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The Job: Frontline Workers

The Job
Companies tap startups to offer language learning and college success tips as part of employee education benefits. Also, colleges face a moral dilemma on whether to send students into “helping” jobs that don’t pay well.

Photo by Jesson Mata on Unsplash
Photo by Jesson Mata on Unsplash
Language Learning and Education Benefits
As more companies offer employee education benefits, some are adding education startups as well as college partners, in an attempt to better serve frontline workers.
For example, Amazon recently tapped EnGen, a language learning platform, as an education provider for the company’s expanded Career Choice program, which features tuition-free paths for U.S. employees at 140 college and university partners.
EnGen, a B corporation launched two years ago, offers online and career-aligned English instruction with a focus on real-world needs. For example, its early-childhood education course features language and vocabulary necessary for those roles while preparing students to become certified to work in daycare and preschool environments.
Just 4 percent of U.S. adults who are learning English have access to language instruction, notes Katie Brown, EnGen’s founder and CEO.
“Language learners know that they won’t be served by their local colleges, and so they do not seek them out for English instruction,” says Brown, a former community college instructor in English as a second language (ESL) who holds a Ph.D. in second-language acquisition.
Most ESL programs at two-year colleges teach “English for academic purposes,” she says, with an ostensible goal of preparing students for academic courses. This approach is reminiscent of remedial education, where students spend time and money on noncredit courses.
“These are one-size-fits-all programs based on academic reading and writing skills, and learners have to complete them in a fixed sequence (often with no credit or only elective credit) before they are able to take courses toward their AA degrees,” Brown says.
State of Play: English learners in higher education are a heterogenous group, says Rebecca Bergey, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research. They include U.S.-educated young adults as well as refugee students with limited education backgrounds and highly educated immigrants who are looking to transition to work in this country.
“Given these diverse profiles, ESL programs at community colleges should be flexible and adaptable if they are going to adequately meet students’ unique goals for learning English,” Bergey says. In addition, she says programs that teach English in isolation fail to adequately prepare learners for the language of their field.
Bergey cites evidence that online language platforms can boost proficiency gains among students.
EnGen works backward in designing its personalized courses, starting with a needs analysis, so learners get real examples of authentic language in context, Brown says. Its flipped classroom model features what computers do best, by adapting learning activities in real time based on student performance, so instructors can do what humans do best, she says, which is to offer personalized feedback on speaking and writing while helping learners with answers to complex questions.
“By leveraging an AI-powered platform with human intervention, we’re able to drive meaningful learning outcomes at scale,” she says.
A growing number of employers are realizing that upskilling their workforces with English is now a real option, Brown says. In addition to Amazon, EnGen is an education partner for Walmart’s Live Better U free college program and for MaineHealth’s iEnglish project, as well as for small businesses, like Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe near Richmond, Virginia.
The Kicker: “Many employers are realizing that existing ESL programs do not meet the needs of their learners, but that does not mean that their learners cannot learn English,” says Brown.
‘Why College?’
Amazon also will offer employees a free online course designed to help them to decide whether to enroll in college.
The new College Success course is from Outlier, a platform led by Aaron Rasmussen, the co-founder of MasterClass. Like MasterClass, the 16 courses and three certificate programs from Outlier feature high-end production. Students who complete the $400 courses earn transferable credit from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.
Launched last week, the new course is offered for free to prospective college students, including frontline workers who are mulling whether to take advantage of their employer’s tuition benefits. The three-hour course seeks to help learners decide if college is the right choice for them while also providing guidance on time management, paying for college, and finding deeper purpose in learning.
“We started with ‘why college?’” says Rasmussen, Outlier’s founder and CEO, with content that’s designed to help both returning and first-time college students drill down several levels on that question. “The fear of starting something new isn’t bound to a specific stage of life.”
The course is led by Amy Baldwin, author of a book on student success and a senior lecturer at the University of Central Arkansas. It seeks to provide insight on the “hidden curriculum” of college. For example, the course includes guidance on filling out financial aid forms and how to seek out professors for help in landing internships.
Rasmussen hopes the course helps get learners excited and prepared for college, including frontline workers at Amazon and other companies, many of whom have had negative experiences with higher education.
“There is a moral imperative for the students to be successful in their first course back in college,” he says.
Work Shift: Low pay in ‘helping’ professions creates a moral dilemma for colleges
The pandemic and mounting concerns about equity have colleges questioning whether they can continue to offer certain credentials in low-paying caregiving fields.
 
