Skills training for a fast-changing economy — interview with Mason Bishop | VIEWPOINT


Mason: If an employer says, “Hey, I need a
program today,” how long does that take to get that program going? In a number of states, it can take up to a
year and that’s way too long. Brent: Well, it’s my pleasure to welcome Mason
Bishop, principal at WorkED Consulting as a guest here at AEI… Mason: Hi, Brent. Brent: …in our Viewpoint series. Good to see you, Mason. You’ve been my friend and colleague for many
years and you recently did a paper for us here at AEI and it’s called “Addressing the
Employment Challenge: The Use of Postsecondary Noncredit Training and Skills Development.” Why don’t you start by giving us an overview
of that topic? Tell us what noncredit training is and why
you think this is an important issue? Mason: Well, a lot of people think they have
an idea of what education and training means. And given that the economy today really talks
about skills training or people need skills or you hear about skills gaps, I really wanted
to take a look at, well, how do we address those skills gaps? And the paper really looks at two sort of
large chunks of postsecondary education training. The first is what most people think of is
college, which is accredited programs, meaning that somebody takes a math class for three
hours and gets college credit or gets four credit hours for a biology class. The other big chunk, and really the focus
of the paper was noncredit training, which is what is happening to be able to address
people’s skills when they’re not getting college credit. And are there new factors involved with regard
to noncredit training? Is it a viable alternative to credit and ”college”
or is it something that really doesn’t have the rigor of college and is falling short
in terms of being able to address people’s skills? That’s really was the central premise and
look at the paper. Brent: So talk a little bit more then about
what…if I were a student and I were getting ready to go to a community college, what would
a noncredit program look like as compared to a credit program? Mason: Yes, that’s a great question. So first of all, we did focus on community
colleges because they are a primary driver of skills training in the United States right
now. Over 50% of most postsecondary students are
at community colleges, and community colleges historically have played two roles and continue
to play two roles. One role is that they provide the general
education, two years education for an individual who wants to transfer and get a four-year
baccalaureate degree. The other role that a community college plays
is workforce training. And that may be a two-year associates degree. It may be a certificate or a license or that
sort of thing. And so we really wanted to look at the workforce
training role of community colleges. And in doing so, historically, there have
been some issues with regard to noncredit training. It’s really why I wanted to look at it because
it can be criticized in the past for perhaps being some person’s desire to create, you
know, you hear jokes about basket weaving classes and certain times it isn’t that bad
necessarily, but the question is, are there viable programs that teach people skills that
connect directly to the labor market? So noncredit at a community college actually
takes many different forms and we didn’t focus on all those different forms. We focused just on the workforce training
piece, but sometimes you hear terms such as community education, community colleges will
have noncredit, you know, learning how to do financial management or those kinds of
things for community members to come in and take certain courses. We did not focus on that. We focused on specific noncredit training
leading to jobs. Brent: Right. So we’re all familiar with, and you talked
about this on the paper as sort of the unprecedented kind of labor market conditions that we’ve
got right now with very low unemployment, so low in fact that it’s kind of pulling people
back into the market who have been out of work and then what goes along with that are
all these unfilled positions, you know, millions of unfilled jobs right now in America. How would, I should say, how would the increased
use of noncredit training help to address that problem or those problems with both,
you know, the unfilled jobs and the skills gap? Mason: Yeah. So, you know, whether if you’re an economist
that believes in the skills gap or not, that’s not really, wasn’t critical to the notion
of the paper, whether the connection between those who are unemployed and those number
of jobs are available, that that’s an economic problem that some economists would feel is
due to some factor or another. We didn’t worry about that. We just took the data as it stands today,
as you mentioned, where even the unemployment rate just ticked up because more people are
looking for work available, able and available for work. So looking at the mismatch, so to speak, of
available jobs and the number of people looking for jobs and that’s pretty well-documented
over the last few months and year, what we did is then ask the question, are noncredit
programs a viable alternative to address that market condition? In particular, our noncredit programs potentially
more market responsive to employer needs for skills and to be able to get people hired
more quickly than say a credit-based program. And that really was the central premise of
what we looked at in the paper, is to see if those noncredit options could be market-responsive
and could be something that more quickly addresses this skills gap or this employment gap at
