in getting people the right training so they can get right to work. And the storytelling is mostly video, short video documentaries, done about effective partnerships with real results. And we also do live events and bring people together that don’t usually sit in the same room talking about how to solve the problem of getting a sizable talent pool for the employers in a local area, and certainly for getting people into good-paying, family-sustaining-wage jobs as quickly as possible.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Great. You’ve done some work as the assistant secretary of employment and training as part of the Obama administration. You were a senior adviser to Senator Ted Kennedy. What have you seen happen in this world of work? There have been some major shifts on the demand side, the supply side. So what have you seen happen in the past 20 years or so?
Jane Oates: Well, certainly since the Great Recession of 2007 and onward, for many states, we’ve seen a huge shift in the… At that time really not enough jobs for the people who were looking, to today, where we have almost exactly the same number of job vacancies as we have unemployed people. So, the job market has really tightened up. Employers are having a more difficult time finding the talent that they need. And yet, there are still all these people who are underemployed or unemployed. And by underemployed, I mean working at jobs that don’t require the skills and competencies that they have — whether it’s a bachelor’s degree or beyond, or whether it’s a skilled certification. So, the issue is, what’s not happening that used to happen? In the past, when there’s been a labor market high demand, we’ve seen salaries go up. And quite frankly, in the last 10 years, we’ve seen almost stagnant wages.
Jane Oates: And when you collect that data, that includes people who have mandatory increases, like teachers, like government workers, you know, who may move up a step and get a mandatory salary increase. So you think about the average worker out there who’s not in one of those positions — they probably haven’t had any kind of incremental raise in the past 10 years. And I think that coupled with, you know, the intense competitive nature that employers are feeling now, it used to be that employees felt that competition, now employers are feeling it, made employers really look at alternative measures for assessing employees or prospective employees.
Jane Oates: And it’s really made higher ed kind of rethink how they operate—starting with the two-year colleges, the community colleges, who responded to this during the recession. But it’s also starting to really impact the four-year colleges, about how they deliver their educational work. Basically looking at—you in the Boston area have always had the giant in co-op at Northeastern. You know, but more and more colleges are now really looking at, how do we move apprenticeships? How do we take apprenticeships to scale by putting for-credit apprenticeships out there, in addition to the for-pay apprenticeships that have been there? How do we really make our curriculum more relevant?
Jane Oates: More and more, you’re seeing colleges come up with real partnerships with business to talk about — not only funding scholarships, which we always want them to do — but how do they really impact curricular development? How did they come in and tell us what needs to be in the curriculum? And I’ll end by saying a non-New England thing — which should be heresy for this for this conference. But you couldn’t miss this week that Carnegie Mellon is now going to offer an undergraduate degree in artificial intelligence, the first university in the country, in the United States, to offer one. So, there’s a lot of change happening and change is hard. But I really think a lot of the change that’s happening and has happened over the last 20 years is really very positive.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Thank you for diving right into some of the strategies that some of the higher ed institutions are using to help put students on that positive trajectory, right towards successful careers. How about K12? What sort of role are K12 leaders playing in this new world of work?
Jane Oates: Well, K12 really led by example. Starting in the 90s, the development of public charter schools…really looking at the ability of those schools to focus on a content area. Many of them in the late 90s and early 2000s were looking at things like healthcare. You know, so they really started to look at, how do we as a high school prepare people for a sector that is really so rich in terms of different jobs? And then, you know, more recently, you look at the partnerships that have happened with p-tech, first in New York, and now nationwide, the idea that a business would really come in and address the curriculum and the delivery methods, side by side with teachers, I mean, I thought—I think that model is really promising. I would also point to, you know in the olden days, People saw Career and Technical Education as kind of, if you can’t do something better you go, you know, into the vocational areas.
Jane Oates: Boy, Career and Technical Education over the past 20 years has gone through a real metamorphosis. I mean now the best and brightest are going into some of these CTE fields, particularly in, you know, the fields that are I.T. related, but all across the board. I mean, you look at what’s happened in curricular courses that have stood the test of time. You know like automotive. I mean you go to an automotive shop now in a CTE high school—It’s like a science lab. You know, it’s so high tech. So I think that the K12, you know, in addition to doing what they’ve always done well in terms of academics, have really focused on, how do we get people ready for work? How do we use the richness of after school programs?
