Working While Learning: What was Once Non-traditional is Now Traditional

by Anjalé Welton / Feb 16, 2017

The following is a review of the report "The New Learning Economy and the Rise of the Working Learner: An Anthology of Evidence" by Parminder K Jassal PhD, Founding Executive Director of the ACT Foundation, and Hope Clark, PhD.

The ACT Foundation (2012-2016) ignited a national conversation about what research and strategies are necessary to support a population that is vital to the growth of the U.S. economy, working learners ages 14-29. In their recent report "The New Learning Economy and the Rise of the Working Learner: An Anthology of Evidence," Parminder K. Jassal PhD, Founding Executive Director of the ACT Foundation, and Hope Clark, PhD, Principal Research Psychologist at ACT, Inc., define working learners as “individuals who work for pay and learn towards a credential at the same time” (p. 4). In their report the authors provide an overview of recent research sponsored by the ACT Foundation and the ACT Center for Equity in Learning on working learners by focusing on the following key areas:

  • What is the new learning economy and how does it continue to grow?
  • Who working learners are and why they are vital to economic success and growth.
  • How hiring practices will potentially change in the new learning economy.
  • New and emerging developments in work-and-learn options and their benefits.
  • The future skills needed to be successful in the emerging learning economy

Finally, the authors propose a new framework for work-and-learn options, making recommendations for policy, research, and practice.

The process of working and learning “takes on many forms from formal education to skills training to personal development” (p. 4). According to the report, traditionally research has focused on working and learning as separate entities and processes where one would typically complete some form of postsecondary education or credential prior to entering the workforce. However, while this traditional approach still stands for some, integrating some form of education or learning experience while participating in the workforce is becoming the new normal for most (Carnevale, Smith, Melton, & Price, 2015). For example, according to research reviewed in the report back in the 1960s, 60% of all students in higher education did not work at all, but currently half of all high school students work for pay outside of the home (Blanchard, 2016). Similarly, 46% of undergraduate students, as well as 76% of graduate students work full time (Blanchard, 2016). Furthermore, policies and strategies should focus on developing young working learners, as they will not only be the driving force of our future economy, but also at 67% represent the majority of the working learner population (Carnevale et al., 2015). More mature working learners ages 30-54 represent approximately a third of the population (Carnevale et al., 2015).

However, the authors remind us that attending college full time to achieve a degree prior to entering the workforce is now a path—especially with rising student debt—only available to a privileged few. For many, working while pursuing an education is not a choice but is necessary to pay not only for their education but also basic needs. Plus, one may simply choose to integrate working while learning to advance their job skill development, help maintain or build professional networks, or help further future career goals. Yet, whatever one’s rationale may be for doing so, it is evident that working while engaging in learning of some kind is now customary, and perhaps even expected.

Also, in their report Drs. Jassal and Clark emphasize how the global economy is changing so rapidly that degrees or credentials acquired through static forms of education quickly become obsolete. Therefore, working learners are receiving education in different and innovative ways so that they can “renew and refresh knowledge and skills needed to remain competitive in the global economy” (p.4). Through this emphasis, the authors highlight research that suggests there is a new learning economy with a host of options for working learners to acquire new knowledge and skills. This learning can be both formal and informal and can come in the form of online sources such as massively open online courses (MOOCS), customized training in the workplace, trial and error on the job, or simply reading and searching the web. Also, according to the report our economy is now very performance based, so instead of through displaying degrees or a resume of credentials, in the new learning economy a working learner’s years of career experience as well as competencies acquired on the job could be transferred or documented via a digital badge or digital trail. In an interview about the report, Dr. Jassal clarified how the new learning economy:

Offers different types of learning and any type of learning leads you to better performance. That is really the key right now is that it has got to lead to better performance, which differentiates a new learning economy from a knowledge economy. The knowledge economy was about pulling knowledge together and hopefully you end up applying it in some way. But there is no doubt about it now it is not just about the knowledge, but what you can do with the knowledge, and we have made that transition and that is why things are changing so rapidly. A learning economy includes all types of learning, not just a single type of learning, and because of that we need to be able to learn from different sources at different times, wherever, whenever.

The authors developed a framework conceptualizing the work and learn options available as working learners more than ever have the power to direct and even customize how they want to work and learn. Their framework for work and learn options is segmented into four domains:

  • Led by the employer: Learning opportunities are employer initiated to meet employer needs. Providing learning opportunities for employees will hopefully lead to a greater return on their investment for the employer and increased employee productivity and retention.
  • Led by the learning provider: Typically provided by secondary or postsecondary educational institutions such as field experiences, co-op placements, paid or unpaid credit-bearing internships, and project-based learning.
  • Led by a third party: Now the fastest growing sector of work and learn options, such as for-profit short-term programs, boot camps, new-age unions, benefit corporations, and non-profits that serve as a neutral link between the employer, the learning provider, and the working learner.
  • Led by the working learner: Primarily online platforms that are appealing to entrepreneurs and freelancers because they provide work-for-hire options that allow the working learner “to learn while generating income and gain the flexibility to work and learn whenever, wherever, at any age” (p. 42).

So how does this report have implications for secondary and postsecondary educational institutions as a whole? One solution would be an even greater urgency for secondary and postsecondary educational institutions to restructure their programs in alignment with what is now not only the new normal but also essential to our ultimate survival in navigating the economy and life in general--blending working and learning. The authors call for traditional educational structures and training to urgently refocus and rethink what and how we expect our working learners to work and learn. The future is coming whether we are prepared for it or not, and those who are not prepared will struggle to survive, while those who are will thrive. It’s better to be prepared. (p. 37).

The authors will continue to expand the research on working learners presented in this report in a forthcoming book.