Training Workers When Employers Hire Based on Skills: Lessons from Connecticut and Virginia

Kelli-Marie Vallieres and Elizabeth Creamer

As the cost of higher education climbs, skills-based hiring has gained traction. It’s a labor market trend in which employers hire based on applicants’ skills, with the understanding that degrees are not the only way to acquire competencies.

In a follow-up to an earlier episode on skills-based hiring, Rachel Rosen, who leads MDRC’s Center for Effective Career and Technical Education, speaks with two guests: Kelli-Marie Vallieres, Connecticut’s Chief Workforce Officer who leads the state’s Office of Workforce Strategy, and Elizabeth Creamer, Vice President of Workforce Development for the Community College Workforce Alliance, which is the workforce development division of Brightpoint and Reynolds community colleges, within the Virginia Community College System.

They discuss which sectors are experiencing an uptick in skills-based hiring in Connecticut, what non-degree programs are offered in Virginia, and whether skills-based hiring can promote equity.

Leigh Parise: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on what works to improve the lives of people with low incomes. I'm your host, Leigh Parise.

As the cost of higher education climbs, skills-based hiring is gaining traction. It's a labor market trend where employers hire based on skills with the understanding that degrees are not the only way to acquire competencies. Some estimates suggest that as many as 30 million individuals would be eligible for higher-wage work if degree requirements were lifted. At last count, the governors of 10 states have pledged their commitment to skills-based hiring for state positions. Skills-based hiring also has the potential to increase equity in the hiring process, providing avenues to socioeconomic mobility for historically marginalized groups. But there are also questions about whether the movement could demotivate students from pursuing two- or four-year degrees that may be more transferable to other jobs. In an earlier episode, I spoke with Matt Sigelman, President of The Burning Glass Institute, about the extent to which employers are actually hiring based on skills.

For this episode, my colleague and friend Rachel Rosen, who leads MDRC's Center for Effective Career and Technical Education, spoke with two guests. She was joined by Kelli-Marie Vallieres, who is Connecticut's chief workforce officer and leads the Office of Workforce Strategy, an independent state agency codified in 2021. This agency is responsible for advising the governor on workforce development and coordinating these efforts throughout the state. Also joining the discussion was Elizabeth Creamer, vice president of workforce development for the Community College Workforce Alliance, which is the workforce development division within the Virginia Community College System. Here's that conversation now.

Rachel Rosen: Elizabeth and Kelli-Marie, thanks so much for joining me today on Evidence First. You both bring a wealth of knowledge about skills-based hiring and how it’s playing out from the state and higher education perspectives.

Kelli, let’s start with you. Could you talk briefly about Connecticut’s Office of Workforce Strategy and the work you all do there? 

Kelli-Marie Vallieres: The Office of Workforce Strategy oversees the governor's workforce initiatives. We were codified in state statute in 2020, and we developed a comprehensive workforce development strategy that was participated in input by over a hundred different stakeholder groups. The Governor's Workforce Council is the state workforce board. The Office of Workforce Strategy oversees the implementation of the state strategy and the workforce board system.

Rachel Rosen: And since we're talking about skills-based hiring, I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how much you're seeing skills-based hiring uptick in Connecticut and whether it's more prevalent in certain fields than in others.

Kelli-Marie Vallieres: Yeah, that's a great question. Skills-based hiring is really one of the essential components of our strategy. Our strategy is really business led. So we have initiatives, business leading all of the requirements for what they need and when they need it. And we have workforce partners—including our community college system, our workforce board system—[that] engage heavily in ensuring that the strategies and the needs of our businesses are implemented within the programs and they're informed by and connected too.  Another part of our strategy is overseeing workforce career readiness programs in the high school programs and then sector-based training.

But a lot of the work that we do with businesses is ensuring that they understand that by putting (sometimes) artificial barriers [up], by having educational requirements and then experiences requirements on top of that, they're really leaving out almost half of the workforce that could be eligible to fill those jobs—really talented people that just don't have those credentials. So we've been working with our regional sector partnerships—which is a table that we set for our businesses by region and by industry sector in Connecticut—[and] really helping them to understand what skills-based hiring is, how to implement that, the benefits to those organizations. And then also understanding quality jobs so that we're not just bringing people into a job, but we're bringing them into a quality job that has a career ladder with upward mobility. So that's the conversation we're having robustly, here in Connecticut.

