Upskilling adults with disabilities through better systems alignment: A new brief highlights Texas model

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, February 11, 2019

American businesses are facing the tightest labor market in decades. At the same time, seven out of ten Americans with disabilities are working or want to work, but they are not always well-served by workforce and education systems. Skills advocates can address both sides of this equation by improving alignment among workforce and education systems so that people with disabilities can upskill for in-demand jobs.

A new brief from NSC showcases one community that has embarked on this type of alignment process. Stakeholders in the workforce development, adult education, and vocational rehabilitation systems in the Rural Capital region of Texas have been collaborating since 2016.

Upskilling adult learners with disabilities: How collaboration among adult education, vocational rehabilitation, and workforce development partners can strengthen systems also provides recommendations for state and federal policymakers who want to support the upskilling of jobseekers with disabilities through better systems alignment.

When systems work better, people with disabilities can upskill more easily

Imagine an adult learner who is eager to earn his high school equivalency and find employment, but whose severe dyslexia has never been properly diagnosed or treated. If his adult education instructor is well-connected to her counterparts in the vocational rehabilitation (VR) system, he may be referred for formal diagnostic testing and become eligible for additional supports.

Similarly, consider a jobseeker with a hearing impairment who has been working with a VR counselor and is frustrated that she can’t find a laboratory-technician training program that will also allow her to brush up on her math skills. If her VR counselor is well-connected to workforce and education partners, she may be referred to an Integrated Education and Training program that fits the bill – and allows her to find rapid employment in this in-demand field.

Businesses benefit when public systems work more smoothly together

Many small and mid-sized businesses depend on the workforce and adult education systems to upskill workers for in-demand jobs. Many such occupations are middle-skill jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but not a four-year degree. The federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) includes mechanisms that encourage local workforce providers to collaborate with peer agencies to provide services such as Integrated Education and Training that can prepare workers for middle-skill jobs.

How Texas is tackling this challenge

The nine-county Rural Capital area surrounds the city of Austin, and encompasses a broad range of suburban, exurban, and rural communities. Rural Capital stakeholders have spent more than three years working to strengthen connections among local workforce, adult education, and VR partners. The goal: make smoother customer handoffs, provide trackable referrals, and ultimately achieve better outcomes for adult learners and workers with disabilities and the local businesses who need their talents.

Rural Capital’s activities have included: Developing a shared vision across stakeholders; providing cross-system professional development to help frontline staff learn how their counterparts approach things; creating streamlined referral protocols and data collection processes; educating stakeholders about the services and eligibility requirements of their peers; and more.

State and federal policymakers can help other communities replicate this success

Regardless of whether states choose to locate their VR agency under the umbrella of the state labor department as Texas has done (NSC takes no position on this issue), policymakers can take action to improve alignment among these key systems.

For example, Texas Workforce Commission officials made WIOA Title II adult education leadership funds available to local partners to support systems integration. Rural Capital partners used that investment to hire an outside facilitator to guide their collaboration process. Other state policymakers should consider following Texas’ lead, making WIOA Title I or Title II leadership dollars available to support systems alignment efforts.

Other recommendations for state policymakers: Invest in technical assistance and cross-system professional development for adult education, workforce, and VR partners. Consider issuing policy guidance or using requests for proposals to encourage local providers to detail their referral processes, co-enrollment, or other forms of collaboration.

At the federal level, policymakers should consider providing guidance on the use of state leadership funds to support alignment across WIOA titles. Federal agencies should release joint guidance in advance of the Spring 2020 WIOA state planning process to further encourage state partners to collaborate. And Congress should ensure that WIOA is funded at its full authorized levels.

Check out the full policy brief to learn more about each of these recommendations.