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Courtesy of Angie Champion Holland Angie Champion Holland graduated summa cum laude from Southern New Hampshire University on Nov. 7, 2021, after 18 months of online classes to get sociology and psychology degrees. She and her husband traveled to Manchester, New Hampshire, to get her degrees in person. She sees them opening the door to a more fulfilling career.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Angie Champion Holland’s career in hotel construction sales fizzled. With travel severely restricted, building projects got canceled. By May, she was out of a job.

She could have stayed home. A 40-something mother of four, with three other stepchildren and two grandchildren, she had plenty to do. Instead, Ms. Holland went back to school. 

Although based in the Atlanta area, she started with two online courses from Southern New Hampshire University – the normal course load. In her next semester, she moved to three classes per semester, and a month ago she graduated summa cum laude with degrees in psychology and sociology.

“I wasn’t happy in construction,” Ms. Holland says. “The type of company that I can work for has definitely changed. I can work in these fields where I have a personal interest” – social justice; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and addiction recovery.

Ms. Holland is an exception. The pandemic has created a worker shortage and opened up opportunities to change jobs or careers, yet relatively few U.S. adults are using the current period to train for new skills. And in some ways that’s surprising, since education can be a key to securing better pay or a more fulfilling career.

In fact, among adults above age 24 who have education plans, nearly half have seen those plans canceled or disrupted, according to a survey by Strada Education Network, a social impact organization based in Indianapolis and focused on paths from education to employment.

If nothing changes, community colleges – the schools of choice for many adults looking to upgrade skills – will see the sharpest two-year enrollment drop in at least 50 years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Many factors have contributed to the drop in enrollments. “It’s hard to put your finger on any one thing,” says Russ Deaton, executive vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which has seen enrollment of adult learners fall 20% across the state’s 40 community and tech colleges over the past two years.

Why enrollment dips

One reason for the decline is, paradoxically, the strength of the economy. Worker training typically falls when the economy is humming and employers are hiking pay and offering sign-up bonuses. It’s when jobs are scarce that employed adults go back to school. 

“Workers [are] going from one job to another job, looking for better pay,” says Andrew Weaver, labor economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “You’re not going to see a lot of people upskilling.”

Yet upgrading skills is key to upward mobility, especially among low-income workers. Only 4 in 10 of these workers leave low-paying jobs over a decade, according to a Brookings study this summer. And the longer they work in those jobs, the less chance they have of moving up. By year 10, only 1 in 100 transition to better pay.

Brian Snyder/Reuters Job seekers talk to representatives from Prime Flight at a job fair at Logan International Airport in Boston on Dec. 7, 2021. The pandemic has left many employers struggling to find workers. Some workers, by retraining, are shifting to new fields that they find more meaningful, or that offer better pay and job security.

Other factors also play a role in the training trends. The same fear of contagion that has kept people from going back to a job has also prevented them from attending an in-person classroom. The lack of child care is another big barrier, keeping parents from returning to either the job market or the classroom. “For many people, it’s been a serious binding constraint for their work lives,” says Greg Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. 

Then “there is this question whether people are generally changing their attitudes toward their work lives,” says Mr. Wright. “That’s still a bit of a mystery.” 

For example: The number of workers quitting their jobs hit a record high in September, and October was not far behind, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data that stretches back to 2000. Are people quitting because they’re taking new jobs for better pay – or because of something else? Some workers may want to adjust their work-life balance to spend more time with friends and family. 

Others want more meaningful work. And some of them are, in fact, opting for new training as a transitional step amid the pandemic.

A boost in pay

“I was thinking of a career change,” says Rayang Bouda, who moved with her husband to the United States from Burkina Faso in West Africa 10 years ago. “I really love doing something that impacts other people positively. So anything that is social or related is something that I have a passion for.”

On days off from her payments-processing work at a bank, the St. Louis-area resident began looking online. She found a local program called Rung for Women, which aims to help women achieve sustained independence. She signed up for the organization’s six-month program with a personal coach who helped her define her career goals before she started training, which included practical classes like career fundamentals and advanced professional skills. A couple of weeks ago, right before she finished the program, she was hired by Pfizer as an inspector.

Ms. Bouda says in an email that she loves her new job and feels blessed to work for a company that positively changes patients’ lives. An added bonus: She’s earning $5 more an hour than at her previous job.  

Given the obstacles to advancement facing women of color, Ms. Bouda’s upward mobility is rare. For every 5 job changes that Black women make, only 2 on average lead to better-paying jobs, according to the Brookings study. For white and Asian men, 3 in 5 job changes lead to better pay. And higher income can be a strong motivator for many people.

Seeking job security

Mahafuzur Rahman was a dentist in Bangladesh before he, his wife, and two children emigrated to the U.S. in October 2019. In Boston, he strung together part-time jobs to keep food on the table – security, sales, cashier – working 72 hours a week, sometimes more. When the pandemic hit, he lost his jobs at the pizza parlor and fast-fashion retailer Primark. Whole Foods reduced his hours. 

“Then I decided that I needed to do something where I cannot lose anything,” he says. Friends had told him how biotech in Boston was booming and seemed unaffected by the ups and downs of the economy. So he signed up for a five-month biology and chemistry boot camp at Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), a local adult workforce development organization. Then he signed up for the next phase of the program: 10 months of hands-on training at a local community college to learn lab skills and get certified for work at a biotech firm. He graduates from Quincy College this month.

“Maybe I’ll get a job in December,” Mr. Rahman says. The last time he applied for a biotech job, the pay offered was twice what he was earning at most of his part-time gigs.

While many adult learners say the pandemic had little effect on their decision-making, in many cases it has had an indirect impact. When shutdowns forced community colleges and worker-development programs to switch to online teaching, these institutions were able to reach a new class of online students who might not be able to make classes in person.

“The reason I started thinking about going to college is that I heard about JVS and their evening and online classes,” says Puja Phuyal, a mother of two in suburban Boston who had spent 16 years working in banking. “It’s easier to get jobs from biotech than any other area.” And friends were telling her about how well paid they were. She has just finished the same biotech course at JVS that Mr. Rahman completed and will start the follow-up training at local Quincy College next month. Had the training not been online, she might not have come to JVS.

“That would be a long commute and I am working,” she says.

Source : https://www.csmonitor.com/Daily/2021/20211220

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