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Executive Summary

The 2020 global pandemic, accompanying economic distress, and growing concern about racial inequity have generated unprecedented demand for improved coordination between education and work in the United States. This report focuses on the pressing need to create and improve intermediaries — bridge builders that play a vital role in connecting local and regional educators, employers, policymakers, learners, and workers, helping them to speak a common language and tackle common challenges. 

“Bridge Builders: How Intermediaries Can Connect Education and Work in a Postpandemic World” demonstrates the tremendous potential of intermediaries by looking at promising models from around the world, including many in the United States. It shows how these bridge builders can connect a diverse group of stakeholders to create an education-employment system that will help the economy thrive while increasing opportunities for all, not only during the current global pandemic, but long after. The report grew out of a working group of 10 of the world’s leading education and workforce experts brought together in early 2020 by Strada Education Network and Lumina Foundation to discuss how promising efforts from around the globe might inform plans in the United States to better align postsecondary education and training with workforce needs.

“Bridge Builders” explores lessons learned and strategies for building stronger bridges between education and work, and it offers practical guidance for those who want to create, improve, or expand the role of intermediaries.

What are Intermediaries?

Intermediaries — also referred to as bridge builders, boundary spanners, conveners, and other names — fill the critical role of connecting all the parties in the system to empower people with the skills required in the labor force. Those parties generally include employers, educators, workers, and prospective workers. Within these categories may fall many other interests, such as unions, philanthropic and faith-based organizations, advocates for low-income people and racial and ethnic minorities, civic groups, chambers of commerce, political leaders, schools that place students in apprenticeships, and public agencies that help people find jobs. Intermediaries in the United States and globally include quasi-government entities such as New Zealand’s new Workforce Development Councils, nonprofits such as the Mobile (Alabama) Area Education Foundation, employer groups such as the Australian Industry Group, business associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and higher education groups such as Britain’s Civic University Commission.

The Challenges

Intermediaries must address multiple obstacles clogging the two-way pipeline between education and work in the United States:

  • In the midst of an economic recession, jobs are likely to be both abruptly eliminated and quickly added, with roles shifting dramatically, requiring workers to rapidly acquire additional training and skills.
  • There is inequitable access to successful pathways between education and work, a disparity that is especially limiting for Black, Latino, and low-income learners.
  • Learners seeking to navigate a dizzying array of credentials are hampered by the absence of a common language to match the skills they have or can learn with the skills demanded by employers.
  • A persistent disconnect between the supply of and demand for skilled workers hampers effective local and regional responses to the fast-changing labor market as the country weathers and recovers from the global pandemic.
  • The wide variety of key players in this landscape — students, workers, education providers, employers, industry groups, and governing bodies — makes it difficult to define roles and structures for coordinated efforts.

The Role of Intermediaries

This report details, through examples that range from the United Kingdom and Singapore to Montana and Detroit, how bridge building and bridge builders can confront challenges across those five major areas and recommends related actions intermediaries can take.

Whether led by government, business, higher education, or nonprofits, these bridge builders offer practical ideas for other groups to explore:

The Economic Imperative

In a new recession, with especially high unemployment among some types of workers that varies dramatically by region, intermediaries can help spur lower-cost, shorter-term training with a local focus.

  • Government-Led: In the United Kingdom, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority teamed up with LinkedIn to analyze the profiles of 614,000 users who live in greater Manchester, identified a gap in local residents with digital skills, and created a Greater Manchester Digital Skills Action Plan, with the goal to improve digital training in area schools, universities, and workplaces.
  • Business-Led: Under the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management campaign and its six-step strategic process, chambers, their spinoffs, and affiliated business organizations in more than 30 states have started bringing together industry associations, employers, and economic development agencies.  

The Equity Imperative

Underserved populations continue to have unequal access to education and jobs, and the system is confusing and hard to navigate, including for working adults with families. At a time of renewed attention to social justice, intermediaries can simplify and promote paths to quality employment with a focus on advising, apprenticeships, and internships for students at all levels.

  • Higher Education-Led: Britain’s Civic University Commission has produced a Civic University Network of more than 100 universities working to prioritize the economy and local quality of life with the support of philanthropic and government funding.
  • Nonprofit-Led: In Alabama, the Mobile Area Education Foundation is tackling racial inequality and educational inequity through a campaign called Graduate Ready. Overseen by an independent 30-member commission composed of educators, employers, clergy, elected officials, and others, the campaign has led to internships and apprenticeships for students at all levels, fostered programs of study that sync with workplace needs, and simplified college transfer processes.

Speaking a Common Skills Language

Intermediaries can push education providers and employers to communicate more effectively — with one another and with learners in general.

  • Government-Led: SkillsFuture Singapore, part of that country’s Ministry of Education and overseen by a national board that includes trade unions, employers, and educators, provides subsidies for workers to learn new skills through mostly short-term training programs and has created a framework listing what skills are required for which jobs and where people can acquire them.
  • Business-Led: Detroit Drives Degrees, or D3, led by the regional chamber of commerce, is trying to raise the proportion of adults with postsecondary education to 60 percent by 2030 by creating a common language among previously disparate players and requiring all stakeholders to come up with their own action plans, including ways for employers to help their existing workers.

Connecting Supply With Demand

Intermediaries can track labor market demand using active online job postings rather than other traditional sources that lag real time, help employers understand credentials such as certificates that may be sufficient for hiring, and help applicants themselves understand what skills they already have and how those fit with available work.

  • Government-Led: Montana has connected its university system, private colleges, Department of Labor and Industry, Workforce Innovation Board, and Department of Revenue to identify and narrow gaps between the supply and demand of labor. This effort helps education providers decide what subjects to keep or cut, and consumers see the demand for various careers and what the highest-paying jobs are.
  • Business-Led: The Australian Industry Group, or Ai Group, has created a so-called “higher apprenticeship” model focused on applied technology, which — in collaboration with Australian universities and training providers — offers a diploma through vocational education and training institutions, followed by an associate degree accredited by universities.

Working Together

Intermediaries can provide the leadership that’s currently fragmented and craft shared interests and commitments to connect the various players in the education and employment process, as well as hold them accountable for the results.

  • Government- and Industry-Led: New Zealand’s Workforce Development Councils, currently being established with government funding, will convene industry-appointed employer boards to project skills demand and then design and set standards for education and training for six groups of industries. These WDCs will advise the country’s Tertiary Education Commission on how, and how much, to invest in vocational education, with the secondary effect of increasing employers’ ownership of and interest in the process.

The challenges and lessons identified in the examples throughout this report suggest opportunities and strategies that can be viewed as part of a menu most effective when adapted to specific needs and places.

The work is hard, but experiences from around the world show it can be done. And it has to be done. Whatever particular problems a given city, region, or community is trying to solve, intermediaries that tailor efforts to the unique needs of time and place — individual, institutional, and economic — will have the best prospect of lifting these places to more prosperous futures.

The ultimate goal of intermediaries in every case is not only to address the obvious and critical economic need of educating people for available jobs, but also to fill the very human one of helping the workers the existing vacuum often leaves behind.

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