Desegregating work and learning through ‘earn-and-learn’ models

Editor's note:

This brief is part of the Brookings Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity project.

The pace of social and economic shifts often exceeds the capacity of communities and individuals to adapt to them. In the wake of centuries of structural racism and decades of economic adjustment to globalization, we now find ourselves confronting at least two major disruptions: the COVID-19 recession and the changing nature of work. These disruptions are seriously testing the strength and endurance of our democracy, revealing massive gaps and inequities in our aging public sector institutions.

Our education and labor market support systems are among the public sector infrastructure that have failed to keep up. This paper focuses on education and labor market reforms aimed at fixing two key problems hindering workers, employers, and regions: an educational system that poorly serves its largest student population (so-called “nontraditional” adults) and a credentialing system full of noncredit courses and certificates with little assurance of quality or transparency. The goal is to change and update existing policies and programs so that they are more functional as a system, rather than creating more new standalone programs.

The traditional model of higher education—in which a young person invests once in early-career education to get a college degree and then transitions to work—is no longer sufficient to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change, leaving the majority of Americans behind. The recent history of rolling back de jure segregated vocational education has not been replaced by a bachelor-degreed majority, but by a de facto maze of unaccredited learning, wasted resources on incomplete degrees, and insufficient employer investments in work-based training.

As a result, job seekers often have trouble communicating their value to employers, navigating their career options, and accessing additional education. Employers default to what they know (degrees and personal networks) and tend to underinvest in training, which leaves them paying a premium to compete in narrow pools for talent and ill-equipped to find or cultivate the full range of talent that exists. These market failures contribute to rising inequality and persistent occupational segregation.

Desegregating work and learning through earn-and-learn strategies—as other industrialized countries have done—would provide multiple paths to jobs and careers for people with diverse backgrounds and experiences, unleashing the full potential of our homegrown talent. It would also boost private sector innovation as new workers apply ideas, methods, and technologies learned in the classroom to problems in the workplace.

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Jobs and labor markets are constantly in flux. Major shocks (such as state and local COVID-19 lockdowns) can displace millions of workers almost overnight. Technologies like artificial intelligence or robotics can shift the workforce needs of entire industries. And cyclical and structural shifts in the economy (such as the long-term decline of the manufacturing industry following trade liberalization) leaves many adults in the position of making a major career transition in mid-life, while they also have family obligations and bills to pay. Left unchecked, these market disruptions can lead to mass displacement, long-term disconnection from the labor force, and cycles of regional economic decline.

In times of crisis, government plays an especially important role in buffering people from the most extreme forms of economic disruption and reversing the cycle of decline by stimulating growth. During the Great Depression, for instance, the New Deal created publicly supported jobs, made massive investments in infrastructure, and invented new forms of social insurance that, taken together, catapulted our country out of a depression and into a postwar boom that positioned the U.S. as a global superpower.

But these New Deal-era programs and policies also intentionally strengthened racial and gender inequality in the labor market. For example, agricultural, domestic, and some service workers were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, classifying certain occupations with a disproportionate share of female, Black, and Chinese immigrant workers as a separate and subordinated class of workers.

In many ways, this stratification in our policies persists. For instance, the lower minimum wage for tipped workers has its roots in slavery, and has been frozen at $2.13 per hour since 1996. Workers in nonstandard work arrangements (often known as “gig workers”) do not have the same protections from discrimination or access to safety net programs such as unemployment insurance, disproportionately impacting women and people of color. Decades of aging and disinvestment in our education and labor market institutions has further weakened the capacity of these institutions to respond to major shocks or to address the persistent effects of gender and racial injustice.

Now, we are facing two additional disruptions within this context: the COVID-19 recession and the changing nature of work. These disruptions are revealing the massive gaps and inequities in our aging public sector institutions. As of December 3, the U.S. is on its 37th consecutive week of more new unemployment claims than the worst week of the Great Recession, and employment levels remain 9.8 million jobs lower than in February 2020. These job losses are concentrated among workers with less education and in low-wage service jobs, which means that women, youth, Black, and Latino or Hispanic workers are disproportionately impacted because of occupational segregation. In essence, we have a lot of workers without a postsecondary degree who have been displaced from industries that may take a very long time to recover, and we don’t have the institutions we need to create seamless career transitions into decent work.

