Broken Promises: Lifelong Learning, Community Colleges, and the Sad State of Incumbent Worker Training

By Lederer, John | The Catalyst, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Broken Promises: Lifelong Learning, Community Colleges, and the Sad State of Incumbent Worker Training

Lederer, John, The Catalyst


Educators, businesses and public policymakers have long been struggling to find the right systems and policy mechanisms to promote lifelong learning and professional development. sector-focused strategies, industry-based skills standards, skill certification and credentialing systems, and incumbent worker training initiatives have all been piloted, in whole or in part, with this policy objective in mind. Community and technical colleges have played a key role in these strategies. This article will review how community and technical colleges have provided skill upgrade training in the past, and how these efforts have been funded. The article will argue that poorly designed federal and state policies and programs, favoring the least-in-need largest companies and focusing on narrow economic development objectives, are the primary reason why these collegebased efforts have had little impact on creating sector-focused professional development systems and promoting lifelong learning.

The case for Lifelong Learning

The case almost does not need to be stated, it is so ingrained in our current thinking. The knowledge economy, the information society, higher order skills, the knowledge revolution, are all buzz words describing the same concept-that capital will flow to nations (thereby increasing wealth) that continuously develop and exploit the skills of their workers. The mantra has taken on the characteristics of a religion, and has been dubbed the "education gospel" (Crubb, et. al., 2002). In a nutshell, it starts with the changing nature of work, and with it a shift toward greater emphasis on communication skills, problem-solving, and individual initiative. Combine these developments with the rapid pace of technological change and the growth of the temporary, contingent labor force, and continuous lifelong learning becomes essential to employment and career advancement.

This scenario is supported by much of the available evidence. The fastest growing sector of the national economy for the last decade has been services, especially high skilled office jobs in management, business services and health care (Carnevale and Desrochers, 1999). Over this same period, the returns to education credentials have increased. More than two-thirds of workers in growing, good-paying occupations have some post-secondary education, as compared to one-third of workers in declining, low-paying occupations. Overall, sixty percent of all prime-age U.S. workers have some college education, as compared to twenty percent in 1959 (Carnevale and Desrochers, 2001).

Table A, shown at the end of this article, shows the increase in the earnings ratio of college students, as compared to high school graduates, between 1977 and 1996. The increase in the ratios over time indicates the extent to which a high school graduate's ability to earn more is increasingly reliant on getting a college education.

Of course, this data fails to isolate the effect of education credentials on earnings, since other social and economic factors may also vary between those that graduate high school and those that go on to get higher degree. Studies that do, in fact, isolate the effect of education using regression analysis (accounting for other differences between groups) also show a high earnings return for a post-secondary degree (as compared to a high school diploma), in the range of 20 to 40 percent for a four-year degree, and 20-30 percent for an associate degree (Grubb, 1999b).

But even if workers do not engage in education or training for the purpose of getting a post-secondary degree, there is still some value in work-related upgrade training that does not lead to a degree. A recent study comparing the employment and wage impacts of California's various job training programs rated the California Employment and Training Panel, a program supporting shortterm skill upgrade training for incumbent and new-hire workers, as highly effective.

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Broken Promises: Lifelong Learning, Community Colleges, and the Sad State of Incumbent Worker Training


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