No surprise, employers play key role in innovating the ‘education-and-employment’ sector

When I first joined Guild, one of the things that jumped out at me as I worked across teams was how challenging it was to align the needs of our three-sided marketplace. Simultaneously serving learning partners, employer partners, and students resulted in constant trade-offs, compromises, and dilemmas. With so many partners on the table, each one with their own interests and priorities, we had to constantly make sure our ecosystem served all stakeholders equally.

Harvard University’s Project on Workforce initiative, which released a study earlier this month, articulates this struggle. While we at Guild lean into this friction though, many others abstain. The report pulls data from 316 programs that helped “Americans achieve economic success through a combination of educational attainment and work experience.” These “education-and-employment” organizations, as they were referred to, ranged from for-profit to public programs, operated in small towns and big urban metropolises, and were all in various stages of growth. 

The work these programs are doing is truly admirable. Combined, they served 2.6 million learners and generated $4.1 billion in revenue in 2019. But the analysis also highlighted key blind spots that continue to impede the industry. Namely, the programs lacked an emphasis on employer partnerships, which is crucial to unlocking economic mobility and opportunity for the country’s workforce.

The report found that only 16% of the programs prioritized “relationships with both educational institutions and employers” and organizations that worked with educational institutions, like colleges, weren’t likely to work with employers. Meanwhile, only 35% of the programs mentioned they worked directly with employers. 

It’s unfortunate that this false choice between formal education vs. career still persists, even in these emerging education-and-employment programs. Metrics to measure a program’s success, for instance, lived in separate buckets for the two fields. For the “organizations that focused on college-related outcomes,” for example, only 33% gave priority to employment outcomes too.

But employers play an outsized role in a worker’s development. They are the ones who recognize skill gaps in the workforce, identify hard-to-fill jobs that are in high demand, and can provide career pathing for entry- and mid-level workers. Given that most of the programs in the study are also funded by philanthropic sources, employers and their Talent Development teams have much to gain by investing in upskilling education programs, such as increased retention rates, more robust talent pipelines, and alignment with company-wide DE&I efforts.

One possible explanation for the lack of employer partnership is perceived costs. But the report found there was no statistical relationship between this and “estimates of cost-per learner.” For programs that do work with employers, the outlook is promising. Before the pandemic, these organizations grew at a faster rate than those that didn’t. 

At Guild, our Learning Marketplace Strategy team takes input from employer partners and translates their needs to our learning partners. We also cultivate an ecosystem that enables employers to help forecast talent needs months and years in advance. In turn, everyone in the ecosystem is given regular opportunities to hear from these employers about their top concerns. Similarly, our learning partners come to the table actively seeking input and asking, “What do our students need to succeed with employers?” And even when they meet the needs of employers, these learning partners are still pushing on the ecosystem. They want to ensure that the skills that are gained from the programs they offer are easily transferable between employers, and can develop students in a way that leads to their economic mobility.

This responsibility to serve employers, employees, and learning partners, and view them as critical parts of the upskilling ecosystem, is what inspires us to do our work every day. It’s what pushes us to build a double bottom-line business that adds value to all parties — not just one or the other.

Written by Matthew Daniel
Principal, Employer Solutions

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