Although a traditional four-year college degree is the dominant occupational pathway in the U.S., a large majority (69%) of Americans do not have a college degree. The rising cost of postsecondary education has prevented many from even trying to enroll in or complete college, and has saddled most of the rest with decades of debt payments. There are also large racial disparities in college degree attainment rates.

The haphazard proliferation of alternatives to the traditional college degree has, over time, generated a confusing and chaotic landscape of credentials and programs. Both workers and employers struggle to understand quality levels and qualification levels to make informed choices about the value of these offerings. The pandemic has accelerated the shift to online and distance learning, but users of these programs similarly struggle to fully understand the product or service they are investing in or its value to a specific employer. Unaccredited programs also limit the ability of the learner to demonstrate how their learning has progressed to more advanced levels, or easily transfer some of that credit into a new occupational pathway (for career switchers). Without more transparency, many hiring managers assume these alternatives are of lower quality or, at best, more risky.

With the historically severe disparities in impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must think big and act immediately to address long-standing structural barriers to education and economic opportunity. This paper focuses on critical reforms we can make to the public education and training ecosystem by expanding earn-and-learn strategies to better meet the current needs of individuals, employers, and a rapidly evolving economy. Expanding earn-and-learn offers “long life learning” options suitable for working adults, rather than only having quality education options designed for “traditional” college-age students.

Second, by blending work and learning, earn-and-learn strategies can help address the legacies of racialized tracking in education and the subsequent proliferation of nonaccredited, online, and informal training options that fail to effectively signal quality in the labor market. Investing in the public sector expansion of earn-and-learn opportunities will help drive a more equitable and inclusive recovery that better positions America for success in the 21st century.

Sidebar: The history of racialized tracking in the U.S.


It is critical to acknowledge the legacies of tracking in the U.S. and the powerful role vocational education played in reinforcing structural racism. Tracking—or the practice of sorting students into learning cohorts based on ability—segregated vocational education from academic education by requiring lower-achieving students (often immigrant, Black, Latino or Hispanic, and low-income students) to take vocational curricula from an early age.


Elite groups often stigmatize vocational education as having lower social status, although many Americans do not share that sentiment or value a college education to the same degree. Nevertheless, in the dominant culture, the term “vocational” is often associated with a negative stigma in the U.S. that is much stronger than in other countries.


In part due to equity concerns, the U.S. has scaled back vocational education since the 1980s. Although this has reduced barriers to accessing college preparatory coursework in secondary schools for all students, it has also reduced the options available for students who prefer hands-on learning or cannot afford to complete a degree, as well as for employers who want a stable pipeline of workers for craft industries, clinical professions, the trades, or technology. In addition, employers tend to underinvest in training, and there are substantial racial disparities in access to training once someone has a job. The lack of options for formal higher education that is more hands-on makes it impossible for people to reach more advanced levels of education and pay without going to college. This dead end reinforces the lower social status of vocational training in the U.S.

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Limits of historic and existing policies

Earn-and-learn strategies combine work experience and education while simultaneously providing income. They offer a promising solution to overcome the historical segregation of work and learning, but our current earn-and-learn options are outdated and small in scale.

Why isn’t the traditional college model enough?

Although we can and should make college much more affordable, a narrow policy focus on free college as the only solution to rising inequality limits options for people who want to keep advancing their education but also want or need to keep working. Moreover, some forms of knowledge and expertise can only be mastered by doing them. Academic, classroom-based education teaches theoretical, conceptual, and abstract knowledge and skills. Other, more applied skills and knowledge are best learned through hands-on experience and observation. For example, advanced cybersecurity is best learned through a combination of classroom learning and practical experience.

Asking people to invest a lot of time and money into their education only once, very early in their career, does not meet the needs of today’s economy. Employers are deploying high-level technology in a variety of industrial settings, and many seek to establish an agile, evolving culture of work. The sequential model of education does not suit this approach.

Many employers report that college graduates without work experience do not have the right mix of hands-on experience and abstract/theoretical knowledge. Moreover, employers in countries that have mature systems for postsecondary applied learning, such as the Swiss vocational education and training model, show a healthy return on investment. The existing setup of segregated pipelines of academic learning on one side and one-off, noncredit work-oriented training programs on the other creates costs for employers, such as failing to identify or promote qualified talent, high recruitment costs, labor turnover, and quality risks. This constrains innovation and limits economic mobility.

