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Community Eclipses Technology When Creating Scalable Solutions for Working Adult Learners

Work Learn Earn (WLE) is an online career exploration tool that empowers job seekers to discover career and educational pathways within their community or within an industry. Anyone who sees an example of WLE is usually pretty “wowed.” Up-to-date labor market data, career pathway mapping, exploration of career choices, links to programs that will prepare you for a career--it’s all there and user friendly.

But the real power of a WLE community tool is not the technology itself but the preparation and decision making by the community first. The real action occurs when CAEL facilitates a series of deep conversations across industry, economic, and workforce development organizations, chambers of commerce, and postsecondary institutions. If these groups aren’t working well together and making good decisions about how to best serve up career exploration and actionable steps for working adult learners, the website is simply another “shiny object.”

Why is community collaboration so important before we develop an instance of WLE? Because real impact comes when the community makes hard decisions to put the resources and solutions in place for working adults to access. Effective collaboration builds on the good work already happening in a community and takes it to a new level. It aligns and connects existing community assets to maximize their impact for working adults. And it uncovers gaps in the community fabric that must be addressed for working adult learners to succeed.

To uncover the power of stakeholder engagement prior to launching an instance of WLE, I talked with two individuals who know the work well: Kenyatta Lovett, assistant commissioner of workforce services with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and Peter Beard, senior vice president for regional workforce development at the Greater Houston Partnership. Both Kenyatta and Peter were intimately involved with the buildout of WLE in their regions.

In Tennessee WLE highlights eight industries that have growing career options for working adults. In the Gulf Coast area of Texas, WLE focuses on the petrochemical industry. In both instances, WLE serves as an anchor and rallying point for educators, advisors, counselors, employers, case managers – just some of the many who interact with working adult learners every day.

In Tennessee Lovett and his colleagues wanted a resource that would provide a comprehensive approach to adult career exploration while serving the entire state--a difficult balance. Many such websites serve smaller regions, but not entire states. Finding common ground across a state of different stakeholders was daunting, and required a lot of conversations, convenings, and collaborative decision making.

Houston’s case was similar. Beard noted that Houston is a microcosm for any group of employers that needs to come together to address skills gaps. As he explained it, there are two parts to the “supply chain of talent.” One end user is the employer. The other end user is the individual. Peter finds those challenges often relate to misconnects between employers and educators. The solution he advocates is having employers—who understand the occupations and the skills and credential needed for success—at the table with educators from the start to build curriculum models together. Now when a learner is directed to this program from the WLE website, the working adult will access an educational program that is state-of-the-art, aligned with industry, and that incorporates real-world learning experiences.

But there’s another key to creating a career exploration tool for working adults: does it make them feel capable and confident, or does it create more barriers and stress? Lovett told me that many of the adults he has worked with have a damaged sense of self. They’re often at a stressful crossroads in life. They may have just lost their job, or they need to upskill quickly to avoid being left behind. The website has to give the adult a sense of hope, clear answers, and resources to support their journey.

So if you are part of a state or region that wants to do more for working adult learners, start the old-fashioned way: get a group of key stakeholders together, and don’t forget to add a few working adult learners to the mix. Determine what you want to accomplish in your community and commit to make real changes so that working adults have continuous, accessible, and affordable learning pathways for a lifetime of career progression. Then bring in the technology experts.


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