We Need a More Educated Workforce; Adult Education Is Key

West Michigan’s progress in postsecondary education requires sustained effort – particularly in adult education, a key component of reaching targets necessary to become a top 20 employment region by 2025.


West Michigan is showing progress toward Talent 2025’s established a goal that 64% of adults ages 25-64 will have education beyond a high school diploma or General Education Diploma (GED) by the year 2025. Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a similar statewide goal in her recent State of the State address, calling for 60% postsecondary attainment for Michigan residents ages 16-64 by 2030.


While not an apples-to-apples comparison, the same strategies and challenges apply. And progress only will be made through continued partnerships, investments, and adoption of systemic solutions.


Enter adult education. This is a powerful tool for increasing postsecondary attainment and reducing a barrier to the workforce.


The role of adult education

Nearly 10 percent of West Michigan adults – 102,267 of our residents — lack a high school diploma or equivalent. Worse, 3.5% – or 36,158 adults – have less than a ninth-grade reading level. With the high school graduation rate at 81.4%, work remains to stem the flow of young adults who lack the minimum requirements to obtain gainful employment.


Public and private sectors each have a role. Public and nonprofit services help low-skill individuals gain foundational education and training. Employers can partner with these providers to provide literacy assessments, on-site GED or English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, advanced training, and upskilling opportunities. This is how adult education can be transformative.


Adult education spans a continuum, from ESL to adult basic and secondary education (ABE & ASE), diplomas, GEDs, and credentialing. The system has many components – adult education providers, career and technical centers, Michigan Works! agencies, employers, funding sources, and evidence-based programs. Each is important, but the most important factor is cohesion.


What success looks like

The most effective programs combine adult education with career and technical training.


According to an IET Policy 50-State Scan by the National Skills Coalition, only 32% of adult education students interested in pursuing postsecondary training did so within one year of exiting adult education programs. That’s a leaky talent pipeline. This speaks to the need to begin career training during the adult education process.


The integrated education and training (IET) model is a leading practice that offers concurrent, rather than sequential, education and training. This benefits low-skill, high-barrier populations eager to enter the workforce, and at the same time helps fill skills gaps and meet talent needs of employers.


The federal Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) requires the use of IET programs for certain portions of its funding. Unique state-level grant funding also is available to pilot adult education programs in Michigan. These require partnerships between an adult education provider, a career technical education (CTE) program, and a Michigan Works! agency. These pilots use the IET model, relying on each partner’s area of expertise to position graduates for entry or upward mobility in the workforce.


The most successful approaches are adopted systemically to increase access and availability. States with systemic, successful IET models include Iowa, Washington, Virginia, Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, among others. Although Michigan has several best practices, the National Skills Coalition has identified the state as one that does not have statewide integration of IET models.


Washington has become a leader in this area. The state’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) program “quickly teaches students literacy, work, and college-readiness skills so they can move through school and into living wage jobs faster.” It provides occupational training and basic education along a career pathway for students who have skills too low for community college. A 2018 analysis found 58% of participants received a workforce credential, and nearly two-thirds enrolled in further education and training. 

The Future of Adult Education for West Michigan

Multiple programs in West Michigan use the IET model, including Linked Muskegon, an adult education career tech pilot. Recently, Michigan moved to invest $1 million in IET efforts using WIOA Title I discretionary funds. Continuing this investment and scaling programs will increase accessibility. 

To reach our goals, adult education effectiveness and investment must improve significantly. This means increasing the number of adults with a diploma or GED and the employability skills and training to succeed in the workplace.


The goal should be to align the adult education system and the workforce development system to provide simultaneous education and training in industries with good and promising jobs. While the prevalence of IET programs is growing, adult education providers, employers, and community organizations must understand the services available and build bridges between them.

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