We already have earn-and-learn, but it is small in scale and not systematic

Growing evidence suggests that the best workforce program outcomes come from sector-based trainings that are work-based, part of a longer career pathway program, and include access to one-on-one career navigation assistance and other wraparound services. In particular, evidence suggests that apprenticeship programs work better and are more cost-effective than occupational training that is disconnected from work experience. Figure 1 shows examples of the most common earn-and-learn strategies in the U.S. today, both within the public workforce system and beyond.


The earn-and-learn programs under the public workforce system—authorized under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)—are underused and hard to scale. Publicly funded job training options are tiny overall compared to investments in traditional public higher education or classroom-based job training. Funding for public higher education was $385 billion in 2017-18, compared to about $14 billion for employment services and training across 43 programs. The net result is that higher education is the main provider of publicly funded training for most Americans, and most of the $14 billion for employment services and training goes to services (most of which isn’t training) for special populations such as veterans and people with disabilities. However, there are important insights to be gained about the limits of current workforce policy ecosystem from analyzing how these selective programs work. For example, the current program ecosystem includes some training for low-income adults and dislocated workers under WIOA.

According to Labor Department data, over half (56%) of WIOA-funded training participants in the adult and dislocated worker programs receive occupational skills training that is separated from work. This is the type of training one receives in a typical community college program and includes both credit-based and noncredit training. Less than 1% of these training participants are enrolled in registered apprenticeships or incumbent worker training. However, earn-and-learn participants in these two forms of training earned almost double the annualized median earnings of the occupational skills training participants. This is counterintuitive—we are grossly underutilizing apprenticeships and incumbent worker training, two of the most powerful ways of helping people successfully transition into higher-paying jobs.

For example, the U.S. had roughly 238,000 new registered apprentices in 2018. However, if the U.S. had the same share of new apprentices per capita as Germany, we would have 2 million new apprentices per year; if we had the same share as the United Kingdom or Switzerland, that number would be 3 million.

The use of earn-and-learn training in WIOA adult and dislocated worker programs is likely low because of rigid and layered program requirements. For example, local areas cannot spend more than 20% of their local allocation on incumbent worker training under WIOA regulations. The WIOA legislation also requires training providers (except for registered apprenticeship providers) to supply quarterly job placement and wage data for all students in a program—not just those who are receiving WIOA funding—in order to qualify for the eligible training provider list. This has proved to be an onerous requirement for publicly funded two-year community colleges, let alone private or online providers. And even though registered apprenticeships are automatically eligible for WIOA funding, they are governed by separate federal legislation that is not well coordinated with WIOA adult and dislocated worker programs in terms of intake, target populations, or training durations (WIOA is short term, while registered apprenticeships are long term).

If earn-and-learn is so effective and in-demand, why hasn’t it taken off?

Several regions have attempted to invest more significantly in earn-and-learn strategies. For example, CareerWise Colorado, a nonprofit private model that draws insights from the Swiss model of vocational education and training, is one of the most innovative earn-and-learn initiatives in the U.S. because of its emphasis on youth apprenticeships in a wide range of industry sectors (beyond the trades). However, it is only four years old and has fewer than 1,000 youth apprentices, according to the CareerWise website.

Nationwide, states have struggled to coordinate various regional pilots and approaches while also maintaining quality standards. U.S registered apprenticeship programs serve workers who are a decade older, on average, than apprenticeship programs in peer nations, and states are effectively splitting their attention to build modern youth and adult apprenticeship programs in nontraditional industries as separate pathways from the long-standing model in the U.S. governed through the outdated National Apprenticeship Act of 1937.

A lack of state-level policy infrastructure and institutional capacity means that employers interested in apprenticeships or incumbent worker training generally have to invest significant resources in creating their own one-off programs and then getting them approved by state or federal programs in order to get access to candidates and funding resources. Employers in the U.S. are not well organized into associations or sector councils that can provide clear signals to educators about shared talent and skill needs, or signal to workforce systems which occupational pipelines have long-term unmet talent needs. Employers also have no meaningful authority over curricula, content, or quality assurance for school-based programs. Many employers have no choice but to work with the various arms of the decentralized higher education system, because it has more substantial options—even though it tends to focus more narrowly on theoretically oriented learning as opposed to more applied, work-oriented learning.

