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Serving Adults and the Future of Work

Half of all activities people are now paid to do could be automated by 2055 according to a recent report by McKinsey Global. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that—in the near-term—almost 35 percent of jobs in the United States could be either automated or fundamentally changed. With this upheaval in the labor market, supporting flexible, lifelong learning to help people adapt is more important then ever. But we don’t have a lot of evidence on how to support reskilling the labor market. There is an opportunity to improve that evidence by capitalizing on the largest ever federal investment in community colleges.

On March 30, 2010, President Obama signed Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grants into law.  The $2 billion program sought to build the capacity of colleges to meet the needs of adult learners and included requirements to evaluate the way colleges used the money.

Developed during the height of the Great Recession when millions of Americans found themselves out of work and needing new skills or credentials to get back into the labor market, TAACCCT grants helped colleges develop new programs in emerging sectors like cyber security and advanced manufacturing. It also helped them implement practices like stackable credentials and competency-based education, and design innovative student support services like enhanced advising. The grants aimed to strengthen the ability of colleges to support successful student transitions through higher education and into good jobs and careers.

Over four rounds of grant-making from 2011 through 2014, more than 700 institutions – about 63 percent of all community colleges – received one of the 4-year grants. Many colleges received more than one. The program enabled colleges to focus on the needs of their adult and working learners, a growing segment of students who are often not well-served by programs designed for traditional age students. Grantees were encouraged to strengthen connections across their academic and workforce-oriented programs, break down silos within the college, and address cultural barriers to better serving adult students. College leaders and faculty often cite TAACCT as a catalyst for transforming how their institutions serve adults with no postsecondary credential.

The TAACCT program was also the largest federal investment to build an evidence base on effective strategies for serving adult learners. Grantees were required to develop detailed evaluation plans and contract with an evaluator as a condition for funding. The Labor Department also funded a national evaluation that will explore implementation processes and impacts of a subset of grantees. The volume of evaluation reports resulting from TAACCCT is unprecedented, with about 100 consortium evaluation reports and another 200 plus reports from individual institutions. But all of this evaluation does not necessarily add up to usable information. That’s where our work comes in.

Capturing the lessons learned from the TAACCCT investments is essential for adding to our knowledge about how to support adults facing an increasingly unpredictable labor market. While the Great Recession is behind us, processes of globalization and technological change continue to restructure our labor market and increase the demand for postsecondary education and skills. Americans without college credentials are already struggling in our economy, and there is every reason to believe the trend will continue. Increasing the capacity of colleges to help adult learners acquire in-demand skills and credentials remains an urgent priority. It would be a missed opportunity to fail to extract relevant policy and best practices from TAACCCT-funded programs across hundreds of colleges.

Over the next 18 months Lumina Foundation is supporting the Center for Education and Skills at New America and Bragg and Associates in conducting a meta-analysis of the outcomes of the TAACCCT grants. We will focus on what we learned about high impact practices, effective institutional and state policies, and investment design principles that support high quality program evaluations. The TAACCCT grants can provide essential guideposts for addressing an urgent future of labor market disruption.