Rachel Rosen: That's great. Thank you so much, Kelli. And I'm wondering, before we dive into it—Elizabeth, could you talk about some of the work you're doing with your community colleges and how that might be similar to some of the educational work that Kelli is doing in Connecticut?

Elizabeth Creamer: It was very interesting to hear what Kelli had to say because in the Commonwealth of Virginia, we too have. . . . Last year our general assembly governor passed legislation to stand up a comprehensive Virginia Department of Workforce Development and Advancement. The community college is a partner to the WIOA system, but that new department actually will be overseeing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act. Our primary role is education and training, and there are fundamental shifts that are occurring in that space that are related to skills-based hiring.

What Virginia has been very progressive about, since 2016, is we launched a statewide initiative called FastForward. We have 23 community colleges in Virginia. They're part of one system—and increasingly we're operating as a system, which is an advantage, I think, for business and industry and for job seekers alike. But FastForward was deliberately stood up to be a different kind of skills development delivery system for job seekers that were underrepresented in higher education, that were lower income, [and] less likely to hold formal credentials or to have participated in higher education.

The idea was, how can we get this huge population that may be sitting on the sidelines in terms of access to quality jobs—how can we serve them better? Because traditional education degrees are not cutting it. Our traditional higher education semester-based approaches to quality jobs attainment are just not right for working adults. So FastForward is radically different. Training is intensive. It's short: 4 to 14 weeks. It may be hybrid; it may be online. There are going to be labs. There's going to be a hands-on component. Increasingly, there's going to be work-based learning. It's very tied to specific occupations—and within each region, even specific industries—that are waiting to receive those graduates or program completers from FastForward programs.

We're talking about middle skills jobs, jobs that are accessible without a baccalaureate, even accessible without an associate’s—so transportation, manufacturing, information technology. Health care is one of our biggest programs, and the state has put aside funding so that there's tuition assistance, there's support services, there's career coaching, all targeted to working adults. At CCWA—the Community College Workforce Alliance, representing two large community colleges—85 percent of our students are above 25. About 60 percent of our students are already parents. We’re majority minority and a large swath of our population—twice the number of traditional community college students—are eligible for public assistance. So we're really helping people to get quality jobs [who] otherwise would kind of be on the sidelines.

Rachel Rosen: Thanks so much for that, Elizabeth. What I'm hearing you both say is that people need skills and maybe not degrees, but some of these credentials provide the skills on a faster timeline than a traditional associate's degree. And Kelli, it sounds like maybe some of the jobs you're seeing in Connecticut are looking to hire people that have those kinds of credentials. Is that what I'm hearing from both of you, that these short-term credentials are helping fill the gap [and] allow people to see that these students have skills [even] if maybe they don't have a degree?

Kelli-Marie Vallieres: Yes. Elizabeth, I'm really excited to hear about your program in Virginia. Connecticut has a similar program. Our governor used $70 million of the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act of 2021) funding—our legislators approved the allocation—and we're doing a program very similar called Career ConneCT. And this is, again, meeting the industries where they're at, in the regional sector partnerships, and getting from them what they need today and tomorrow. It really is very similar to what your focus is—manufacturing, health care, IT, infrastructure, clean energy, bioscience—in Connecticut.

We are using our community colleges as our primary program provider, helping them to build curriculum or expand existing curriculum. Really designing, to your point, Elizabeth, those short-term credentials. We're using 5- to 12- to 14-week programs, or full-time. They include the complete wraparound services, removing pretty much any barrier.

And then [we’re] making sure that that job is waiting for them on the other side. So we're not training and hoping they're going to get a job—the employers are connected to the programming and in the best-case scenarios are actually interviewing participants while they're still in classes and offering them conditional offers upon graduation. So . . . wraparound services are really important. And again, [we’re] targeting those who have been left on the sidelines, our marginalized communities, those who have been just waiting for the right opportunity that fits.