Jane Oates: I think what’s going on in secondary schools is pretty fantastic. And I think, you know, it’s something that’s just going to continue. We hope that it goes to scale so it’s in every nook and cranny of the United States.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Yeah, so a couple follow up questions there, Jane. The first one is, can you tell us about p-tech? I’m not sure that everybody knows about the organization.
Jane Oates: P-Tech Started in New York as a partnership with New York City high school and IBM. And as it spread across the country, IBM of course is not involved in all of them. Other businesses have stepped up to the plate as they’ve spread. But the whole premise is that you become rich content, you know, you keep your academics but you look at leaving high school with as many college credits as you could possibly get. And many kids are graduating really with an associate’s degree. And in addition to your rich academics, you get the employability skills training that you need, and the technical skills training that you need, so that if you choose to go directly from high school into work, you can qualify and be competitive to get a significant job, a job that pays much more than minimum wage. And some of the jobs that the kids are getting out of these P-Tech high schools are paying what I would consider family sustaining wages for the areas where they are, so fifty thousand dollars a year and beyond.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Thanks for sharing that. In talking with some of the other folks who are going to be at the work+EDU event, this has come up again and again. In our culture here in the U.S., traditional high schools are very much college preparatory. And the idea of preparing for certain careers, let’s say in skilled trades, or advanced manufacturing, or things of that nature. They just don’t necessarily fall into the realm of consideration. So what do you think needs to happen in order to help really families, parents, but also, you know, young job seekers. How do they open their eyes to nontraditional pathways now into some careers that happen right out of high school and are family sustaining wage earning jobs with little to no, you know, student debt.
Jane Oates: Well, you start exactly at the right place. And that’s the four letter dirty word that’s crippling many young people today. And that’s debt. The idea that you could leave high school with the competencies and credentials to go right to work and have your employer pay for your associate’s and bachelor’s degree is so real all over the country. The fact that people think that there are people that everybody should go right out of high school and get a baccalaureate degree. That’s going to change.
Jane Oates: The facts that are laid out in data provided by DLS, clearly state that in the past students graduating with a bachelor’s degree are not getting jobs that require a bachelor’s degree. And therefore they’re probably not getting the pay that they thought they were going to get.
Jane Oates: In burdening yourself with all this debt and not being sure that you’re going to get a job that allows you to live your life and pay your loans back is something that’s going to start to inform families all across the country. It’s not about the poorest kids anymore and getting them access to postsecondary education, although that’s always going to remain a necessary concern and should be a priority.
Jane Oates: But now talking about middle class families with two kids. How do you afford to send them even to the local state university without borrowing? And most families can’t do it. So, I mean, as we look at these other alternatives, we also have to look for higher ed to change the way they think. Higher ed two and four year institutions have to become more welcoming to students at every age, so that they can step in and out of higher education with bite size chunks almost. Because if you’re working full time, you are not going to be able to take nine credits a semester.
Jane Oates: And quite frankly, you may find some online versions. But you may very well while you’re working want to take some courses at a community college on a Saturday or in the evenings, or you want to might want to take some online courses. So, colleges and universities are going to have to be much more open about accepting other colleges credit toward their major. Not as electives, but toward their major. And everybody’s got to think much more efficiently about time to degree. People just don’t have the time or the money to spend more than eight semesters getting a baccalaureate degree. And I never want to say this is the colleges fault only. There’s shared blame here. Students should have a really clear idea about what they want to pursue in college. I was lucky when the dinosaurs roamed the earth that I knew kind of what I wanted to do. I went in as an education major, and I graduated in eight semesters with a baccalaureate in education. But many students go to college because they think it’s the right thing to do. And they don’t have a clear idea about what they want to study. So they get there, and they declare a major in freshman year. And then by sophomore year they say, “Ooh, not really what I thought it was.”
