At a time when the skilled labor gap is an economic reality, Adult Education programs are doing the heavy lifting. Successful Adult Education programs play a critical role in our local and national economies. It is as true today as it’s ever been: a strong Adult Education program means a strong community – one that serves the needs of the labor market and the needs of individuals that make up their student population.
During the recent recession, enrollment in adult education skyrocketed, and not only because of yoga classes. Personal enrichment classes like yoga, cooking, and painting are a draw, but they are the backbone of Adult Education in more ways than one. They generate funding for other necessary segments, such as educating and training low-income people so they can earn a living wage.
Here in Maine, Adult Education served a little over 33,000 enrichment students in 2014-2015, according to Shirley Wright, Executive Director of the Maine Adult Education Association. The program also served a combined 15,250 in other programs including High School Completion, Adult Basic Education, College Transitions and Workforce Preparation, Wright said. Adult learners in these segments include the unemployed seeking to enter the workforce, working people gaining requisite job skills, young people who didn’t complete high school, parents returning to the workforce, and a growing immigrant population.
Today, labor gaps exist for middle-skill jobs – jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree. There is also a growing demand in areas of advanced manufacturing and high tech sectors, workers with computer, communications, and service skills that fit a 21st-century economy. Programs directors are well aware of labor trends in their areas and develop classes based on needs in their state or region, working collaboratively with the local Career Centers to match training both to student interest and the labor market. For example, in Maine, the Mount Desert Island Adult Education program offers captain’s license training so that adults can attain the necessary skills to operate a lobster boat. Across the state, programs commonly offer credentialing programs such as Certified Nurse’s Aide, Truck Driving, and Welding, among others.
Adult Ed programs also fill a critical need in areas of English language learning, a competence area that can serve as an on-ramp to employment. “As a student learns to read, he or she might learn about different jobs or job etiquette,” said Wright. For the growing immigrant population, there are citizen preparation and U.S. civic literacy courses for those exploring the naturalization process.
A Labor Force Focus
The purpose of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a federal law that went into effect in 2014, is to increase access and opportunities to employment, education, training and support services for success in the labor market. Organizations receiving state subsidies must adhere to a comprehensive set of requirements that includes tracking programs, aligning education with local workforce needs, and assessing student outcomes. It is a detailed, data-driven process that today’s directors must be proficient in.
The resources required for compliance measures can challenge programs, but it does not change their direction. Local programs have always been doing the work of preparing people for jobs. The spotlight has simply intensified due both to compliance requirements and a job climate that has required adults to get to work more quickly and have more skills training, either prior to employment or on the job.
Meeting the Needs of the Individual
Program directors know well the importance of their role in workforce preparation. But ultimately, directors know it is the students who fire their program’s engine and bear its influence. According to Wright, the focus of all teaching and learning is made applicable to that student’s needs. “Adult Education programs meet the student where the need is the greatest,” she said. “If an adult student needs to read, that’s where we start.”
Beyond providing immediate job skills and academics, many experts believe that the impact of adult education extends far beyond the labor market. Adult learners are more likely to make contributions to their community, for example, and to serve as role models for their children. And, those enrolled in an Adult Education program discover that they can affect their own future – perhaps one of the most valuable currencies a community program can provide.