That's a real focus for us here in Connecticut. And then, on the opposite side, is helping our employers understand the value of these types of programs so that they intake the people from the programs but then make a commitment to help them continuously move forward on that career trajectory path. The other element that we have is stackable credentials. In a lot of our programs, participants can complete the noncredit program, they can get assessed for credit, and they can take (sometimes) up to 9 to 12 credits with them in that associate’s degree pathway, should they choose to continue on.

Elizabeth Creamer: Our FastForward program in Virginia also does the stackable credentials and credits for workforce training. I think what we're all about; it's not a coincidence that Connecticut and Virginia are kind of moving toward the same goals. All of us recognize that with the shrinking high school population, there's just more and more of a critical economic need to reskill, retool, and make sure that all of our working adults are fully employed in quality jobs—in jobs that really do offer living wages and have opportunities for continued progress.

And we've got to figure out. . . . We had figured out in workforce development that we had to have some methods, some models, some programs that really could effectively move a working adult—a head of household, a single mom, a transitioning service member—move them into a position where they could be promoted, where they really were on a career pathway to success and not just in the same entry-level job, cycling through inadequate wages to support a family. I'm really encouraged because I think nationally and within our own states, we are getting there.

Rachel Rosen: That's great to hear. I'm wondering if you can both talk about what's been the experience [with]—or what are you hearing from—employers in terms of how receptive they are to hiring people who have these credentials (or who have less than a college degree or less than a two-year associate's degree). And how are you working with them to get feedback from them?

Kelli-Marie Vallieres: Here in Connecticut, as I mentioned, our employers are at the table and they understand this imperative. We have more open jobs than we have traditional job seekers to fill those roles. So our employers understand that they have to look for the hidden talent. We have an upcoming summit [that is] really focused on uncovering hidden talent. Those are people who have been left on the sidelines for many different reasons. But they are people who are very talented and may not have had the opportunities for higher education or may have had to leave education before they completed their high school diploma for many different personal reasons.

And these are people who have a lot to offer and we need to ensure that we're providing them with those opportunities. In Connecticut, we have historical unemployment rates; we have high labor market participation rates. But when we start to peel the onion back and we look at who is participating, it is the traditional people that you would think are out there looking for jobs. Those who are from Black and Brown communities, underserved communities, our opportunity youth, their participation rate is much lower than those we typically see in the labor market.

And that's where there's so much talent and we just need to engage them and be also really mindful that they do have additional barriers to overcome, not only to participate in job training programs, but also to participate fully in work. So in Connecticut, we're really taking a holistic approach. For instance, we are working now on a pilot program with our 2Gen (Connecticut’s 2Gen Initiative) partners for the benefits cliffs and how we can help those who want to be gainfully employed ensure that they're not going to lose vital benefits before they actually make enough money to recoup those benefits from their own wages.

We're also working on the transportation issue. Someone who gets a new job and they don't have a savings account and either their car breaks down or they don't have transportation at all—how do we help them access the transportation and the funding they need for transportation to be able to get to work? We're working on childcare and housing in Connecticut as well, with major initiatives. So we really need to take a holistic approach when we're thinking about not just the technical skills training that is so necessary to get them into the entry-level career pathway programs, but also to look at their circumstances as a whole. How do we remove those existential barriers that prohibited them from participating in the beginning?

Elizabeth Creamer: I would say FastForward—and we have another program, G3, which is about starting with entry-level credentials and then helping adults to get to degrees through stackable credentials. All of these new workforce programs in the last five years, honestly, they've been business led. FastForward is not a program where you can take any training. The industry sectors that are participating—where large and medium and small employers are enthusiastically supportive of these programs—they are in industries that are filling a critical need for new talent pipelines.

They understand that they need to change. Now, that can be slower in some industries than others. We still need more women in trades and there are so many opportunities for women in trades, and good salaries and opportunities for entrepreneurial activity and small business initiatives. But we definitely have made progress. They are enthusiastically behind this. In fact, in Virginia, a consortium of business and industry came together to create incentives to get more Virginians to participate in FastForward and the result has been [that] almost 53,000 of these workforce credentials have been awarded.