Jane Oates: And then they add time and debt on to their final bill. So, I think this idea about spending a gap year doing something else or going right to work, think of the fascinating ability to be in a company and to see all the job titles in action that you’ve only read about. And you can then really say, “I really like that job. What do I have to do academically, or in terms of technical skills, to qualify for that job?” And then you see the return on what you’re studying. Then you’re interested in it.
Jane Oates: And I never want to take away the option of a four-year residential experience for 18 to 22 year olds. All I’m really suggesting is that that not be the only measure of success.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Right. A real shift in mindset, I think, is needed in terms of the middle class families. And just sort of what we’ve always traditionally done or what was expected.
Hester Tinti-Kane: When you think about the, you know, 18 to 22 year olds, that’s one thing. But in this conversation, you’ve mentioned the folks who are unemployed or underemployed, who are still not able to make that family-sustaining income. So, what are the types of organizations who are really stepping in to support these folks? Who are, you know, part of the way down the line in their career, in their working life?
Jane Oates: So, I think the the players vary a little bit by region. But I would say a universal critical player in this is the public workforce system. You know, the one stop system is a place where anybody can go, usually 8 to 5 during the day, to take a look at what jobs are out there while I’m doing part time hourly work. What are some salaried jobs that are out there, and what do I need to do to get to them? I think that the public workforce system, very strong in New England, remains the main player anywhere in the country. And, of course, there are A+ and C- one stop career centers, but they all offer this basic entry-level, like a 101, on what are the jobs out there. They give you sound labor market information, they give you good advice on who the providers are, both those that may be name recognizable, and some that are a little more hidden, in your local area. And they really give you the straight talk on cost. You know so it’s not like they’re trying to sell one provider or another. So they give you that.
Jane Oates: So, I would start with them. I think that there are other players that are particular to some areas. Goodwill Industries is a great example. Nobody thinks of them as a job training provider, and yet they train over a million people every year. The third before I leave and do a little bit more local stuff are the community colleges. I don’t think people realize the time and expertise and money that community college presidents have put in to the workforce ends of their house. They’re usually separate from the academic end for financial and budgetary reasons, but also because they can kind of do things that are not associated with the clock hours that are sometimes part of accreditation. So they really work directly with businesses, they work directly with the people that are placing people in businesses, you know, the H.R. people. And they have a great track record.
Jane Oates: And I would say in most places around the country. So, those would be my three go-tos anywhere. A lot of the job growth in New England has been with small employers. And you look at places like Rhode Island and Maine, almost entirely their job growth, they’ve been shedding jobs for employers and really the small employers and midsize employers are the ones that are really adding those jobs.
Jane Oates: You look at places like Europe, which is in Boston, which get kids started, you know, kids that didn’t go into that college route, into a six month of the year program in education. But then a six month paid internship, really exciting. And then of course you have the JVS’s and the youth builds of the world, that are really out there training people oftentimes for their first job. New England has such a rich human capital resources in terms of these programs that I bet we’d be able to write a book just on the people that will come to the conference that represent these programs.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Right. And so speaking about the people coming to the conference I wanted to just ask you you might have a little sneak preview about what you’ll be talking about.
Jane Oates: Well to be short about it, I’m going to be talking about the lessons we’ve learned from the past and focusing on looking at a future view. What are the jobs of the future? What are the trends that started in the past — some of them not in the distant past. And how do we build on those to really create, as I said, a better talent pool, and in my mind, a more diverse talent pool for the employers in the area. But how do we make sure that for individuals of any age they really know where to go to get state of the art training to make sure they get a job, and a good job.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Well, that’s a great sneak preview. Thank you so much, Jane. It’s been great speaking with you today and we’re really looking forward to hearing you speak at work+EDU.
Jane Oates: I’m looking forward to it. I hope you can hear my enthusiasm, it’s genuine.
This podcast episode is sponsored by Commonwealth Corporation, Massachusetts’ public-private corporation focused on narrowing the skills gap and supporting the state’s businesses, workers, and learners.
To learn more about Commonwealth Corporation’s grant programs and Governor Charlie Baker’s Commission on Digital Innovation and Lifelong Learning, visit commcorp.org.
See Jane Oates speak at work+EDU, an action-based event hosted by EdTech Times, happening in Boston June 20, 2018.
Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.