November 2012

Anna Alvarez Boyd: Welcome to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Economic Development podcast series. I'm Anna Alvarez Boyd with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

We've had some really rapid changes in our economy that have highlighted the need for workforce development systems that are responsive to industry by offering effective retraining throughout a worker's career. While workforce systems are adapting to this "lifelong learning" challenge through various initiatives, low-income adult learners face unique challenges in gaining access to effective skill enhancement opportunities. Many community colleges have developed programs to respond to this need, yet clearly more can be done.

A recent publication from the Aspen Institute titled "Partnering to Create Paths to Education and Careers" summarizes research from its Courses to Employment project. The project analyzed how six community college and nonprofit partnerships work together to help low-income adults succeed in both the classroom and the labor market.

Today we're speaking to Maureen Conway, one of the report's authors. Maureen is executive director of the Economic Opportunities Program [EOP] at the Aspen Institute and director of its Workforce Strategies Initiative. Maureen, thank you so much for joining us today.

Photo of Maureen ConwayMaureen Conway: Thank you for having me.

Alvarez Boyd: Before we talk about your report findings, I am really interested in learning more about why you chose to focus on low-income adults. What are the unique workforce development challenges that this group faces compared to others?

Conway: One of the things I often say about why we focus on low-income adults, in particular, is because really our future workforce is already working. As we are living longer, as people are putting off retirement, we need to be thinking about how to reskill older workers.

Also, many of the low-income working adults are parents. One of the best things you can often do for children is help their parents so that their parents can better provide for them—provide the kind of home in which they can learn and have a stable learning environment.

And you asked about what are the challenges that they face. Many are parents, they have their own bills to pay, they have rent to pay, they have to get themselves from one place to another, maybe they have a car or they use public transportation. As an adult, finding the time and space to be a student and to be a learner can be a real challenge.

Alvarez Boyd: So you took this, really, to the street in a sense. You went right to the source of community colleges working with industry and starting to really think through how is it that you make the best communication, the best partnership available, right? So tell us more about your project.

Conway: We wanted to learn not just what are your outcomes, but how do you make this work? What are the ways that these workforce-oriented nonprofits actually mesh and blend their services with what's going on in their community college? How do they really make it work for the industries in their community and for the people in their community?

We had through earlier work seen that there was some promise in this approach of a workforce-oriented nonprofit and a community college collaborating together. We were really looking for a nonprofit and a community college that had some experience working together, had a particular industry that they were focused on, and that were ready to make a new commitment to their work together and to try to enrich it in some way.

We selected six: they were in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Flint, Michigan, northern Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.), and Austin, Texas. We were looking for geographic diversity. We were looking for some diversity in the industry sectors that they were working in: we had one working in office services; we had one working in logistics and transportation and security; we had a couple that were working in health care; we had one in automotive services.

One of our questions was, "How did they relate to their employer community?" So what we found was that they actually had very complementary relationships within their employer community. Community colleges tend to ask different kinds of questions. They'll ask a lot of questions about skills and think about how it matches to their curriculum and courses and what students learn, because their metric is helping students complete course work and complete certificates and degrees. Nonprofits will ask many more questions about "When do you hire?" "How much do you pay?" "How many folks do you expect to hire within a certain period of time?" They will ask questions like "What's been not working out with people—why have you had to let people go?" so they'll get different kinds of information. So they'll also learn more about the kinds of what people commonly call "soft skills"—the communications, workplace behavior, those kinds of things that are really important to people's success on the job.

Alvarez Boyd: So the other thing I really liked about what you did with this project is that you established metrics, and one of the metrics of success that you've established was "earnings gains." Why is that important, and why did some programs show higher gains than others? What did you learn about that?

Conway: The reason they [these programs] got into this work was because they had so many people who were working that just weren't earning enough money to pay their bills on a regular basis. So, I think, earnings gains is a critical metric for any employment program to be looking at.

For example, in Austin, Texas, they were training people in one-year and two-year health programs, such as licensed vocational nurse or a radiation technologist. For the individuals who completed those programs, they about tripled what their annual earnings were. It was a remarkable leap for many of those individuals. The downside of that, though, is it is a very long pathway. For a one-year program it usually takes two to three years for them to be able to finish, but for the ones who do finish it is a leap in their earnings.

An alternative is the training futures program, which is a six-month program. Their completion rates are very high—over 90 percent complete this program—and their job placement rate is very high after that. So probably about half of them when they came to the program had some kind of a job, maybe a part-time job, and about 85 percent after the program found jobs, and we saw about a $3-an-hour earning gain there.

Alvarez Boyd: So Maureen, your research and project results support strong collaborative relationships between the community colleges, other workforce providers, and the industry. So you probably faced some challenges in creating those collaborations. Can you tell us about what the examples for success were and how you created those partnerships?

Conway: We think about education and skills as very much going together with finding a job. And so you would think that this organization that's a nonprofit who is trying to help people find jobs and this organization that's a community college that is trying to help people get an education, that their goals are naturally aligned. Sometimes they're not. Because sometimes somebody should stay in school a little bit longer and get more skills so that they can get a better job. But if I'm a workforce nonprofit and my funder wants to see employment, I'm not meeting my metrics. Similarly, sometimes somebody gets halfway through an education program and there is a great job opening up—they should go take it. But they're not completing their education program, so for an education institution that's a bad outcome.

These collaboratives were a great place to recognize, "Those are institutional metrics, but those aren't helping our students; those aren't helping our workers." So how do we work this out together so that we are making sure that the students are getting the best outcome? Then how do we communicate about that to our funders and to our external partner? How do we share our data and have the information to be able to communicate [that] this was also a big challenge these partners were working with, and were still working with at the end of the demonstration.

Alvarez Boyd: Maureen, it's been a delight to talk to you today, thank you for joining us.

Conway: Well, thank you so much for having me. It's been my pleasure.

Alvarez Boyd: This concludes our podcast. We've been speaking with Maureen Conway of the Aspen Institute. Also, for more podcasts on this topic and others, please visit the Atlanta Fed's website at If you have comments or questions, please e-mail Thanks for listening.