Just in Time for Whom?

On-demand education needs to focus more on lower-skilled workers.

A woman mounts a framed certification on an office wall.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

When Julie VanCleave was laid off from Maytag a decade ago, as the appliance manufacturer pulled all of its operations out of Newton, Iowa, she was anxious about what was next. For nearly two decades, she had worked as a secretary. She lacked a college degree. She was 50 years old. And now she was expected to go back to school with students half her age to get retraining for a new career.

“I was the only one in my class with white hair,” she recalls about the courses she took at Des Moines Area Community College for a management degree.

Going back to school was a decision she made reluctantly after a job search failed to produce any results. “The classroom was so different from work, and I didn’t really know how to study,” said VanCleave, who eventually received her associate degree and a new job.

The situation VanCleave faced after getting laid off from Maytag is one that many low-skilled workers without a college degree are facing these days. The world of work is undergoing significant change, and many workers feel unease about the future—one where, they are told, they’ll need continual education to remain gainfully employed.

There is good reason for that anxiety: the rise of automation and artificial intelligence. One frequently quoted but controversial 2013 study from Oxford University predicted that nearly half of American jobs are at risk of being taken over by computers by 2033. While experts predict that few occupations will be totally automated, most jobs are likely to have many of their basic activities performed by a computer in the future. Another study by McKinsey concluded that 30 percent of the activities people are paid to perform today can be done by a technology that is already available. Low-skilled jobs will fade first. Many jobs, particularly in manufacturing, have already evaporated. Nearly 9 in 10 manufacturing jobs lost since 2000, for instance, disappeared because of automation, not trade (which is often blamed), according to an analysis by Ball State University.

There is widespread agreement among labor economists that workers need access to continuous education to stay one step ahead of rising automation. Half of workers already prefer to learn at the point when they need to, according to a LinkedIn survey of 4,000 human resources and learning and development executives. In recent years, a bevy of new educational providers have entered the market to provide such upskilling for workers, from LinkedIn Learning to boot camps like General Assembly, as well as edX and Coursera, the two big suppliers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

But many of these new educational resources are focused only on students interested in certain in-demand career fields, like computer coding or data analytics, or those who already have a college degree. To help workers develop new skills to keep a job or get a new one and to reach people with only high school degrees, providers need to expand their programs to a wider array of occupations and potential students. Otherwise, the concern is that just-in-time education throughout a person’s lifetime will just contribute to widening the economic divide that exists.

“Plenty of learning opportunities exist for people already adept at navigating the market of education,” said Michelle Weise, chief innovation officer of the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, a nonprofit group that researches the intersection of education and work. “But for people who are not adept or who left school short of a credential, it’s going to be a serious problem to try to figure out what they need in terms of education and training, when they need it, and where to get it.”

Take MOOCs as an example. When they were introduced earlier this decade, they were often heralded as way to increase access to education. But research shows that MOOCs have mostly benefited those who already have an education. The largest study of open online courses to date, with more than 4.5 million participants, found that nearly three-quarters of participants already hold a bachelor’s degree and that their median age is 29. That is a far cry from the unemployed factory worker in his 40s or 50s with only a high school diploma who is often at the center of debates over retraining.

Such workers have little interest in going back to school, at least in the traditional sense. Some of them tried college without success. Many are older and don’t want to be in classrooms with younger students, even online. Colleges also don’t make it easy to enroll, with academic programs mainly designed for students right out of high school. “There are cultural hurdles to getting them over the finish line,” said Jane Oates, who was an assistant secretary in the Labor Department during the Obama administration. Part of that, Oates said, is finding ways to help displaced workers explore new careers before they commit to a lengthy degree program at a college.

To appeal to that group of students, community colleges nationwide are increasing their offerings of noncredit courses, which follow the boot camp model and are shorter and cheaper than enrolling in full-fledged degree programs. On average, students complete these noncredit courses at higher rates than traditional classes and, if they decide to pursue a degree, can often get retroactive credit for the courses.

“People want a job more than a degree,” said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technology College System.

Maybe so, but credentials still matter to employers. In the next six years, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the United States will be home to some 16 million openings for middle-skill jobs in technology, health care, and construction—positions that require more education than a high school diploma but typically not a bachelor’s degree.

For generations, colleges and universities have had a monopoly on credentials. But as the global economy demands more skills and competencies for individuals to keep up with an ever-expanding base of knowledge, “we’re going to need more recognition for the learning and skills development that happens outside the higher-education system,” said Sean Gallagher, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

Colleges are already experimenting with new credentials. In addition to easily recognized names, such as the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a handful of institutions are now offering so-called nanodegrees and badges to recognize learning beyond traditional academic programs that result in legacy credentials. But the problem with these new credentials is that there is no easily understood taxonomy for those responsible for hiring.

“We’re in a period of some chaos in the credential marketplace,” Gallagher said.

Since the 1980s, the wage premium for attending college—that is, how much more a typical bachelor’s degree recipient earns than a high school graduate—has widened greatly. In 1983, the wage premium was 42 percent. Today, it surpasses 80 percent.

Given the trends in automation, the wage premium will likely only grow in the decade ahead—even among those with college degrees, depending on the skill level of their jobs. The changing nature of work requires that higher education figure out new approaches to reach workers left behind and new credentials to recognize their learning. Otherwise, the growing economic divide between those with a college education and everyone else will only continue to expand.