The companies are also very involved in the curriculum development. We recently launched, in my region, a new pharmaceutical manufacturing FastForward credential as well as a community college career study certificate. The industry was involved in every step of putting together the competencies needed, the curriculum, participating with us in recruitment, sitting on hiring committees for the faculty. These programs are really, really business led and they are only operating where we can prove the need. Our state board of workforce development, which manages WIOA, has to sign off on all of the occupations that are funded in this way. So it really is about “job now, job first”, and we're only working with industries that know they need to look for alternative sources of talent.

Rachel Rosen: Yeah, that's great. Thank you both. I have one question. I heard you both talk about stackable credentials, and I think some of the research has shown that a lot of people never—and stackable credentials, for the audience, are credentials where the first one is for an entry-level [job] and then there's next levels that people can get to go into higher levels of work. I think we know from the research that a lot of people never go to the next level in the stackable credentials. And I was wondering if you could both talk about what you're doing in Virginia and Connecticut to help boost people into those next-level credentials so that they can go onto those higher-level jobs?

Kelli-Marie Vallieres: That's a great point and a really good question. Although employers are very much committed to skills-based hiring, they're still figuring their way through this because they're still getting a lot of people applying for jobs. Being able to filter with different types of requirements is an easy way to come out at the end. And people who come out of degreed programs tend to have a demonstrated ability to learn, and so they're taking a little bit more of a risk on the skills-based hiring. In Connecticut, we're using some AI to help with the screening process and to help program participants identify what skills that they have—by saying, “I've done these things, whether it's professionally through work and employment experiences or hobbies that can help them draw out the skills—and then be able to build a resume around that.

That's one thing that we're doing there. And with regards to employers and stackable credentials, if we can get a good employee on a career path, then we work with our businesses to help provide the next opportunities for the stackable credentials while they're working. So we know an apprenticeship is the best case scenario there is. Apprenticeship models “earn while you learn” and [participants] receive their wages and they get paid to go to classes and the companies usually pay for those credentials that they earn. That's the golden standard. In Connecticut, we have some limited funding available to help companies mitigate the cost of those apprenticeship programs, and so we're always talking about that.

Beyond that, we have incumbent worker funding that is available. We’re looking to expand that funding as a way to provide an incentive to businesses with a 50 percent match to ensure that people get those next levels of skills. The goal is to give businesses a case study as to why this is a good investment within their business. [We provide] some state funding and support with those funds that are available, but also support the program development and [ability] to do cohort programs and help scheduling into those courses—that's a way that we're going to prove the business case out to our companies [so they] really invest. We have a lot of companies that are doing really amazing things in this way, and so we're also celebrating them and sharing those best practices across our industries within Connecticut.

Elizabeth Creamer: I mean, I agree. I think that what we're doing in Virginia is trying to remove barriers and make it easier. That can be things like scheduling weekend nursing programs where we once only had nursing education available in traditional 8:00 to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday time slots. It’s support for more hybrid programs, it’s support for tuition support, those all-important supportive services, transportation, childcare, coaching, small groups. Oftentimes, moms need some support; they're used to putting children and family first and it can be hard for them to elect to go to school. It flat out is harder to go to school as a working adult—working full time, maybe two or three children—and then taking on additional credentials to progress in one's job on top of that.

So it takes a system of people working in concert to really provide the fiscal and support services and the encouragement that many of these students [need], but it can and is being done. It's important that the companies provide tuition reimbursement, encourage their employees to go on for additional training, provide incumbent worker training. And I completely agree. One of the ways that we deliver workforce training through community colleges is that pre-apprenticeship, to reassure the employer that an applicant is job-ready, get them that first credential, and then an apprenticeship. There isn't a better way that I know of to help a working adult with responsibilities at home progress and earn some very valuable academic and industry-recognized credentials.

