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Survey: Widespread Completion and Potential Benefits of Nontraditional Postsecondary Workforce Training Programs

Press Release

Results are particularly relevant during this time of economic uncertainty, widespread unemployment, decreased reliance on traditional higher education, and the shift to online environments

CHICAGO, June 3, 2021 – More than 70 percent of the American workforce report completing at least one nontraditional, postsecondary training program—such as a certification, continuing education, or an apprenticeship—and many of these trainings are associated with positive outcomes for workers, especially those without any formal college degree, according to the Survey of Education Attainment (SEA), a new national survey from NORC at the University of Chicago with funding from the ECMC Foundation. The lessons of the study appear particularly relevant at a time when many Americans have been laid off, the economy is revamping, and education has been shifting to online and virtual formats. 

Among the positive findings, the survey shows that among workers without a college degree, those who complete a nontraditional training program:

  • Report greater weekly hours of work
  • Have higher annual earnings
  • Are less likely to lack a career path or goal

Evidence from the SEA suggest that employees’ overall satisfaction with many types of workforce training does not vary whether the training is online or in-person.

“What really stood out from the survey is the critical importance of workers finding training programs that align with their careers and fulfill their professional needs,” said James R. Neumeister, NORC research scientist and co-investigator who helped analyze the data, “It is less important who the provider is or how the education is delivered. Training is best when it is personally and professionally meaningful.”

Results from an initial analysis of the data were outlined in a Research Brief and presented at the Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management’s 2020 Fall Research Conference and are now publicly available on NORC’s website.

Key findings include:

  • Nearly three-quarters of workers (71 percent) completed at least one nontraditional, workforce training program. Among those who engaged in such training, the average number of completed trainings was 5.4.
  • Approximately one-third of workers reported completing a certification/license (34 percent), a certificate (33 percent), or a work experience (34.5 percent), and about one-quarter completed continuing education (26 percent). Although many of these training programs were provided by accredited, nonprofit colleges and universities, the majority were secured through alternative providers such as labor unions, community organizations, professional associations, and for-profit trade schools.
  • When analyzing what factors were most strongly associated with workers’ overall satisfaction with training programs, it was the characteristics of the training itself -- and not the personal and career characteristics of the trainees—that were more important. In fact, the perceived usefulness of the training and its applicability to the worker’s current job were the two biggest factors driving training satisfaction among survey respondents.
  • Workers were equally satisfied with certification/licensing programs and certificate programs delivered online as they were with programs conducted in person. However, in-person continuing education was associated with higher satisfaction than courses delivered online.
  • Among workers without either a two- or four-year college degree, individuals who completed training programs were more likely to report working a higher number of hours per week, less likely to report having no long-term career plan, and more likely to report higher annual earnings.

“NORC’s much-needed research provides great insight into nontraditional programs that have for too long lacked quality data and analysis,” said Patrick Bourke, career readiness program officer at the ECMC Foundation. “We are proud to support NORC’s efforts because we believe they will go a long way to helping institutions and learners more clearly understand what educational pathways can lead towards a family sustaining wage during this time of economic uncertainty.”

NORC also hopes this work can help spur further investigation, analysis, and development of nontraditional training programs. “This study provides key data that educators and policy makers can use to effectively design and implement workforce training programs,” Lee added. “We hope that the findings from this study will lead to improved learning opportunities and career outcomes for the huge swath of U.S. workers who pursue these trainings.”

NORC has made the SEA data freely available for public use and further analysis. The Research Brief, public use datafiles, and comprehensive Methodology Report and Data Users Guide are all available on NORC’s website at

“At a time when many workers are reassessing their careers and the type of education they need to remain successful, our research reveals that nontraditional training programs are associated with many beneficial outcomes.”

Lisa Lee

Senior Research Methodologist

“At a time when many workers are reassessing their careers and the type of education they need to remain successful, our research reveals that nontraditional training programs are associated with many beneficial outcomes.”

About the Survey Methodology
The SEA was developed and administered by NORC at the University of Chicago with funding from the ECMC Foundation. Initial development of the survey was informed by qualitative interviews with researchers, educators, and learners via informational and cognitive interviews. Data from these interviews were incorporated into the final survey, which was implemented primarily via web mode, and telephone as a secondary mode.

The survey was conducted between October 23 and November 22, 2019, using the AmeriSpeak® Panel, the probability-based panel of NORC at the University of Chicago. Online and telephone interviews using landlines and cell phones were conducted with 2,290 adults age 18-64 who were in the workforce (i.e., employed or expected to be employed within the next five years). Participants could complete the survey in English or Spanish.

Respondents were asked about their experiences with both traditional forms of postsecondary education like college and university degrees, as well as nontraditional training programs like certifications and licenses, certificate programs, continuing education, and work-based experiences like internships and apprenticeships. The survey also collected information about training providers, characteristics of the training program, reasons for pursuing training, usefulness of and satisfaction with training, applicability of training to their current jobs, and barriers to completing training.

About NORC at the University of Chicago

NORC at the University of Chicago conducts research and analysis that decision-makers trust. As a nonpartisan research organization and a pioneer in measuring and understanding the world, we have studied almost every aspect of the human experience and every major news event for more than eight decades. Today, we partner with government, corporate, and nonprofit clients around the world to provide the objectivity and expertise necessary to inform the critical decisions facing society.

Contact: For more information, please contact Eric Young at NORC at or (703) 217-6814 (cell).

About the ECMC Foundation
The ECMC Foundation is a Los Angeles-based, nationally focused foundation with a mission to inspire and to facilitate improvements that affect educational outcomes—especially among underserved populations—through evidence-based innovation. It is one of several affiliates under the ECMC Group ( enterprise based in Minneapolis. The ECMC Foundation makes investments in two focus areas: College Success and Career Readiness; and uses a spectrum of funding structures, including strategic grantmaking and program-related investments, to invest in both nonprofit and for-profit ventures. Working with grantees, partners and peers, ECMC Foundation’s vision is for all learners to unlock their fullest potential.