Latest on Short-Term Pell
Congress continues to negotiate over a broad economic competition package that could open up Pell Grants to programs that can be completed in less than 15 weeks. A version of the legislation passed last year by the House of Representatives included a short-term Pell proposal, which would prohibit online programs and for-profit institutions from being eligible.
This week a group of employers and education providers wrote to congressional leaders to call for the “elimination of any exclusions to online education programs in expanded Pell eligibility.” The coalition includes executives at IBM, OneTen, and the Cengage Group, as well as leaders from the California Community Colleges, Southern New Hampshire University, and Western Governors University.
“The language excluding online programs is a penalty, not a protection, for those learners for whom online programs are their only access point to education and training,” the coalition wrote.
Wesley Whistle, a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Bob Casey, the Pennsylvania Democrat, was unmoved. “IBM shouldn’t need Pell money to train folks. It could recruit these adults and pay for their training, but it wants the government to foot the bill instead,” he wrote in a tweet.
In addition to pledging to drop degree requirements in hiring, IBM is seeking to upskill 30M people globally through its SkillsBuild platform and other initiatives. While SkillsBuild features free online and short-term certificates, IBM officials have said that the company’s goal is about opening up access to tech jobs around the world, not training its own employees.
Open Tabs
Helping Professions
States must set higher wage benchmarks for home healthcare workers, according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute and New America. These workers—who are mostly women, workers of color, and immigrants—typically make less than $12 an hour. Wages in the highest-paying states top out at $18 an hour. A projected 1M additional home health-care workers will be needed by 2029.
Texas is home to the most noncollege alternative teacher certification programs, which account for 68 percent of educator-preparation enrollments in the state, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress. Nationwide, for-profits enroll 69 percent of students in the sector, which has seen enrollment growth in recent years, but also a dip in the number of students completing.
Enrollment Crisis
Community college enrollments in southern states dropped by roughly 7 percent in the five years before the pandemic, then plummeted during the crisis, raising urgent questions for state leaders about the South’s workforce, according to a new report from the Southern Regional Education Board. Meanwhile, the dependent portion of the population in the region is growing and is projected to hit 53 percent by 2030.
Job Preparation
While 41 percent of new college graduates think their degree adequately signals skill sets to employers, more than half (53 percent) say they didn’t apply for entry-level jobs because they felt underqualified, according to a national survey the Cengage Group conducted last month. But due to the hot job market, the survey found that recent graduates are finding jobs more quickly than in the past.
Degree Requirements
General Motors has dropped four-year degree requirements for many jobs and is transitioning to skills-based hiring for certain roles, Tamberlin Golden, GM’s executive director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, told Automotive News. “When you focus on what’s required of the job versus, say, a four-year degree, as your ticket in, it allows you the opportunity to open the aperture to another pool of talent,” Golden said.
State Support
State funding for public colleges increased 4.5 percent above inflation in FY 2021, largely due to federal relief funding, according to a new report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Community colleges received 76 percent of what four-year institutions received per student in state general operating funds, but more in total education appropriations due to local support.
Short-Term Credentials
Lorain County Community College used federal relief funds to scale up its Fast Track program, which offers short-term credentials in high-wage, in-demand industries. Roughly 800 students have enrolled in Fast Track, according to a report from the Education Strategy Group, with more than 70 percent landing a job within nine months of graduation and 51 percent going on to pursue an associate degree.
Tech Training
Florida State University, Panama City, has partnered with SkillStorm, a technology talent accelerator, to offer tech training courses to students so they can pursue industry certifications from AWS and other providers. The project is receiving funding from a six-year regional workforce initiative for communities affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and students can earn the certifications at low or no cost.
Tech Skills
U.S. proficiency in technology and data science skills have declined sharply and lag behind those of many other countries, according to a report from Coursera that draws data from 100M learners who have used the platform to develop a new skill during the past year. Business skills proficiency rose in the U.S., including in key areas like leadership and management. The U.S. remained flat in overall skills proficiency.
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