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Improving noncollege pathways to skills and successful careers

Broad-based prosperity in a 21st century economy requires a skilled workforce with the cutting-edge abilities and knowledge employers require to remain globally competitive. Preparing workers for rewarding careers that meet the needs of employers is critical. Although many workers enter the workforce each year without a four-year college degree, the focus of public debate and policy is often weighted towards degree-granting post- secondary education as though it were the only pipeline to work. Significant portions of the US working population don’t have a college degree and may not ever achieve one. Roughly half of today’s 30- to 34-year-olds have not achieved a college degree of any kind. Children from families with low socioeconomic status are significantly less likely than their more affluent peers to attain a college degree at the outset of their careers. Helping all children reach their educational goals should be a priority. However, a realistic approach to employment means that a college degree shouldn’t represent the only path. The Committee for Economic Development (CED) believes the nation must focus on effective pathways to help students from all backgrounds and educational attainments successfully transition to careers as members of a skilled US workforce. To further that goal, this report looks at three tools to better serve those students whose initial entry into the workforce will not necessarily include a traditional college degree. First, it looks at the need for and potential benefits of information for students and trainees as they navigate the initial transition from education to work. There are substantial potential returns to individuals and employers from scalable, evidence-based models that could inform students and trainees about which skills are in demand, how those skills can be obtained, and the likely return on their investment in such learning. Policymakers should consider the relative merits of alternative interventions ranging from light-touch information campaigns to more intensive counseling. Second, the report proposes smart investments in apprenticeships in the US, building on a history of bipartisan support. When executed well, apprenticeship programs, which help workers affordably gain in-demand skills and help employers develop and shape a pipeline of skilled workers, are one of the most promising nondegree career pathway models and promise important public benefits. After examining potential challenges and limitations, the report recommends a series of public policy actions to further evaluate, encourage, and develop the use of apprenticeships. Third, given the potential underutilization of existing talent among nondegree holders, the report encourages employers to rethink how they use educational attainment in evaluating and hiring potential talent, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of the large numbers of skilled students and trainees transitioning to careers without traditional degrees. With potential changes in technology and talent assessment on the horizon, forward-looking businesses should look to exploit a potential advantage in identifying more productive workers, with or without degrees.