the minimum, being able to more quickly and rapidly connect people who are unemployed
or underemployed to jobs that are available in manufacturing, or in retail, or IT, or
any number of industries. Brent: So you say you looked at it and what
did you find? Mason: Well, what we found is that, yes, absolutely,
there are some new innovations and things happening in noncredit training that I’m not
sure exactly understood or documented currently. These are things that have really occurred
just within the last couple of years, frankly with regard to things that are happening at
the national policy level through the U.S. Department of Labor or Department of Education
as well as the drivers that community colleges are feeling in order to be able to be market-responsive
to employers. So, absolutely, we did find that noncredit
training is absolutely a viable option to address skills and to address employment challenges. Brent: And I think you mentioned in the paper
a couple of community colleges in particular that you felt like had done some interesting
work in this area. Mason: Yeah. And so I had the opportunity through my consulting
business of working with a number of community colleges and I have a community college background
myself. I was vice president out at Salt Lake Community
College for three years. So I’ve seen them up close and personal over
a number of years. And so we looked at Blue Ridge community and
Technical College in Martinsburg, West Virginia as one example. And I picked them because they have a very
unique occurrence going on right now in that labor market, which is Procter & Gamble has
been building. And it has built partially a large facility
out there and had an immediate need for a number of workers with sort of laboratory
technician type skills to be able to produce different products that Procter & Gamble makes. And so it really put impetus on Blue Ridge
to be able to rapidly be able to train people for occupations that are identified by Proctor
& Gamble. And in fact, the interesting thing is most
of Procter & Gamble’s hiring, especially for these mid-level and entry level positions
and even some of the upper level positions are occurring on the Blue Ridge campus, they’re
actually doing the recruitment through Blue Ridge. So it really presented an opportunity to look
at Blue Ridge, kind of do a quick case study and understand what are the things they’ve
learned to be responsive to an employer who says, “Hey, by the way, we’re moving into
town, we need 500 workers.” And so that was one. Brent: This is a big deal for the community. Mason: It was, and especially a community
size of Martinsburg, West Virginia, which is more increasingly a bedroom community to
the Washington DC area. Whenever I drive out there, there’s tends
to be traffic going the other way. And so people actually live out in that area
and are commuting into either the Dulles Corridor or Washington DC. But with Procter & Gamble, a lot of people
won’t need to commute anymore, they can work there. And these are very well-paying jobs. And so in looking at that, we really realized
that importantly what we learned about Blue Ridge and noncredit or credit for that matter
because they actually do a combination of both, is that you need to have sort of a culture
at a community college that’s market-responsive, that is connected to employers, that understands
what the industry is about, what they’re looking for in the jobs and actually having faculty
or teachers who understand both the industry and also a learning environment. That’s a big challenge often that a community
college will face. And so, again, the important part of the Blue
Ridge experience was really understanding that culture and what are those things that
you need in order to be market-responsive. And then that really led us to looking at
some other factors in noncredit training as do those noncredit training factors really
meet that cultural condition that Blue Ridge talked about. Brent: So I’m really curious, and we’ve talked
about this in other contexts before and it’s something that you mentioned in your paper
as well, but, you know, we come from a perspective where we believe in a demand-driven system
that we need to be responsive to employers. But one of the things you bring out in your
paper is that employers also have a job to do here to get a better understanding of what
it is that community colleges do. So why don’t you just share that because I
thought that was a really interesting point. Mason: Yeah, well, I’ve had a really unique
experience in the last couple of years of really coming to understand that we need to
have a focus on that is cyclical, a circle, not a straight line. And by that, I mean, what you said, we say
be demand-driven. So I often hear community colleges say we
need to know what employers need, which to me is a one-way street. It’s employer to community college. What I’m finding is that it needs to be a
circular feedback loop that the community college need to understand what employers
are looking for a vis-a-vis competencies and skills and occupational needs. But at the same time, community college need
to be providing feedback back to the employers around industry recognized credentials, which
are kind of a new phenomenon that it’s occurring. I mean, industry recognized credentials have
been around for a long time, but really the focus in connection to noncredit training
is fairly recent. In addition, you know, our employers aligning
their recruitment and hiring practices to the training and such that’s going on at community
colleges. What I’m finding is that because of the great
recession, there was a lot of emphasis on putting a lot of federal dollars to community
