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What We Have Learned — and Still Need to Learn — About Sectoral Training Programs

March 13, 2024 5-minute read
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Photo of Deputy Director – Learning and Impact

Deputy Director – Learning and Impact

Sectoral training programs — or programs that train individuals for existing jobs in high-demand sectors that do not require a four-year college degree — can offer flexible, affordable, and accessible pathways to upward mobility and career advancement for learners from low-income backgrounds. Over the last decade, sector-based approaches have grown in prominence as a way to address the needs of both employers seeking qualified workers and individuals seeking career advancement. This growth has been spurred, in part, by passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, which required states to support sector-based strategies as part of local workforce development efforts. 

A subset of sectoral training providers have been shown through well-conducted experimental studies to produce large, meaningful increases in participants’ credential attainment and earnings outcomes (Source: Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab). Per Scholas, a nonprofit training provider focused on the information technology sector, was found in a 2022 study to increase participants’ annual average earnings by $6,000 through a 15-week training program operated out of their Bronx, New York, location (Source: MDRC). Project QUEST, a San Antonio, Texas, based nonprofit partnering with local community colleges to offer training in high-growth health occupations, increased participants’ annual earnings by a similar amount, and these impacts have been sustained for over a decade after learners completed the program (Source: Economic Mobility Corporation).

Ascendium has made several grants to support the expansion of, and continued learning from, sectoral training programs like those from Per Scholas and Project QUEST with a proven track record of success. Existing research and our own investments in these programs have yielded important insights about what makes effective sectoral training programs work. Programs found to have substantial and lasting earnings impacts share several common features, including a focus on high-quality jobs in high-demand industry sectors, intentional engagement with regional employers, and provision of wraparound services and job placement supports in addition to technical training.

Although these best-in-class programs have demonstrated meaningful impacts for participants, not all sectoral training programs have been as successful, and there is much more to learn about what sets effective sectoral training programs apart and how to maximize the reach of high-quality programs. To better understand what additional research is needed to understand key differences between more and less effective sectoral training programs, Ascendium convened leading sectoral training researchers in December 2023. Session participants emphasized that any sectoral training research agenda should have the long-run goal of expanding access to high-quality programs that can meaningfully advance learners’ economic mobility. However, the session also highlighted a key tension in the existing research literature: although the evidence base on sectoral training is robust relative to other areas of social policy, the number of research-proven programs from which we can learn remains relatively small.

As a result, a forward-looking sectoral training research agenda will need to strike a balance across the following three broad research goals. Tackling these research goals will require a mix of qualitative and quantitative studies as well as strong partnerships between research organizations and training providers.

#1: Learn more about which program components predict effectiveness. We have more to learn about which components of sectoral training programs are truly essential to boosting earnings and how best to implement them. For example: How exactly do effective programs develop and maintain employer relationships? Which specific learner support services do they offer and how do they implement them? How do programs identify and recruit learners who can benefit most from their training and services, with a focus on groups of learners (e.g. learners from low-income backgrounds, people of color, and women) that have been historically underrepresented in high-growth and high-paying fields?

#2: Identify and evaluate strategies for expanding the reach and impact of effective programs. The sectoral training programs that have been shown to produce sizable, sustained increases in learners’ earnings still operate on a relatively modest scale, in relation to the number of Americans who could potentially benefit from them. Exploring how best to expand access to these programs will require striking the right balance between adapting effective programs in ways that make them more scalable (e.g., through more virtual vs. in-person training) while maintaining the essential design features that drove their impacts in the first place.

#3: Grow the number of proven effective programs. Despite impressive results for some programs, the list of effective sectoral training providers is still much shorter than we would like. Future research and evaluation can add to this list by identifying the next generation of evidence-based sectoral training programs, with a focus on high-priority sectors and learner populations.

Ascendium will continue to prioritize strategies like sector-based workforce training programs that have the potential to provide learners from low-income backgrounds with an accessible, efficient, and effective path to upward mobility. Continued evidence building is critical to informing our and others’ investments in scaling successful program models to reach more learners. Over the coming months, Ascendium will draw on insights from existing and emerging research, our current investments, and the field to explore future investments focused on advancing the evidence about the conditions and mechanisms that make sectoral training programs effective at scale.