Why Higher Education & Employers Need Nonprofits to Support Disrupted Workers

by Swati Carr, Ph.D. | September 13, 2021

Estimated time to read: minutes

Despite our successes post-pandemic, job seekers are still not finding positions leading to career satisfaction and growth. What is blocking them from these paths, and who can help them get there?

Almost 70% of Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of July 4, 2021. Companies across the board — food, travel, hospitality, education, and especially technology — are searching for candidates to fill open positions.

But 9.5 million Americans continue to be unemployed, and even more are underemployed. Adult workers without a postsecondary credential suffered the highest job loss rate in 2020. The median unemployment rate among adults who matriculated college but didn’t graduate was 8.3%. In comparison, that rate among adult workers of the same age group with a bachelor’s degree was 5.5%, while only 2.5% of doctoral degree holders were unemployed.  Yet educational institutions are not seeing the higher rates of enrollment (or even a concrete desire to pursue education) that historically accompany job losses during recessions — including those that churn out graduates with newer, in-demand skills like data science and product management.

Higher education is not designed for disrupted workers

Although colleges and universities have long been the stewards of educating the majority, they are not the best equipped to solve the problems created by widespread disruptions to jobs and entire career pathways. Adults disrupted from their careers do not fit into higher education’s systems and processes or those of employers, whose search procedures are frequently narrow and unintentionally exclude nontraditional candidates. 

On the other hand, workforce development nonprofit organizations have the structures and the experience to support disrupted workers. Their mission-driven, learner-focused educational approach can benefit from digital learning experiences that place the learner at the center.

Before we can examine the solutions, let’s understand the problem through two key questions: 

  • Why are disrupted workers rejecting the traditional avenues for acquiring skills and credentials? 
  • What needs do disrupted workers have that cannot be met through education and credentialing?

Disrupted workers are rejecting traditional avenues for skills and credentials

The core offerings at most colleges and universities are designed to operate on a rigid semester schedule, and with the assumption that education is the sole or primary pursuit of their students. This model sets inflexible schedules and expects more hours than is reasonable for someone who is also working and possibly taking care of family. Even online degree programs, where lectures are on-demand, are too long. And they don’t offer their students credentials they can use toward getting a better job along the way.

Because the majority of offerings at colleges and universities are based on a semesterly calendar, administrative departments and student service areas, as well as most courses, also follow that schedule. Allied services like career planning and networking may not be available at the same capacity or even available during the summer and winter breaks. 

Adult workers simply do not fit the mold of the traditional student. The student alone has to juggle it all without much support from their institution, and they alone bear the burden of failure financially and emotionally. 

Adult workers with postsecondary aspirations are in a bind: they need the education to qualify for better jobs that pay more money. The median annual salary for adults that have attended college but didn’t finish is $45,604 compared to $67,860 for college graduates. That amounts to a lifetime earnings difference of $7.2 million. But losing part or all of their income for two or four years while incurring the additional expense of pursuing that education is unsustainable, especially if they have families that depend on their income. 

The result is that many working adults never get a chance to realize their college aspirations. These issues and obstacles existed long before the pandemic. The recent crisis just amplified an existing problem and brought these issues to the fore.

Low-cost options like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) — even the ones offered by online learning pioneers like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford — have abysmal course completion rates. Data shows that most people that successfully complete MOOCs are already highly educated. Designed to engage people that pursue learning as a hobby, MOOCs are not created with the goal of high retention and success. Moreover, expert knowledge is needed to string a cohesive learning path to a marketable depth of expertise using MOOCs. 

Unique needs within and beyond the classroom

Adults with irreparably disrupted career pathways need a holistic, integrated solution that provides technical and people skills, career mapping and planning, and counseling and legal aid. They also need partners who can share their experience with less tangible but still crucial aspects of professional development such as soft skills, networking, connecting with hiring managers, and getting past narrow criteria used in automated recruitment procedures. Along with solutions from the employer side — such as eliminating biases in hiring — these elements are harder to create and integrate.

The value of investing in a degree is assumed to be so self-evident that schools and colleges do very little to articulate how the courses they teach map to skills in the jobs that their students are expected to pursue upon earning their degrees — even though 90% of students now state getting a job or increasing their current and future earnings as the sole reason for enrolling in higher education. Colleges and universities offer job mapping, networking, and career counseling services as extras rather than as an integrated part of the learning journey. Adults trying to upskill and reskill may not know exactly what type of help they need and how to go about finding it. 

