Final WIOA Rules Published in the Federal Register

Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) provides the legislative authority for all federally funded adult education programs. Unless you are deeply involved in implementing WIOA at the state level, or are responsible for WIOA-funded programming or technical assistance, the pile of regulations that have been developed for WIOA are likely of limited interest, but I thought it was worth noting that the U.S. departments of Education and Labor have announced today the publication in the Federal Register of the final version of those rules:

All of the final rules, along with several guidance documents, are available at the www.ed.gov/AEFLA.

New Study: Skills Gap in Manufacturing Mostly About Math and Reading Skills 

Phys.org reported earlier this week on a soon-to-be published new study by Andrew Weaver of the University of Illinois and Paul Osterman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that takes a critical look at the claims of a skills shortages in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

The paper would appear to be a follow-up or expansion of a paper that Weaver and Osterman produced for the Economic Policy Institute in 2014.

In general, Weaver and Osterman find that U.S. manufacturers’ skills gap claims are overblown, and the most of time they are in fact able to hire the skilled workers they are looking for. But the paper is more nuanced than that. By looking more closely at the precise skills manufacturers are seeking, they were apparently able to identify the types of skills that, when in demand, are most closely associated with longer-term vacancies. What jumps out from their results is that the demand for higher-level math and reading skills is a much more significant predictor of long-term vacancies than other skills:

“What fits with conventional wisdom is higher-level math skills being predictive of having a higher level of long-term vacancies. The other predictive skill demand, surprisingly enough, is higher-level reading skills,” Weaver said. “This debate frequently gets framed as a pure science-, technology-, engineering- and math-skills shortage, but it turns out reading also is a robust predictor of longer-term hiring difficulty. It certainly gives a more nuanced picture of skill challenges in manufacturing, and it really cuts against many of the prevailing narratives about the American workforce.”

If true, this has important implications for adult education policy and the federal workforce system under WIOA, which in my experience is driven more often than not by an underlying assumption that math and literacy skills are essentially prerequisites for the attainment of the industry-specific and more technical skills that employers seek. In other words, while I know that there is an emphasis on program models that integrate both, there is a perception, on the ground, at least, that adult education essentially feeds the training system. That’s a bias that’s been baked into the system for some time. But what is suggested by this study is that the most urgent demand is for academic skills: workers who are highly skilled in math and reading, period. In other words, to put it simply, improving literacy (beyond even just basic literacy) would most directly address the skills gap (at least in manufacturing). Which in turn suggests, perhaps, a need for a greater emphasis in our workforce system in those skills—and perhaps an even greater challenge for adults in the manufacturing workforce with very low literacy to achieve not just greater proficiency but “higher-level” skills in both math and reading.

That’s my quick take. Take it with a grain of salt, as I haven’t had a chance to read the yet-to-be-released study, or even finish my first cup of coffee for the day. One thing missing from the Phys.org story is whether the paper includes any discussion about the degree to which wage stagnation has created an appearance of a gap (i.e. the workers are there, just unwilling to accept the wages being offered), but based on Weaver and Osterman’s earlier work on the skills gap, I would expect that it is.

Update, 4:30pm ET: Fixed some typos and grammatical errors that made it into the original post, which was rather hastily constructed this morning. I should remember to finish that cup of coffee before pressing “send.”

Why Adult Education Warrants Attention by the 2016 Presidential Candidates

Andy Rotherham, writing today for The 74’s Democratic National Convention Live Blog, credibly explains the reasons behind the lack of focus on K-12 policy at this week’s Democratic Convention:

As for any focus on education this week? Yawn. The Democrats remain split on the issue along a few dimensions, although reformers certainly don’t have the upper hand. That will change over time though, and the election isn’t really about education in the first place. Presidential ones rarely are, and this one is even less so. To the extent education really matters, the emerging fault line is around workers dislocated by trade or technology. That’s a genuine problem, a boil Donald Trump picks at, and another issue that creates schisms among Democrats. There are more things we could be doing to help those workers now, but the education piece of that issue is a long game. (my emphasis)

I’m not sure if what he means here is that the “education piece” for dislocated workers can only be addressed through long-term solutions, or if he means that there is no short-game political strategy that would work to address their needs. But I would argue neither are true.

As a practical matter, the education and training needs of many of those workers are relatively addressable within a short time frame (granted, not all), at least compared to Pre-K and K-12 education, where the return on investment takes many more years.

I also think that advancing a strategy that addresses the educational needs of these workers in the short term makes political sense too, but it won’t emerge from either campaign unless the candidates can be convinced that a call for substantial new investments in adult education and job training would provide a political advantage in November.

There’s evidence to suggest it might. Yesterday there was an article by Nick Cohn in the Times that highlighted how poorly Hillary Clinton does in polls with white voters without a college degree—particularly white men without a degree. That population represents nearly half of the people who voted in 2012.

Chart: The One Reason the Election Is Close

Source: “The One Demographic That Is Hurting Hillary Clinton,” The New York Times, July 25th, 2016.

Whatever the merits (and of course on this blog we’d argue the merits are strong), a Democratic candidate for President looking to counter Donald Trump’s appeal to these voters might consider introducing a proposal to advance investments in education programs for this population as a potential strategy to win them over. (It’s also worth considering to what extent Congress and the current administration’s effort to address the needs of dislocated and under skilled workers has been perceived by this segment of the electorate to have been effective, but that’s a post for another day.)

The candidates would also need to understand that job training and college access alone won’t cut it—many of those adults without college degrees lack high school degrees as well.

Rotherman, in his post, goes on to write:

[I]n the post-ESSA world, what the federal government can do on K-12 is limited — what it can do absent congressional assent is even more so. That’s why pre-K and college affordability are attractive, and you’ll be hearing a lot about them going forward. They’re real issues affecting Americans, places the next administration could act in real ways, and issues where Secretary Clinton and Senator Kaine are aligned. (my emphasis)

I would argue that adult education and training are also areas where the next administration could act, and act boldly, and unlike pre-K and college affordability—issues that resonate with many of the middle-class liberal and moderate voters already supporting Clinton—adult education and training speak to those voters she is struggling to appeal to. (I acknowledge that addressing college affordability could potentially have positive implications for dislocated and under skilled workers, but to the best of my knowledge, these proposals are not focused on this population, and college affordability alone doesn’t address the range of this population’s needs.)

NCER announces FY 2016 Awards

The Institute for Education Sciences (IES) just announced a new round of grants under the National Center for Education Research grants program. One of them (just one!), led by John Sabatini at the Educational Testing Service (ETS), has an explicit adult literacy focus:

Developing and Validating Web-administered, Reading for Understanding Assessments for Adult Education 

A large percent of U.S. adults struggle to read even basic texts, but there are few valid assessments for this population, making it difficult to measure learning outcomes or improve instruction. The purpose of this project is to develop a digital assessment appropriate for such adults, in particular those reading between the 3rd- to 8th-grade levels. Such an assessment will not only help to determine an adult reader’s strengths and weaknesses but also inform instruction and improve programs and institutional accountability.

The goal is to produce a fully developed and validated, digital assessment for adults reading between the 3rd- to 8th-grade levels.

These other projects may also be of interest:

See: NCER announces FY 2016 Awards