Establishing a strong culture of learning in the workplace takes active coordination. In traditional apprenticeship occupations, unions have long played the role of coordinating between employers, educators, and learners, and the roles and expectations are fairly well understood by everyone involved. For occupations and industries that are new to apprenticeships and have low unionization (such as technology and health care), there is an institutional vacuum in the intermediary role that is often a barrier to scaling apprenticeships. In large part, this is because the model is so unfamiliar, and there tends to be limited shared infrastructure to make the process easier. For employees already in a workplace, the lack of an established learning culture and infrastructure in many firms can be a barrier for employers and workers to easily blend the activities of working and learning to facilitate continuous adaptation and innovation.

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Policy recommendation: Expand and scale earn-and-learn training

The current crisis provides an important opportunity to move from siloed programs into a more equitable training ecosystem with multiple pathways for career mobility. Earn-and-learn pathways differ from traditional academic and vocational education in that they combine academic education with work experience and—if designed smartly—can provide a paid route to a college degree and lifelong learning rather than a separate and unequal track away from it. They also give workers a chance to show their value to an employer and provide access to professional networks that are essential for finding employment opportunities, accessing career-related information, and earning promotions. For employers, earn-and-learn offers a stable pipeline of talent that possesses a combination of academic and industry-specific knowledge, which a classroom education alone cannot deliver.


Blended learning helps firms internalize an agile, learning-oriented workplace culture appropriate for today’s rate of innovation and economic change. The pace of growth in both new technologies and new applications has compressed to many times shorter than a typical person’s career. Earn-and-learn pathways can both keep workers’ skills fresh in the innovation economy and address the structural inequality that is holding our economy back, because the existing system does not maximize activation of the talent we already have. However, given the legacies of tracking, revisiting the question of how to expand beyond only offering a traditional four-year college path to economic mobility requires careful attention to racial and gender equity in employer-side hiring practices and building quality applied training options that learners with a wide range of interests and abilities will find attractive.


Additional specialized programs will not accomplish this. We need to focus on the systems level: across federal agencies, funding streams, and legislation. Achieving a user-friendly earn-and-learn ecosystem at scale will be a long-term effort, but we can start with four key changes:

