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Brace Yourselves: Working Learners Are Growing in Numbers

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Tue Dec 27 2016

Brace Yourselves: Working Learners Are Growing in Numbers
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The New Learning Economy and the Rise of the Working Learner, a 2016 report from ACT Foundation, declares that “learning is no longer an activity that only takes place in limited formal settings . . . learning occurs simultaneously with working and living.” The report finds that more students are working for pay than ever before, and it contends that these individuals “represent the greatest opportunity for increased economic mobility, equity, and growth in the next century.”

Take notice, talent development professionals. Working learners are coming to your organization, if they haven’t already arrived.

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What Is a Working Learner?

**According to Rise of the Working Learner, “Working learners are individuals who work for pay and learn toward a credential at the same time.” These individuals are numerous: 75 percent of higher education students work at least part time, the average college student works 30 hours a week, and half of all high schoolers work for pay outside the home. Many working learners are nontraditional college students; about a third are over the age of 30.

Surprisingly, many students work while earning their degrees for reasons other than money. In addition to helping cover the costs of education, working for pay can help students develop their professional networks, complement or reinforce their academic learning, or gain experience and skills that academia cannot provide. In fact, working while learning can even help students make informed decisions about what courses or degree paths will best support their career goals.

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What Is a Work and Learn Program?

**Work and learn programs are tools to accommodate students who work for pay, helping them continue their educations without leaving the workforce or postponing entry into it. All of them support flexibility and balance, the two factors most likely to prevent working learners from sacrificing their education for immediate workplace success or vice versa.

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These programs offer several benefits to organizations. ACT Foundation says that when employers develop work and learn programs, they “realize a range of returns on their investment, including higher employee retention, increased productivity, and enhanced reputation.” Indeed, Rise of the Working Learner recommends that organizations support working learners by focusing on the mutual benefit of work and learn programs: “Employers should not view education support as an unrecoverable cost.”

Of course, tuition reimbursement isn’t the only type of work and learn program. These programs can be formal or informal in nature, and include opportunities such as internships, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training that may lead to certifications or credentials instead of traditional degrees.

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The Future of Working Learners

**Data show that employers can expect working learners to compose an increasing share of the workforce. The proportion of higher-education students who work for pay has risen by 35 percent since the 1960s, and the factors driving this shift are unlikely to disappear. Technological advances threaten the jobs of unskilled laborers. Higher-education costs continue to rise. College degrees still produce more long-term earning potential than fully committing to the workforce after high school.

Of course, these changing demographics will bring challenges for organizations as they look to develop their workforces. How will companies come to terms with the idea that their employees may care more about learning objectives than business ones? How can they retain workers who return to school? How can they prevent workers’ performance from falling off while they study?

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The answer is obvious: They can talk to talent development. As always, this profession will heed the call to support these individuals. Organizations depend on it.

To learn more about working learners, how to accommodate them, and why doing so can benefit your organization, download ACT Foundation’s The New Learning Economy and the Rise of the Working Learner for free.

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