Better work experiences for Work-Study students

House Education and Labor Committee members Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) chat at Tuesday's hearing. (Photo: Courtesy of the House Education and Labor Committee)

During a House Education and Labor Committee hearing on Tuesday that looked at barriers to work, some lawmakers and panelists supported the idea of allowing students participating in the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program to find jobs in their field of study rather than in unrelated, on-campus employment.

Apprenticeships were highlighted as a potential FWS experience that could allow students to gain the soft and technical skills for their chosen fields — all while earning income.

The discussion came a day after the U.S. Education Department announced a new FWS pilot program that will give institutions the flexibility to allow students to earn work-study benefits while participating in apprenticeships, internships and work-based learning programs, as well as earn work-study wages while completing required clinical rotations, externships and student teaching.

Tuesday’s hearing covered a broad array of areas that affect certain populations’ ability to find good-paying jobs, including disconnected youths, older displaced workers, individuals with disabilities and people in prisons.

Paying to find workers

Daniel Pianko, co-founder and managing director of University Ventures, which helps employers find skilled workers, told the committee Tuesday that work-based experiences are invaluable to students exploring career options as well as to those ready to graduate. They also provide an opportunity for those populations that continue to struggle to find good-paying jobs, he said.

In addition, work-based learning opportunities are increasingly critical to employers, who are desperate for skilled workers, Pianko said.

“We are in a unique point in time where employers are willing to pay to get people trained,” he said. For example, employers are willing to pay $30,000 to train an employee to do coding, and some hospitals will pay $80,000 to recruit much-needed nurses, he said.

Reallocating resources

Ranking member Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) said she supports such work-based learning opportunities, but she was critical of the hearing in general, noting it was an opportunity for Democrats to call for more federal funding and involvement rather than examine comprehensive reform to address the nation’s skills gap.

Pianko agreed with her that it’s a matter of reallocating resources, citing FWS as an example. He noted that 92 percent (about $996 million) of the $1.1 billion appropriated for FWS in 2016-17 went to subsidized on-campus jobs. Nearly all the rest went to off-campus jobs at not-for-profit or community service organizations, he said. Only $726,208 went to help students gain work experience at private, for-profit organizations.

“We should protect students to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of by private employers, but at the same time equalize the subsidy, remove the 25 percent cap, and require participating institutions to place a much higher percentage … of students in real, off-campus jobs,” he said in his testimony.

He added: “If colleges can’t make that work, they shouldn’t receive FWS funds, and remaining dollars could be added to the Pell (Grant) program to directly help the nation’s neediest students.”

But businesses also must step up, both Pianko and several lawmakers noted.

“Employers need to be the first ones to make the effort to address the skills gap,” said Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pennsylvania), who noted his support of community colleges serving in a role to help connect trained workers with employers.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.