Work-based learning initiatives have made a huge impact on my work with Young Invincibles and especially now in the time of COVID-19. As I am getting ready to graduate during what looks like my first recession, the notion of improving the workforce stays at the forefront of my mind. With over 33.5 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last seven weeks, now more than ever, we must prioritize work-based learning initiatives. This issue has been brought to light, yet again, through the third interim charge for the 86th legislative session under the Committee on Higher Education. In the time between legislative sessions, legislative committees meet to discuss and hear from stakeholders on issues in order to prepare a report before the start of the next legislative session, referred to as the interim.
During the 86th legislative session, my fellow Texas Young Advocates and I championed SB 1355 and HB 3818, bills that would have ensured the establishment of a work-based learning task force within the Tri-Agency Workforce Initiative. These bills, unfortunately, did not make it to the governor’s desk. While we did not meet the goals we had hoped for, we brought some much-needed attention to the issue of work-based learning and started a greater conversation about the impact of it. With roughly 13.5% of the labor force applying for unemployment today, this is a vital conversation. The workforce will be fundamentally altered in a post-COVID-19 society and the way we address work-based learning must be altered as well. The interim charge regarding work-based learning through the Tri-Agency Workforce Initiative is a step in the right direction.
While I think the supports brought up in the charge are a step in the right direction, that is all they are, a step. More needs to be done to truly understand the value of work-based learning and the unrealistic nature of the 60X30TX plan. Created by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2015, this plan created multiple goals, three of these being to get at least 60% of Texans ages 25-34 a college degree or professional certificate, ensuring graduates will have identifiable marketable skills regardless of major, and have undergraduate student loan debt not exceed 60 percent of first-year wages for graduates of Texas public institutions by 2030. The board’s own website posted a 2019 progress report. This report shows that Texas’ progress towards most of the plan’s goals and targets is modest, taking into account that there was a decrease in the first and third targets in the initial projections. The report mentions that in 2019, 43.5 percent of the young adult population had a degree or certificate from a Texas or out-of-state higher education institution, up from 40.3 percent at the start of the plan and 42.3 percent last year. The rate of progress for education population goal, if continued through 2030, would allow Texas to reach the 60 percent goal. However, continuation of these rates of improvement is not guaranteed and requires systemic change in the support system for strengthening preparatory measures in K-12 and academic support in higher education, which has been lacking. This is especially true in the time of COVID-19. There are fears that because of lack of institutional support, college enrollment will decrease. If Texas does not prioritize access to higher education in the discussion surrounding COVID-19, we will surely see a drop in these numbers.
COVID-19 also affects what is seen as a “marketable skill” to graduate. How do we ensure people have marketable skills when there is such instability in the market? Student debt also has a huge impact on the workforce. Even with federal student loan payments suspended due to the ongoing pandemic, there are still thousands of students who have taken on private loans who have been left with little if any guidance on how to best support their financial future. If we do not tackle these issues, our society will be left with an unrecovered workforce.
We are not providing the adequate resources to people interested in work-based learning approaches and this is detering some people who would be willing to join the workforce under these programs. In 2017, 477,000 (13%) of Texans aged 16-24 were neither in school or working, with several young people being at risk of becoming disconnected from both school and work. Unfortunately, a majority of these disconnected young people are aged 20-24. These statistics show the imperative nature of supporting young people after they graduate high school. Work-based learning opportunities are vital to addressing this disconnected age group, especially when there is so much uncertainty in the job market in the upcoming future. The steps being taken in the interim charge are great but more must be done.
Texas needs to uplift and support work-based learning programs, protect student borrowers, and adapt to the changing nature of our workforce while reaching out to young voices to better inform next steps. I think following through with legislative action to expand work-based learning is not only the right thing to do, but what is necessary to strengthen our workforce and grant some peace to those interested in joining the workforce in this hectic time.
Kennedy Huerta Quintanilla is a rising fourth-year Political Communication major at the University of Texas at Austin. She currently serves as the Higher Education Policy Fellow for Young Invincibles’ Texas office. She also works as a Campus Ambassador for Teach For America and will be joining the Teach For America corps in 2021.