colleges for workforce training and try to help build people’s skills. And as a result, there’s a lot of policy issuances
and other things coming out of the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Education. So community college drivers, so to speak,
are from those policy pronouncements coming from the federal government. Well, what’s happening is that while they’re
trying to be responsive to the federal government who those federal agencies are working with
a larger employers and commissions and others who are telling them, you know, these are
the ways to be demand-driven and drive community colleges toward that demand-driven vision,
what’s happening is we’re not taking that supply side and engaging the employers and
informing them, allowing them to know, “Hey, this is the kind of programming we’re setting
up.” We’re still saying, “Tell us what you need. We’re gonna send somebody here.” They may have this credential. The employer sees a credential and says, “I
don’t know what this means because it’s not even part of my hiring.” Brent: So employers are busy people. They got a lot on their plates. They’re managing businesses, are trying to
meet payroll, or they’ve got sales and clients and all sorts of things going on. What’s the right way for a community college
to engage with an employer or to try to establish that kind of relationship? Mason: Yeah, well, the first thing is really
trying to find the right person at the employment site and on the employer side. Again, another example in West Virginia recently
is that I work with a community college there, Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical
College. Very small town, but they have Pilgrims that
process chickens and do that sort of thing, provide chicken for us all to eat. And they found, I was talking to one of their
employees at the college, that it took about six or seven or eight visits out to the Pilgrim
site, one, to learn what they were doing, but more importantly to find the right person
who said, “Yes, I do need to talk to you. I do need to connect with you. We do need training.” And as a result of finding that right person
Eastern is now literally onsite. The Pilgrim’s dedicated rooms onsite for workers
to be able to take timeout, say, from three to four in the afternoon to do training on
a particular maintenance thing or something they needed to learn or to become upwardly
mobile within the Pilgrim’s company. So that was one example. Another one and one real challenge I think
for a number of community colleges is they exist in smaller communities all across the
United States. And sometimes we think of community colleges,
we think of big ones like Northern Virginia Community College or Miami Dade down in Miami. But the reality is the vast majority of community
colleges are very small. They’re one building, two, three campus locations
with a smaller midsize employer base. Well, my feeling on that is, and what I’ve
seen is that, you know, if you can’t engage every single small employer, that’s really
where employer intermediaries become very important. A local chamber of commerce, finding an advocate
through that chamber of commerce or maybe there’s a manufacturing association, or I’ve
seen, for instance, in the healthcare industry, a lot of times a hospital is one of the big
employers in a county or in a local area. And, you know, you’ll get somebody within
that hospital who says, “Yeah, we need help with finding the right-skilled workers through
a variety of healthcare occupations.” And so they’ll work with the community college
that way. So a lot of it is just being persistent and
aggressive and finding the right people within companies or with an employer intermediaries
who you can engage with and align that training to those skills and competencies that are
needed by employers. Brent: And it’s to everybody’s advantage. The employers are getting what they need,
community colleges and the students most importantly are getting what they need. You talk a little bit about how educational
bureaucracy can be its own impediment to the development of noncredit training programs
or credit or noncredit training programs, but it’s easier on the noncredit side. Tell us about why it’s easier to set up a
noncredit training program than it is to then to go through the process of creating a fully
accredited training program. Mason: Yeah, this is one of the more interesting
dynamics that I found. And I think it’s really important for us to
understand this from a policy perspective. Again, under the assumption that community
colleges need to be nimble and quick and especially with technological advancements, with changes
in work and jobs and what we need for people to be successful on the job, community colleges
need to be able to adapt to that very quickly. So I asked the question to a number of community
college administrators through surveys and through interviews, how long on the credit
side, if an employer says, “Hey, I need a program today,” how long does that take to
get that program going? And the answer I received was typically a
year to 18 months. And that’s because to get a credit program,
there’s a whole set of requirements, both at the college and even at the state level,
to get that approved. So at the college level you have to, you know,
maybe develop the curriculum, get it approved. There’s usually curriculum committees at community
colleges. They may, depending on the community college,
may have to go to the Faculty Senate, get the VPs and the president to approve. And then once that is all said and done, they
have to send it up to the state and go through the state agency, educational agency approval
