What to make of an online community college enabling working adults to upskill and keep up with technology, as well as to enable low wage workers to advance in career ladders?

This past week, California newspapers trumpeted Governor Jerry Brown’s announcement of a large-scale online community college initiative aimed at achieving these goals. Open to all, the online community college would focus on adults 25 and older who have a high school degree and/or some college, but no college degree—estimated to number 2.5 million workers in California. As set out in a Department of Finance memo explaining the college, these workers, referred to in the memo as “stranded workers”, could take classes while they’re employed, and gain practical skills to move up in responsibilities and pay.

Attention should be paid, beyond California. The initiative is big—the Governor is asking for $100 million to start the online college, and $20 million per year to keep it going. It is meant to cover hundreds of thousands of workers, when up and going. More broadly, it is meant to provide a new means of educational access for working adults, and a new approach for strengthening the middle class.

So it’s worth asking. What have we learned from past upskilling efforts? Do they lead to wage gains or advancement, especially for low income workers? Are there elements of this online community college that can produce better results than in the past?

Policymakers have worried about technology replacing jobs throughout most of the post World-War II period, and especially since the automation scares of the 1960s. The response has been the creation of government training and retraining programs. The Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA) of 1962 was an early response, aimed at training workers for the emerging technologies in health care, automated manufacturing, and office administration. Later with the “de-industrialization” scares of the 1970s and 1980s, came the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which brought attention to retraining laid off workers. Today we have the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which continues the federal government training/retraining, and adds an emphasis on low wage incumbent workers.

Hundreds of major studies have been undertaken over the years on the impacts of government job training programs. As summarized a few years back by economist David Card, these programs for unemployed workers, show some, though modest, increases in employment levels and wages—with significant gains mainly among formerly unemployed women on welfare.

More specifically with employed low wage workers, training programs have been able to increase skill levels. But they have been stymied in translating these skill increases into either job advancement or wage gains. A few years back, then California Governor Gray Davis launched a career ladders initiative to raise the incomes of low wage workers in nursing homes, child care, home health care, and even farm work. There was a great deal of interest among workers, and skill gains were recorded. But the projects never reached beyond a small number of employers. Further, the significant wage gains were the few instances in which major employers, usually in concert with labor unions, committed wage gains in advance.

Brown’s online community college proposal brings several enhanced training/placement elements to the upskilling world. The team that developed the proposal in the Chancellor’s Office reached out widely to workforce practitioners and community colleges throughout the state, and employers—sector by sector. Among the potential advantages of the college:

*An ability of workers to access training with the flexibility of time and place that online training offers, and to access it through a variety of devices, including phones.

*Online training that is supported by job coaching and other supports–with job coaches who understand advancement strategies.

*Links to industry-recognized certifications, recommended by employers, and to the state’s growing apprenticeship structure in non-traditional fields.

*A scaled down administrative structure.

*A willingness to connect to and build on the extensive online training that already is in place in the 112 community colleges in California, and lessons learned from the previous online training.

Will these elements result in wage gains and employment advances that have eluded previous programs? Time will tell. If anything, the past teaches the difficulty of linking skills gains to wage gains.

The project, though also promises close tracking of outcomes, and a transparency of results in terms of employment advances and wage gains. This tracking and transparency will help us address questions that have perplexed the workforce field since the MDTA of the 1960s: how much is there really a “skills gap” and how much is there a “wage gap”, how much can improving skills of low wage workers lead to wage gains, and how much are wage structures independent of skills.

And we will increase our understanding of worker mobility. Workers, including low wage workers, are moving up the income ladder far more than usually portrayed in the press and in political debates—which often incorrectly refer to “dead end jobs”. The online community college will help us understand better whether online training can increase this mobility, and achieve a path of middle class expansion.

Since he was first elected California Governor in 1974, Jerry Brown has approached government job training programs with great skepticism. He has remarked over the years that these programs serve mainly to create jobs for the administrators and bureaucracy. His final major education/employment initiative will hopefully be the exception. Let’s continue to follow.