  1. Congress must align and modernize federal Registered Apprenticeship, Higher Education Act, Perkins, and WIOA legislation to emphasize the following policy principles:
    • Design around people’s needs by gathering direct input from learners/workers to understand the typical user’s journey through existing programs, learning stages (career progressions), pain points, and aspirations, rather than making assumptions about what the end user needs.
    • Desegregate the credit/noncredit learning divide at community colleges through a system of for-credit, stackable blended-learning programs housed within state higher education or labor agencies—organized into applied occupational curricula that are intentionally designed so that the main users are adult learners who are also working.
    • Strive for universal access to career exploration, networks/mentors, one-on-one career counseling, digital literacy, and wraparound supports by reducing barriers to partnership, sponsoring interagency partnerships to help states and local areas braid funding, and building on the existing American Job Centers and community college infrastructure in local communities.
    • Measure and continuously improve equitable access to ongoing learning opportunities for low-wage workers and female, Black, Latino or Hispanic, and Native American workers (e.g., diversifying registered apprenticeships) and making sure that all high schools, job centers, and community colleges have robust offerings.
  1. The White House and Congress must work together to establish more substantial and stable federal funding streams that states can use to institutionalize applied earn-and-learn pathways for the following key elements missing from the current federal budget:
    • Resources for the education portion of blended learning to support working adults as they split time between work, related learning in the classroom, and domestic responsibilities; and to support students by offering schools more flexibility for incorporating work experience.
    • Defraying employer-side startup costs of new earn-and-learn infrastructure inside the company and building internal capacity for staff and mentors to foster an innovative workplace culture through subsidized employment policies and other incentives to provide more work and learning experiences (this is especially crucial when private sector demand is suppressed in a recession).
    • Capacity-building funding for intermediaries serving nontraditional occupations that have low unionization to connect prospective apprentices to prospective employers.
    • Modernize information systems and provide software as a service (SaaS) as the backbone of not just earn-and-learn programs, but also various other civic technologies such as wage record reporting, tracking systems, intake forms, apprentice matching, and case management systems.
  1. State-level actors must implement a policy framework to allow learners to “stack” their learning and have the freedom to switch pathways without having to start over, built around the following action items:
    • State legislatures can formalize the recognition of multiple ways of learning, breaking the monopoly on accrediting learning only through academic pathways by establishing equivalencies (see, for example, the Scottish interactive framework), offering more flexible course options that align better with the needs of many students and employers (e.g., competency-based curricula, micro-credentials, modularized courses), and explicitly valuing learning-by-doing and prior experience through systematizing prior learning assessment.
    • Governors and state agencies should work together to convene sector councils of employers and educators whose role and authority is to assess quality standards and approve training providers and programs in priority occupations that meet those standards at each learning level, and update those standards regularly—similar to the role of industry organizations and associations in Switzerland, Australia, and other peer countries.
    • Sector councils should organize earn-and-learn curricula by prioritizing occupations with long-term talent pipeline challenges and establishing clear learning milestones by occupation so that it is more transparent for both job seekers and employers to communicate skill levels.
    • State legislators and agencies must promote continuous choice by including clear protocols in the state qualification policy framework for transferring credit between academic and earn-and-learn pathways, as an explicit strategy to overcome the legacies of tracking and prevent dead ends.
    • State labor and education agencies should establish well-coordinated platforms for data-sharing, research, and information to track earn-and-learn participants and outcomes across agencies, streamline intake, match job seekers and other learners to opportunities, create feedback loops for continuous improvement, and facilitate ethical data-sharing.
    • Governors should identify a lead employer-serving state agency to ensure there is a clear entry point for employers to access resources across multiple agencies and to gather direct employer input on training programs or other services. The intermediaries noted above can play a key role in outreach and educating employers.
  1. Government, public and private educators, and philanthropy need an all-hands-on-deck culture shift to define, legitimize, and socialize earn-and-learn options with the following goals in mind:
    • Public and philanthropic support for intermediaries to implement and coordinate outreach with parents, learners, educators, incumbent workers, employers, and the general public to build credibility for the value of earn-and-learn pathways and lifelong learning.
    • State-agency-sponsored market research with employers and other stakeholders to inform a branding and outreach strategy to ensure that earn-and-learn has a clear value proposition.

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Increasing opportunities for on-the-job learning and offering a blend of work-based instruction and related classroom instruction would help foster an economy that works for more people, places, and sectors. It will also make higher education accessible to a wider range of Americans who are not able to access quality higher education as it is currently structured and offer youth and adults an initial opportunity to gain work experience and professional networks in a new field.

Desegregating the cultures of work and learning will benefit employers and workers in the long run, but will require a reconfiguration of how education and labor market institutions partner with employers and job seekers—not just a new program. The future of work also requires a mindset shift in which employers play a more active role in cultivating diverse talent, rather than consuming ready-made talent from a narrow pool.

The uneven impacts of the COVID-19 recession represent an opportune time to redesign public institutions and private sector approaches to talent development, address long-standing structural inequalities in the labor market, and desegregate access to economic mobility.

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  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The author is grateful for valuable research support from Janie McDermott and helpful feedback from Tracy Hadden Loh, Kristin Wolff, Katherine Caves, Olugbenga Ajilore, Alan Berube, and Martha Ross.

  • Footnotes
    1. Note: Because so many workers in non-standard working arrangements were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic but are normally ineligible for unemployment insurance, the CARES Act created an entirely new program to cover these individuals and other categories of workers who normally are excluded from eligibility for unemployment insurance – the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
    2. Qualification levels refers to how advanced a program is along a continuum of learning in that occupation. These exist for academic programs (the high school diploma, associate’s degree, bachelors degree, etc.) but are not as common in the U.S. for applied training certificates or training programs as they are in other countries through qualification frameworks.
    3. Source: Brookings analysis of U.S. Department of Labor, 2018 Quarter 3 WIOA Participant Individual Record Layout (PIRL) Data. Median wages were annualized using quarterly earnings in the second quarter following program exit for training participants.