Equity in the Last Mile

Opinion: Achieve Partner's Managing Director and New Profit's Future of Work Initiative lead on promising last-mile training programs

A lot has been written about last-mile training programs that provide just-in-time training around the specific skills and business experiences that employers are looking for in their open positions.

By starting with employer needs and working backward to education and training, last-mile training programs are highly responsive to shifts in the labor market, create a fast track for talent, and improve employment outcomes—especially in emerging technical fields plagued by skills gaps.

But, alas, not all last-mile programs are created equal. American history is rife with examples of training programs that exacerbate racial disparities, from certificates that prepare young Black and Latinx workers for dead-end jobs to training programs that sort students into different vocational tracks based on demographics.

If we are to build a future of work that works for everyone, we need to seriously evaluate last-mile training programs through the lens of equity, learn from past mistakes, and invest in scaling the most promising solutions.

There are many promising last-mile models out there, and a few key trends across the most effective programs that give us a glimpse of what the engine behind a more equitable future of work could look like.

Integrating Hard and Soft Skills

While many last-mile training programs focus on in-demand technical skills, the most equitable solutions offer holistic, competency-based approaches to building these skills while also integrating soft skills to set workers up for long-term career growth and success.

For example, Talent Path—a company committed to recruiting from underrepresented communities—not only trains candidates on specific digital skills like software development and data analytics and visualization, but its curriculum expressly focuses on soft skills and emotional intelligence and promises well-rounded candidates.

Building Professional Networks 

Beyond hard and soft skills, other factors play an important role in employment outcomes—and the question of who you know may be the biggest. Training programs that recognize the value of networks can help reduce barriers for communities with fewer connections to professionals in the most lucrative fields.

Consider the case of Designlab, which provides last-mile training in UX and UI design and branding with a six-month online intensive that provides 480 hours of learning, 50 hands-on projects, and most importantly, 34 synchronous mentoring sessions with a professional working in the field. Designlab has more than 500 part-time mentors to help reinforce learning, check on progress, and coach students through a successful job search.

Eliminating Tuition

The best way to level the playing field is to take tuition off the table. Not surprisingly, many of the models with equity at their core have already addressed this. Tuition-based programs discriminate against those who are not willing or not able to take on student loan debt.

While income share-based programs are a better option than loans for some, many workers with the greatest need are leery of assuming any financial obligation. Income share offers can be confusing and conflated with arrangements that are truly predatory.

If training programs ask workers to take any financial risk to upskill for jobs where there is a skills gap, they either have a suboptimal or unimaginative business model. Because if there’s truly a skills gap, there’s a very willing payor for that upskilling: the employer that cannot find that trained talent otherwise (or at least, find diverse trained talent and/or trained talent at an entry-level wage).

Guaranteeing Jobs

The uncertainty of a positive employment outcome is a big turn off for diverse talent when seeking training or upskilling opportunities. Even if tuition is off the table, going through a training program without a light at the end of the tunnel may not be worth the time and opportunity cost.

The best way to address this is to guarantee workers a job, ideally hiring and paying a living wage from the start of training. Talent Path already does this. Workers are hired on day one of training. They know they have job and are being paid, which allows them to focus on learning key last-mile skills.

So does Optimum Healthcare IT’s CareerPath program: CareerPath hires workers and trains them on specific healthcare IT tech stacks, like Epic, the leading electronic health record platform. In both cases, newly-trained workers are made available to clients for hire over time.

If we’re serious about solving our many education and workforce challenges in a way that advances equity, all signs point to a new American model of apprenticeship. Apprenticeships have greater potential to check all four of the above boxes than any other postsecondary education or workforce model.

They specifically recruit diverse and underrepresented candidates; they prioritize soft skills and networking (because apprenticeships are only successful if their apprentices successfully transition to clients); they don’t charge tuition; and they guarantee a job from day one.

So here’s hoping the Biden Administration takes note and considers allocating a fraction of the additional funding slated for community colleges and Pell Grants to these new apprenticeship models.

Consider the potential impact of offering performance-based financial incentives to build new talent pathways in high-growth sectors (i.e., technology, healthcare, financial services) where such pathways are sorely lacking. And of course, any funding should ensure that these new apprenticeships are actually good jobs — that is, full-time employment with benefits, paying at least $50,000, and with multiple career paths in growing sectors of the economy.

As Tameshia Mansfield, a Vice President at Jobs for the Future, has said: “We can’t train our way to equity.” That may be true, but we can certainly design for equity, and new apprenticeship models are showing us how.

Dr. Angela Jackson leads New Profit’s Future of Work Initiative, which seeks to close the career-readiness gap for Americans from low-income backgrounds.

Ryan Craig is the author of College Disrupted and A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College. He is Managing Director at Achieve Partners, which is engineering the future of learning and earning.