Across the United States, ever-widening wealth disparities between the rich and the poor are contributing to a significant upward social mobility gap. For the past several generations, higher levels of wealth have directly correlated with increased educational attainment, a pathway that enables individuals to develop critical professional skills that can be used to pursue better employment opportunities with higher salaries. Low income communities are much less likely to attain higher education and improve their economic prospects via skill-building, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
The Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis (IUPRA) and CapSource have partnered with a mission of providing students, educators, and political leaders with the information and resources needed to help build educational and career pathways that better themselves and their communities.
The IUPRA is an interdisciplinary policy research institute at the University of Texas at Austin that focuses on policy and social issues impacting Black populations.
CapSource is an education technology company dedicated to improving student outcomes through industry partnerships and experiential learning.
IUPRA and CapSource have determined ten reasons why skill-building is crucial for building a society that provides upwards mobility. This article discusses why social mobility and skill-building are important concepts, and how when paired together, they form a powerful solution to combat our widening wealth gap.
What is social mobility?
Social mobility is defined as the ability to change positions within a social stratification system. As people improve or diminish their positions–via education, acquiring or losing resources, etc.–they experience social mobility.
Education is a major enabler of social mobility, but research shows that college is still most accessible for individuals who already possess wealth. Unlike income – the accrual of monetary pay for ongoing work, wealth refers to assets that can be converted into financial capital.
According to longitudinal studies analyzed by the Urban Institute, higher levels of wealth and income allow families to afford more educational resources, such as tutors, private schools, and books for their children in order to give them a leg up in getting into (and successfully graduating from) college. Family wealth in particular offers a level of financial security that income infusions alone (such as financial aid or Pell Grants) does not, providing distinct educational and societal advantages to students who are born into affluence. At the same time, a 2017 report released by the Community College League of California notes that historic, systemic inequities and limited social mobility exacerbates challenges that are faced by communities of color, especially students and their families, when trying to attain higher levels of education.
With these discrepancies, it’s no surprise that children of high-income earners are more likely to be higher paid than children of low-income earners. Given the strong correlation between wealth and education, one of the best ways to improve social mobility is to focus on skill-building in low-income communities.
What is skill-building?
Skill-building, as defined by CapSource’s Experiential Learning Framework, is described as learning both “hard” skills–such as language, writing, statistics, and computer technology–as well as “soft” skills, such as active listening, creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. Some of these skills can be taught in a classroom setting, while others are best learned “on the job” or through dedicated project-based experiential learning. Skill-building equips individuals with the knowledge and experience they need to succeed in their careers, and ultimately, to improve their social mobility.
10 Reasons Why Skill-Building Promotes Social Mobility
1. Skill-building improves access to education, a key factor in social mobility.
Contrary to popular belief, not all education needs to take place in a classroom setting. Skill-building is its own form of education, and it is gradually becoming more democratized through online platforms such as edX or Google Digital Garage, which offer free courses ranging from financial literacy to languages to professional development. These types of courses can be taken by high school students, college students, or individuals who are not enrolled in any formal education program.
Alternatively, CapSource works to build connections between academic and industry partners in order to provide students with real opportunities to gain the skills, experience, and exposure needed to jumpstart their career. Not only are students able to practice using hard skills with the guidance of academic and industry mentors, they’re also able to develop critical soft skills by working in teams on developing meaningful outcomes for real organizations.
Skill-building through one of these platforms can also set the foundation for low-income individuals to enroll in a two-year or four-year degree program, even further improving their economic prospects.
2. Skill-building leads to improvements in income and wage growth over time.
Skill-building includes much beyond items that can be included in a resume, cover letter, or job interview. It can broaden socioeconomic opportunities, as individuals gain access and develop a perspective on the job roles and industries available to them that require higher, in-demand skills with greater pay.
