Credential Attainment: How We Keep Pace with a Knowledge Economy

Note: This is the eighth in a series of posts analyzing the nine key strategies cited in our 20/20 Vision Report.

Even in the best of times, less-educated workers face greater unemployment rates. During downturns, it only gets worse.

These historical trends have emerged again in the wake of pandemic-driven layoffs, with May unemployment rates for workers with a high school diploma more than double the rates for workers with a bachelor’s degree or above.

In addition to the personal hardship this causes, a shortage of skilled workers hinders the ability of employers to lead a recovery. Everyone suffers.

Unfortunately, this is not a new lesson for West Michigan.

In the wake of the Great Recession of 2007-09, the region’s recovery and outlook were dampened by a comparatively lower post-secondary attainment rate. Recognition of this by the region’s business leaders led to the formation of Talent 2025.

From its founding in 2010, Talent 2025 has promoted increasing the region’s postsecondary attainment. This priority was restated in the 8th strategy highlighted in the 20/20 Vision Report issued last year:


Strategy 8:  Prioritize credential attainment

The report notes that a high school diploma or equivalent is the bare minimum to survive in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. The diploma also must be accompanied by employability skills.

“Even then, it is only a waypoint on the journey to a post-secondary credential to achieve career and economic success,” the report says. “The percentage of adults without a diploma must be reduced significantly while high school graduation rates and post-secondary credentials increase.”

In 2011, our 13-county region had an adult post-secondary attainment rate of 56.9 percent. By 2017, that percentage had grown to 59.4 percent – on a trajectory to hit our goal of 64 percent by 2025. However, we still lag rates statewide (61 percent) and nationally (60 percent). And new data suggests we should shift our aim higher, to 70 percent.

Clearly, more work remains. And it begins by prioritizing postsecondary attainment.


Supporting workers of today and tomorrow

Among the markers of a great workforce system are educational strategies that accelerate college- and career-readiness and post-secondary credential attainment. Individuals also must recognize the value of post-secondary education and training, and seek opportunities that align their interests and skills with the needs of employers.

West Michigan has taken steps toward these objectives, including initiatives that promote the importance of post-secondary education to students as early as middle school. We must continue to invest in and advocate for those programs that have demonstrated success.

Adult education also remains vitally important. Officially, more than 36,000 adults in West Michigan have less than a ninth-grade reading level. That statistic does not count the hidden population of functionally illiterate adults, estimated at nearly 15 percent, who manage to mask their literacy shortcomings.

This represents a vast pool of potential workers who need support to gain the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. One proven approach is the integrated education and training (IET) model, which helps workers obtain foundational requirements (such as a diploma or GED) while simultaneously receiving workplace training.


Broken connections

Unfortunately, adults and students alike are facing a widening gap in access to learning and training opportunities during the shift to distance learning and remote work caused by COVID-19. This is especially for those who lack digital literacy or access to high-speed internet and devices.

What’s more, workers with less education are more unlikely to even have the opportunity for remote work, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Less than one-third of workers with only a high-school diploma are able to telework, compared to more than two-thirds of those with a bachelor’s degree or more.

There is a clear need to promote digital literacy and expand those efforts to the workplace.


Remembering the lessons of the past

One of the problems West Michigan faced during the Great Recession was an exodus of talent. Employers were forced to draw from a shrinking pool of qualified workers. This occurred amid increasing demand for an educated and skilled workforce. The low-skill jobs that had provided a traditional entry to the middle class were disappearing.

This environment led to the recognition that West Michigan’s failures in the talent race meant everybody was suffering – businesses were missing opportunities, household incomes were stagnating, and the region was being overlooked as a destination for talent and locating or expanding a business.

We can’t afford to lose ground in the advances we have made since then. The transition to a knowledge-based workforce has only increased in pace.

We must match that pace with a renewed emphasis on post-secondary attainment and the opportunity it provides for employers and individuals alike.


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