The pace of social and economic shifts often exceeds the capacity of communities and individuals to adapt to them. In the wake of centuries of structural racism and decades of economic adjustment to globalization, we now find ourselves confronting at least two major disruptions: the COVID-19 recession and the changing nature of work. These disruptions are seriously testing the strength and endurance of our democracy, revealing massive gaps and inequities in our aging public sector institutions.

Our education and labor market support systems are among the public sector infrastructure that have failed to keep up. This paper focuses on education and labor market reforms aimed at fixing two key problems hindering workers, employers, and regions: an educational system that poorly serves its largest student population (so-called “nontraditional” adults) and a credentialing system full of noncredit courses and certificates with little assurance of quality or transparency. The goal is to change and update existing policies and programs so that they are more functional as a system, rather than creating more new standalone programs.

The traditional model of higher education—in which a young person invests once in early-career education to get a college degree and then transitions to work—is no longer sufficient to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change, leaving the majority of Americans behind. The recent history of rolling back de jure segregated vocational education has not been replaced by a bachelor-degreed majority, but by a de facto maze of unaccredited learning, wasted resources on incomplete degrees, and insufficient employer investments in work-based training.

As a result, job seekers often have trouble communicating their value to employers, navigating their career options, and accessing additional education. Employers default to what they know (degrees and personal networks) and tend to underinvest in training, which leaves them paying a premium to compete in narrow pools for talent and ill-equipped to find or cultivate the full range of talent that exists. These market failures contribute to rising inequality and persistent occupational segregation.

Desegregating work and learning through earn-and-learn strategies—as other industrialized countries have done—would provide multiple paths to jobs and careers for people with diverse backgrounds and experiences, unleashing the full potential of our homegrown talent. It would also boost private sector innovation as new workers apply ideas, methods, and technologies learned in the classroom to problems in the workplace.

Read the full article about desegregating work and learning by Annelies Goger at Brookings..