The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has produced a long series of highly regarded research efforts. The latest focuses on the steeper challenges that low-income students face when it comes to combining work and college.

Over the past half century, the relationship between working and learning has changed in profound ways that have made it more difficult for students, especially students from low-income backgrounds, to attain the right mix of work experience and schooling necessary to qualify for entry-level jobs with a future.

The structural shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy is at the root of this new set of problems. As a result of this shift, the entry-level standard for most jobs has increased from high school to postsecondary education in combination with high-quality work experience. In the 1970s, three out of four jobs required a high school education or less; today, two out of three jobs require at least some postsecondary education or training.

Over the past half century, the relationship between working and learning has changed in profound ways.

Thus, more education is required to launch a career. In the old industrial economy, high school graduates and dropouts developed specific technical skills and general skills through formal and informal learning on the job after entering the labor market. In the modern economy, only about 20 percent of young people, virtually none of whom are female, can still get the specific and general skills they need with a high school diploma and on-the-job training alone.

Instead, in the 21st century, the majority of entry-level jobs require a rich mix of formal postsecondary education along with high-quality work experience, preferably matched to an individual’s career pathway or postsecondary field of study.  

Included in the challenges facing working learners:

  • The K–12 education system has become focused on college preparation to the exclusion of career-related training. Vocational education in American high schools was jettisoned in the 1980s following the publication of A Nation at Risk, a seminal Department of Education report that laid bare the fact that vocational education had become a dead-end track for low-income, Black, Latino, and female students. As a result, career preparation and training have now moved almost completely into the postsecondary realm.
  • The youth labor market has collapsed, denying young people opportunities to earn and learn on the job. In the 1970s, more than half of teenagers gained some work experience; today, only one-quarter of teens are in the labor force. The collapse of the youth labor market has limited youth opportunities to work for money as well as the quality of learning available in the work experiences that remain.
  • Even as youth work and learning opportunities have declined, publicly funded youth employment and training subsidies have been cut back dramatically. Public job training and youth employment and training programs have been gutted across the country.  
Tom Schuman is the senior vice president of communications & operations for the Indiana Chamber. He is also the editor of the Chamber’s award-winning BizVoice magazine and has been with the organization for 20 years.