process. And so consistently, from what I’ve seen,
from the feedback I’ve received now this is different state to state, but in a number
of states, it can take up to a year and that’s way too long versus…yeah. Brent: An adjustment time economy, and with
technology changing so quickly. That’s just a nonstarter, I would think. Mason: Absolutely. So if you have an established, say, associate
degree program that’s workforce-focused or maybe especially in healthcare where you’ve
got more licensing type of requirements due to safety, occupational safety and, you know,
people’s health and things like that, you know, a noncredit program may not always be
the most viable option because you’ve got those requirements that take time in order
to take those courses and you need to have. But if it’s manufacturing or a number of these
other construction or a number of these other type of agency, or excuse me, industries,
you don’t need those kind of bureaucratic licensing, time-based. It’s competency-based training is what you
need, not time based. And so a noncredit… Brent: I’d like to pause you right there and
just describe the difference between time-based and competency-based. I think that’s an important point. Mason: Yeah. So this is another component of the paper
that we discuss and that is that time-based means that, you know, you’ve heard the term
“seat time” often. So if I could take a three-hour credit class
in a college or a university, that means that I have a certain amount of time that I have
to take. And of course, they test and other kinds of
things, finals week and all that fun stuff. And but it’s a time base. It doesn’t necessarily, I show competency
by the amount of time I spend in the class and then passing tests, so to speak. Competency based means you may take three
weeks, I may take five weeks to learn and be able to master the same competency but
because you can do it in three weeks, you move on. You show demonstration of mastery of that
competency and you will move on to the next one. Brent: And noncredit is for that competency-based. Mason: That’s absolutely correct. Noncredit as much more appliable to a competency-based
system which is really from, again, a market responsiveness what you need. Sometimes, again, I’ve seen through the paper
and through other work that a lot of times employers are saying, “Just give me somebody
that can operate machine A.” Well, I don’t necessarily need 12 weeks to learn how to
operate machine A. It might take me three but it depends on the person. And then how you show the mastery of that
competency is typically through testing, and a lot of times that’s applied testing. A college may have that actual machine onsite
or sometimes even at the employer site and they can show mastery of that competency on
the machine. Once you do, boom, I’m moving on or I’m getting
a job because I’ve shown mastery. I don’t have to sit in class for another 12
weeks because it’s a time-based system. So noncredit really is more adept at that
and flexible at that competency-based notion. And again, one of the other colleges we looked
at in the paper is Polk State College down in Florida where they have a very focused
effort at working with employers and getting noncredit programs up and running. And again, the thing I found in interviewing
and looking at that college is that at their corporate college, within Polk State is that
it’s really based on the employer, is how long it takes to get a program up and running. It’s not the 12 to 18 months. It’s, okay, identify what competencies you
need. How do people demonstrate those competencies? And what does performance success look like? Once you know what the competencies…in other
words, I can do the job. What does doing a good job look like? And then also then looking at how do we pay
for that employer? You’re gonna pay for that through a contract
or we’re gonna find a grant or, you know, that sort of thing and the things up and running
within four weeks of the program. Brent: Right. And that goes actually to the last…the question
I wanted us to wrap up on because huge issue in all kinds of education, postsecondary education,
these days is how do we pay for it? And I thought you had some really interesting
observations about both innovative approaches that are currently being done at the state
level or in a community college, at the community college level, and then some recommendations
around some changes that we needed at the federal level. I’m just wondering if you could talk about
that a little bit, too. Mason: Yes. Well, you know, first off, I would say as
a general statement that there’s a bias against noncredit workforce training through federal
funding sources. By that I mean, you look at Pell Grant, Pell
Grants typically works for credit students or the traditional university or transfer
student at a community college, but doesn’t really work for that noncredit student unless
they take a certain amount of what are called clock hours, which can be converted to credit. But unless you take a few hundred clock hours,
which, again, a lot of these courses, you may…or a lot of these programs, you may
not need that much. You’re not eligible for Pell Grant dollars. So right away, one of the main sources of
postsecondary funding for individuals is not available for these students. So because of the bias in federal funding
toward credit students, and rather than noncredit students, states, for instance, are picking
up and filling that gap. One state, again, using an example is West
Virginia that has the Higher Education Adult Part-Time Student program or HEAPS for short. They provide up to $2,000 for a student to