Employers already recognize the importance of skill-building, and many are willing to invest in additional skills training for their employees. The Urban Institute reports that “employer-focused” training like CapSource experiential learning programs can produce benefits for both workers and businesses.
Job training is effective for individuals when it provides them with credentials and experience that employers value, and when the training helps develop skills that are demanded in the local labor market. The Urban Institute suggests that businesses can enhance their productivity, increase job retention, and deal with skill shortages by investing in the human capital of their workforce and communities.
3. Skill-building improves employment prospects.
When an individual possesses a wide array of transferable skills, there are far greater employment opportunities available. Employers are seeking distinguishable skill sets amongst potential hires, so it is important that students today are prepared for the quickly changing labor market. According to Indeed.com’s 20 Skills in Demand in Today’s Workforce, some of the most sought-after skills in the workplace today are a mix of soft and technical skills, including cloud computing, UX design, product design, adaptability, and persuasion,.
Pew Research has also noted that the education system needs to adapt to prepare young people for workplace expectations of the future. Fortunately, recent technological advances and more affordable online programs offer new and potentially more widely available ways to access skill-building opportunities. It will be critically important to focus on nurturing unique human skills that artificial intelligence and machines cannot replicate.
4. Skill-building can broaden students’ networks and expose students to more fields and opportunities.
As students undertake skill-building initiatives–whether through a formal class, job training, experiential learning engagement, or online platforms–they meet new professionals and build their networks. Networking introduces students not only to job fields they may not have been familiar with, but it also opens the door to mentorship and job opportunities.
One networking skill for students to develop is a 30-second “elevator pitch” that can be brought up anywhere, whether it is a networking dinner–or in an actual elevator–which can open doors to new, exciting opportunities in the professional world. As part of a skill-building initiative, students can also learn how to weave in their professional and personal experiences in day-to-day conversations while networking with people employed in different fields.
5. Skill-building increases exposure to innovation.
Skill-building equips students with new ways of thinking, which in turn allows for creative solutions (or innovations) that students will be able to leverage in the workplace. Problem-solving is a highly sought-after quality, and young people who are able to refine this skill are likely to be in high demand in the job market.
Innovation is learned more by “doing” than by theory, further emphasizing the importance of hands-on projects or experiential learning opportunities during the skill-building process. Some places to find innovation include local accelerators, maker spaces, and on-campus incubators for students.
One of CapSource’s most popular project topics is “Growth Strategy,” which revolves around helping companies better understand their customers and competitors, develop new products, and ultimately grow the business through unique sales and marketing approaches.
6. Skill-building prepares students for different types of work environments, including virtual.
With increased online learning and decreased in-person interaction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever for students to have the skills and expertise to navigate the professional world online. With some large companies switching to remote work as a permanent option, skills development in a fully online modality is essential for students to be competitive for top jobs that will provide greater economic stability and social mobility.
This problem is twofold: (1) The first, most pressing problem, is the dire need to close the digital divide and increase access to technology that allows individuals to engage in online professional work, and (2) The second problem is to help people develop skills and adapt communication styles to optimize them for a virtual environment.
Organizations such as Digital Promise advocate to increase access to technology. To develop skills online at the moment, companies such as Google, Hubspot, and LinkedIn are offering free certification courses on using their technology to become a more powerful business professional.
CapSource also teaches students how to succeed in a virtual work environment through virtual case competitions, virtual internships, and virtual experiential learning engagements that give high school students, college students, and individuals the opportunity to solve a business challenge with a real company. They also offer free practice case studies based on prior projects called “OpenCases” that can be used to prepare students for case interviews or solving real-world challenges.
7. Skill-building, through social mobility, ultimately leads to improvements in physical and mental health.
Research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information indicates that downward mobility is associated with lower self-rated physical and mental health. When students develop professional skills that improve their chances of upward mobility, their health in the long-run is likely to reap the benefits, too.
