Fresh Perspectives in Community Development: Innovative State Partnerships Influence the Creation of More-Efficient Certificate Programs

July 01, 2013
By  Garrett Jackson

Technology-driven businesses in the 21st century are being met with a growing skills gap at the middle and top of the labor market. Until recently, response to this economic threat has been mixed, with many workforce boards, businesses and educational institutions working in a vacuum to address this concern. However, viable solutions are now being realized in the form of state-level partnerships that maximize the resources of each organization, streamlining certificate programs that prepare students for today's jobs.

Preparing Workers for 21st-Century Jobs: Retooling Curriculum

More and more educators at institutions that teach adult and nontraditional students are re-evaluating the curriculum requirements for certificate programs to accommodate an ever-evolving global marketplace. Both entry-level and experienced workers, who are looking to improve their marketability and resiliency in the economy, are turning to contextualized basic education, online learning and competency-based education.[1] These programs are preparing students with skills that "require the application of judgment...such as analytical skills, problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills and the like," according to Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President and CEO Dennis P. Lockhart. These certificate programs often take less time to complete and focus more precisely on subject matter that is important to employers, thus preparing workers quickly and more efficiently for 21st-century jobs. Some innovative state partnerships are leading the charge in these initiatives.

At one time, hiring managers could assume that a student's course completion reflected a mastery of the course material (e.g., a certificate in accounting qualifies someone to do accounting work, etc.). Increasingly, employers are no longer making that assumption and are helping to retool certificate programs in partnership with educational institutions, workforce boards and other organizations. These efforts specify certificate curriculum and program duration, and broaden the use of student testing, which might create a new norm in the workforce development pipeline for how adult basic education (ABE) students secure good-paying jobs. While these new programs buck the conventional theory that students are prepared when they achieve the institutionally required credit hours, these efforts could create a win-win for employers and potential employees.

Flexible State ABE Programs Address Completion and Skill Attainment

The National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC) reported in 2012 that the number of two-year sub-baccalaureate certificates awarded at both public and private Title IV institutions totaled 663,177 persons in the 2010-2011 academic year—an increase of 9.4 percent from the 2009-2010 academic year. (See Figure 1.)[2] The trend shows healthy growth in the number of certificates awarded, but issues still remain. Half of the students entering two-year colleges are placed in remedial courses, 30 percent do not bother showing up and less than 10 percent actually graduate in less than three years.[3]


Total Sub-baccalaureate Certificates Awarded 2008–2011

Figure 1

SOURCE: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Fall 2011, Completions Component (Preliminary Data)

Several states responded to this trend by using a new model of embedding ABE material within technical-education classes taught at the postsecondary level for postsecondary credit. The new model increases the relevancy of classes and completion of work, decreasing the time it takes an ABE student to receive a certificate. This increases the worker's marketability and resiliency in the labor market and begins to address the issue of ongoing worker skill attainment, which is required for businesses to stay competitive.

The following are three examples of states that are challenging traditional education systems to streamline certificate programs.

I-BEST Program—Washington

In Washington, a study by the Community College Research Center found that students who enrolled in an Integrated Basic Skills and Training (I-BEST) program were more likely to earn a certificate (by 7.5 percent) or gain college credit (by nearly 10 percent) when compared to students not enrolled in the program.[4] Today seven states, including Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina, have joined the Accelerating Opportunity Initiative, a cross-state effort designed to build on Washington's success and expand workers' access to this brand of ABE coursework.

Manufacturing Sector Strategy—Virginia

New Horizons student

A student at New Horizons Career and Technical Education Center—a Virginia Peninsula Career Pathways initiative partner—prepares to plasma-cut a piece of steel in his welding class.

The Virginia Peninsula Career Pathways initiative is meeting manufacturers' workforce needs by engaging 14 major employers in a consortium, along with the local workforce investment board, the community college, six school districts and other partners.[5] Through a grant awarded to the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, the consortium conducts research and development while implementing career pathways in manufacturing that are specifically tailored to 11,000 advanced-manufacturing and green-technologies jobs that are coming available in the next five years. This influenced the educational requirements for these jobs after the consortium completed an 18-month review of skills needs by the manufacturing partners. Once those skills were assessed, a web site was developed to match education with the skill sets, so people can see what training they need to prepare for the emerging market.

Job-Matching Portal—Oklahoma

Oklahoma recently launched a new job-matching portal that uses real-time labor market information to connect job seekers with open positions posted on more than 16,000 web sites. The software that powers the site and gauges hiring demand is also incorporated into the state's new career planning web site, which shows the education credentials and other requirements necessary for entry into 32 jobs within 14 different career tracks in the state, from entry to advanced levels.

State workforce development agencies should ensure that certificate programs offered by colleges and training facilities are preparing students for 21st-century workforce partnerships like these. Identifying emerging industries—and collaborating with all stakeholders across this sector—is key to developing programs that work. This approach ultimately helps students acquire postsecondary certificates that lead to jobs.

About the Author

Garrett Jackson

Garrett Jackson

A native of Mitchellville, Md., Garrett Jackson recently completed a six-month internship with the National Governors Association, researching state workforce development, economic development and human services trends for state policy advisers. In the summer of 2012 he worked at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in the Division of Consumer and Community Affairs, studying the Independent Foreclosure Review and serving as a contributor to the signature Policy Scan info-database. Jackson holds a bachelor's degree from Morgan State University and a master's in public policy from The George Washington University Trachtenberg School of Public Policy, studying community development and urban policy.

The views expressed in Bridges are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis or the Federal Reserve System. Material herein may be reprinted or abstracted as long as Bridges is credited. Please provide the editor with a copy of any reprinted articles.


  1. Simon, M., Golonka, S., Henton, D., Melville, J. (2013). The Cornerstones of Economic Security for Resilient Workers: A Policy Framework for Shared Action. National Governors Association. [back to text]
  2. Sykes, A. (2012). Defining and Reporting Subbaccalaureate Certificates in IPEDS (NPEC 2012-835). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Postsecondary Education Cooperative. Retrieved June 2013 from[back to text]
  3. Remediation: Higher Education's Bridge to Nowhere. College Compete America. (April 2012) Retrieved June 2013 from [back to text]
  4. Zeidenberg, M., Cho, S., Jenkins, D. Washington State's Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training Program (I-BEST): New Evidence of Effectiveness. (September 2010) [back to text]
  5. Groves, G., Woolsey, L. State Sector Strategies Coming of Age: Implications for State Workforce Policymakers. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, National Skills Coalition, and Corporation for a Skilled Workforce. (January 2013) [back to text]

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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