take noncredit workforce training that leads to employment. So that is things states are having to do
to sort of fill that gap due to the federal funding bias against noncredit training. The second thing, and the big player in this
obviously are employers as well, and employers are either as a single employer or as an industry,
often in local labor markets working with community colleges through contracts and other
means. Maybe it’s an apprenticeship program where
they’re providing the costs of training to help boost people’s skills. The one thing I did notice philosophically
that most community college folks told me is that their goal often is because they’re
working with students who are unemployed or underemployed or low-wage workers. As a result, they don’t have their own financial
means necessarily to get the skills training they need. And so what I see often is that community
colleges are doing everything they can to piece together funding, whether it’s employers
or state funding or maybe even federal funding to be able to provide a no cost to student
opportunity realizing that really resources are constrained by the individual himself
or herself. Brent: And employers are interested in this
because it’s important for their bottom line, you know, to have a workforce that is well-trained
and skilled in what they need. And that’s why they invest in these things. Mason: Absolutely. Yeah. And really, and when we talk about skills,
you know, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about particular types of skills in the paper,
but really skills, again, I’ll speak in broad terms here, take on one or two themes. One is hard skills or the skills I need to
be able to perform in an occupation. But the other part of this really are you
could call them employability skills, but I would get a little more focused than just
that broad term. I think it’s the ability to combine technical
skills with things such as analysis, troubleshooting, the ability to perceive, fix what needs to
be fixed and be able on the fly, be able to fix it and analyze. And the combination of those skills are really
what a lot of community colleges are having to do through their noncredit training programs
is how do I merge sort of the notion of what employers need with technical skills with
some of those employability analysis skills and be able to connect those and weave those
together in a way that provides a good worker for an employer. Brent: And those skills that you’re talking
about, those employability skills, soft skills, non-cognitive skills, those are the things
that allow people to learn on the job once they’ve got the job. You know, if you are able to analyze the problem
and think on your feet, those kinds of things, those kinds of skills allow you to keep your
job and advance in your job. So very, very important. Mason: Well that provides one sort of last
piece to this puzzle. And that’s the idea of industry-recognized
credentials, which I talked about in the paper because I think this is a really important
phenomenon that’s happening right now, which is industry-recognized credentials are defined
as those third party credentials that are portable, that are provided by national industry
associations or other types of organizations that represent an industry. And they really are the connection between
the training somebody gets and the job. So that’s when we say employers…we need
to be educating employers. Employers need to know what those industry-recognized
credentials are. One interesting component to that with regard
to the connection between technical skills and non-cognitive skills is that I actually
did a paper that I referenced in the noncredit paper that out in Kansas I looked at whether
a particular industry-recognized credential was being utilized by employers out there. And one of the interesting findings of that
was that while employers didn’t always understand what that industry recognized credential meant
because somebody had completed something, it was a marker for, or symbolic for this
person may have some level of persistence on the job and, and it spoke to those non-cognitive
skills as well. So that’s another interesting part of this
noncredit paper that I’ve just written, is that the use of industry-recognized credentials
have a number of positive impacts I think ultimately. One is they provide that bridge between noncredit
training and the employer hiring and recruitment competencies. But just as importantly may indicate to the
employer that the person is persistent, can complete, can finish your job and maybe has
some of those other skills and other aptitudes that employer needs for somebody to be successful
on the job Brent: That’s great. Well, mason, thank you so much for coming
in today. Mason: Thank you. My pleasure. Brent: We’re very excited about the paper
and I’m looking forward to getting that paper out as well as this conversation for people
to hear more about it. Mason: Thank you, Brent. Brent: Thank you. Mason: Thank you, AEI. Brent: Hey, everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Mason
Bishop. Thanks for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AEI scholars to cover on Viewpoint and to learn more about workforce development. Check the links in the description below.

2 thoughts on “Skills training for a fast-changing economy — interview with Mason Bishop | VIEWPOINT

  • I'm choosing to go into a surgical tech program, but even that program is relatively long. I'm hugely in favor of non-college training – it seems to be the way of the future.

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