There are a few reasons why upward mobility improves health outcomes. Securing salaried jobs that can come with upward mobility often includes benefits such as health insurance, access to health facilities and healthier food. The Urban Institute also reports that higher economic status can also allow for more time and resources to be invested in good nutrition and better living environments that have decreased levels of violence and exposure to toxins, which ultimately affect an individual’s health.
8. Skill-building can lead to more financial security, which has a positive influence on life satisfaction and well-being.
When students feel equipped to pursue skilled, higher-paid career paths, the resulting upward mobility allows for more discretionary resources to be allocated towards other facets of life, rather than primarily focusing on economic affordability. Research has indicated that upward mobility has seen increased participation of individuals in their civil societies, interpersonal relationships with family and friends, and subjective well-being. The trickle-down effect of skill-building improves overall quality of life.
9. Skill-building empowers individuals to become involved in social cohesion and democratic participation.
In social justice movements striving for collective liberation, everyone has a place and a skill to contribute. Designers are needed to create graphics and consolidate information; writers and artists are needed to tell stories and document living experiences; coders are needed to create technological platforms that build bridges between communities; the list goes on.
Students who develop their skill sets can feel even more empowered to take part in social movements and feel as if they are making a difference. For example, organizations like Design As Protest Collective, The Black School, and School for Poetic Computation mobilize professional skills to further advocacy efforts.
10. A lack of skill-building leads to a lack of social mobility, which can have negative societal and political consequences.
A lack of social mobility, or a “broken social elevator,” means that those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are more likely to have underdeveloped talents and unprofitable investment opportunities. However, the cultivation of knowledge seeks to provide opportunities and capitalize on talent and investment. Skill-building isn’t only a bonus to improve social mobility–it’s a necessity.
Ways to Integrate Skill-Building Into Low-Income Communities
While skill-building can be a tool of social mobility, the platforms to access these tools must be made equitable and accessible for all, especially for low-income/working-class learners who face the greatest barriers in obtaining social mobility.
For example, Old Dominion University assists students in overcoming unexpected financial hurdles, helps adult learners finish their degrees, and provides opportunities for more personalized guidance to students in need. To alleviate financial burdens, the university also employs low-income students while ensuring they stay on track to graduate in four years.
As part of their new “Experiential Promise” CapSource is offering 50% off for all historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) if they purchase any services before June 2021. This includes their white label software solution, CapSource CONNECT, designed to help academic partners coordinate, manage, and scale experiential learning programs. This also includes their Company Sourcing & Project Design, a “match-making” service, which partners educators and students with industry through carefully designed projects.
Overall, it is the responsibility of educators, educational platforms/providers, and policymakers to lessen these barriers by leveling the playing field, whether it be providing low- or no-cost pathways to skill-building (e.g. online learning experiences) or through increased investment in educational budgets.
The Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis (IUPRA) is an interdisciplinary policy research institute that provides intersectional policy solutions. Their mission is to strengthen Black communities, promote social justice, and combat anti-Black racism using a racial equity framework. Their vision is to see societal and institutional change and the elimination of racial bias and disproportionality in Texas through policies that value, support, and advance Black communities. The institute’s pillars of research include: education, health disparities, housing, criminal justice, and income/wealth. IUPRA works closely with community members, schools, parents, city leaders, and other elected officials to better understand the needs of the community and promote equitable policy solutions. Additionally, IUPRA works alongside the Texas Legislative Black Caucus to provide state representatives and senators with research related to issues that disproportionately impact the Black community.
CapSource is a trusted experiential learning partner for 300+ companies and 60+ higher learning institutions around the world. The EdTech company specializes in helping academic communities partner with industry through experiential learning engagements. They focus on providing school clients with a unique mix of software and services required to build programs that carefully expose students to industry challenges and real-world mentors. University clients that have leveraged CapSource include Montclair State University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Illinois, Pace University, and the Copenhagen Business Academy. Industry partners have included Burger King, DoorDash, and the American Cancer Society.
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