Adult workers, and especially low-income, low-skilled workers, need affordable, short-term programs that earn them stackable credentials they can leverage for career growth quicker than the length of their entire degree. And they need guidance from people and organizations that don’t just have specialized knowledge but who focus on serving individuals, adapting to their goals and needs, and giving them a life-enhancing experience.

Non-traditional routes still aren't enough

Over the past 20 years, the learning industry and online education have expanded dramatically. This has offered workers seeking new or different employment more options, but the pandemic also revealed how non-traditional routes are still not enough. 

Employer-sponsored training programs and apprenticeships provide field-specific training in settings that don’t require an overwhelming personal or financial investment. But employer-sponsored training programs are out of reach to individuals who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Disrupted learners may also still have difficulty ascertaining the correct training or matching qualifications for their intended career, which are prerequisites to signing up for a long intensive apprenticeship. 

Bootcamps and specialized certificates can provide highly practical instruction that gives workers clearly defined competencies. Yet even the most robust set of skills doesn’t do a worker any good if they don’t know how to find the right professional role — and that’s not often an easy next step.

Nonprofits are positioned to help disrupted workers

Nonprofit organizations focus on the needs of the non-traditional and the underprivileged. There is no single “typical” student.  These organizations have the institutional charge to meet the needs of specific populations and address their specific concerns. 

Nonprofit-run workforce development programs are designed to accommodate wide variances in specific situations and the needs of the people they serve. Their theories of change and their interventions are directly informed by the needs and challenges of their constituents. Their programming is human-centered rather than feature-centred: flexible in its design and inclusive of people on the extremes of the middle of the bell curve. Their programming is multi-faceted: an amalgam of education, counseling, and guidance. These organizations meet individuals where they are and work with them to bring them back to mainstream pathways to prosperity.

Equipping nonprofits to rebuild the American workforce

Almost 161 million Americans were seeking employment in 2020. Nonprofit workforce training programs do not have the resources and the scale to meet the market need. Even the largest, actively growing programs only serve a few thousand individuals each year. The demand for these services is orders of magnitude larger than the supply: for each person, a nonprofit workforce development program is able to help, there are hundreds, if not thousands more that the nonprofit cannot help because they do not have the resources and reach to do so. 

At their current rate of growth, nonprofit workforce development programs cannot even prevent the lifetime economic achievement disparity between high-income, college-educated individuals and low-income learners without a college degree from growing, let alone close that gap. Nonprofits working to reskill and upskill American workers successfully and in large numbers need to scale their programming both regionally and nationally. 

They also need partners in other sectors who can collectively deliver the full suite of services — technical, vocational, and soft skills, career planning, and visibility to employers seeking their skills — that will rebuild the workforce. Each sector has a significant contribution to make toward rebuilding the American workforce: employers create inclusive and bias-free hiring practices, higher education institutions provide the technical and vocational training necessary, and workforce nonprofits connect the two with the right set of supports. 

No organization, no matter how robust its programs are, cannot string disparate experiences together and hope to create a cohesive and engaging outcome. Millions of American workers cannot be upskilled through pilot programs. 

Integrating technical skills training and workforce development with hiring and job placement will reduce the friction between education and recruitment. Individuals will not waste their time and resources getting the wrong training for their intended career paths. Employers can hire with confidence, knowing that they are not making a “bad hire” just because a candidate took an atypical route to acquire the skills necessary for the job. This integrated skills and career training platform needs to be rich and scalable at the same time right from the start. Workforce nonprofits need a robust digital platform that integrates all facets of building the workforce into a single scalable, engaging experience.

Keep learning

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Read the APPR case study to learn more about their digital learning experience and online community.


Swati Carr, Ph.D.

Swati Carr is a former Research Fellow at Extension Engine. She took an unusual route into education design coming from a 10+ year stint doing bioengineering research through her M.S. and then Ph.D. While at Extension Engine, she designed and created effective educational experiences on digital platforms, and evaluated existing educational content against defined learning outcomes to find ways to improve them, bringing the scientific method and evidence-based decision making to all her work. Prior to Extension Engine, Swati designed authentic assessments for blended and digital learning in biosciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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