I think all of those are really important. I'll also say oftentimes . . . I'm not saying in the cases you're citing, but oftentimes academic research projects about adult learners can be skewed by the expectation that they are going to follow a linear path and they don't. They take breaks. When we studied, for instance, our 2,500 a year FastForward students in Community College Workforce Alliance, we learned they do not go on to the community college, to that next level of credential. By and large, it was a two-and-a-half-year gap before they felt ready—readjusted to the higher-level job they had moved into— and then ready to take that next step. It's not going to be something that IPEDS is going to pick up on because they're not going to necessarily finish a two-year degree in four years.

Kelli-Marie Vallieres: Elizabeth, I really appreciate your statement around the fact that these are not traditional students and we can't serve them like they are traditional students. I think that has been, in the past, one of the barriers to stackable credentials: You can't ensure that a working adult who has family responsibilities can go to school and take a course, or two courses, that meet in the middle of the afternoon for an hour and a half three times a week. We really need to be intentional about meeting people where they are and [being] able to support them with programming that fits their needs and their life so that they can take those next steps in those stackable credentials.

When we think about the past, COVID taught us a lot of things about learning online and being a lot more responsive. I guess that is one of the good things that has come out of the pandemic, that there's this new realization that we can't do things a traditional way and expect a different result today. These credentials and being able to offer them in hybrid form—all online in some cases, shorter timeframes, in the evenings, on the weekends—these are the ways that we're removing those time barriers so that people can get those next-level credentials. It's not that they don't want them, it's that they need them to be offered at a time in which they fit into their working lives and family lives.

Rachel Rosen: Thank you both so much. I have one final question for both of you. I heard you both talk about how a lot of these programs reach students or nontraditional populations that other forms of education have not been able to reach. Would each of you say that the movement toward skills-based hiring and these nondegree credentials—do they improve equity?

Kelli-Marie Vallieres: These nontraditional programs absolutely improve equity. When we look at our Career ConneCT program, we have a really robust marketing campaign and we target it to underserved communities. We look at what the income levels are of those communities and the unemployment rate of those communities, and then we target them. And we’re able to track who comes into our career connect portal and then who goes into job training programs. We’re very intentional [about] the population that we’re trying to serve, and we’re very excited to see that we’re meeting the expectations that we’ve set for ourselves, [we are reaching] the populations we're really hoping to bring into these programs, and we're making a difference.

Elizabeth Creamer: I totally agree. The demographic data is there. The FastForward programs have higher rates of minority participation, of low-income participation. They're attractive to rural populations, to veterans. I mean, they really are getting at a population of job seekers that has not been well served through traditional higher education and semester-based programming that honestly was designed for 18-to-21-year-olds from middle-class and upper-middle-class families who could afford to support them for four years. We've just got to find different ways to economic success for American families and these sorts of programs are doing this.

So I think that they are extremely important—extremely important—for wide swaths of our American population that want a chance to move up. The other thing that's really important is . . . for instance, when I said these adult students can take a lot longer to finish, what we need to understand is people are going to work longer. People aren't retiring at 60 anymore. Our average FastForward student is 35 and higher ed traditionally would not even pick up the workforce needs of a 35-year-old—well, [there’s] decades of work ahead of them. We now are realizing that if you're not 25, you're still worth investment. You have decades of work ahead of you, and we want to make that as productive and fulfilling as possible.

Rachel Rosen: Thank you both so much. This has been a really great and enlightening discussion, and it's been great to hear from both of you about what's going on in each of your states. I appreciate your time so much for helping us think about and understand these issues.

Leigh Parise: Thanks to Rachel, Kelli-Marie, and Elizabeth for an engaging discussion and for providing much-needed state and higher education and training perspectives as we think about ways to train workers in alignment with the skills employers need. Be sure to check out our January episode where I spoke with Matt Sigelman from The Burning Glass Institute about skills-based hiring and the trends they're seeing in the labor market. To learn more about the MDRC Center for Effective Career and Technical Education, visit

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Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? MDRC’s Evidence First podcast features experts—program administrators, policymakers, and researchers—talking about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve people with low incomes.

About Leigh Parise

Leigh PariseEvidence First host Leigh Parise plays a lead role in MDRC’s education-focused program-development efforts and conducts mixed-methods education research. More