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The Future of Equity in Workforce Success

Jobs for the Future (JFF) is a national leader in advocating for equity in workforce success; this November, JFF announced that it had received a $20 million donation from MacKenzie Scott to launch its North Star fundraising campaign to help 75 million people facing systemic barriers work in quality jobs. In recent months, JFF President and CEO Maria Flynn engaged in conversations with ACT about strategies for improving postsecondary education and workforce equity, alignment, and success. Read on to learn from Maria about how certain populations are underserved by education and workforce systems, why career services and navigational supports need to be modernized, and the importance of intentionality and consistency in education and workforce success efforts.

How are people who are underserved by the education and workforce systems affected when those systems are not aligned?

Our education and workforce systems are inequitable, disconnected, and hard to navigate. That truth was the key driver behind the creation of Jobs for the Future 40 years ago — and it remains true today. Everything from funding streams to accountability systems to governance structures are fragmented, misaligned, and bureaucratic. Too often, rather than being centered on the needs of workers and learners, these systems are centered around the needs and capabilities of the systems themselves.

Here’s an example of what happens to people when systems are not aligned: Overall, the national unemployment rate remains historically low, but if you look at specific populations, you see huge disparities. Take New York City: The overall unemployment rate is about 5%. But broken down, unemployment rates are 17% for young people, 12.2% for Black/non-Hispanic people, 7.5% for Black, Indigenous, and people of color; and 1.3% for white/non-Hispanic people.

A recent JFF report argues that the U.S. needs to make systemic reforms and strategic investments to modernize career services and navigational supports. What does an effective, equitable career-planning services system look like for students and job seekers?

Career services is one of those areas where we need big, bold change to serve the needs of today’s learners and employers. Functionally, it’s not that different from when I was a student in 1989 and I walked into the career services office and pulled a paper tab off a bulletin board. That paper tab may now be an online listing, but the system is still highly transactional and focused on short-term solutions. And the results aren’t great, especially considering how much more college costs today: Just over half of the class of 2021 had full-time employment six months after graduation.

We see a two-part approach to modernizing career services: First, offer students access to tools and data that can help them identify promising career paths and in-demand skills based on field or region. Firms like Lightcast and AstrumU are already doing this work, which can help learners get beyond the one-time transaction system and consider how they can put their skills to use on a career pathway.

Second, and equally important, is expanding the system to recognize the breadth and depth of today’s learner population. Today’s students may be supporting families or working while they attend school; an effective, modern career-services system includes learn-and-earn opportunities, in-demand credential programs, and a range of opportunities that reflects the range of students seeking them.

What are the biggest ways in which leaders can be more intentional and consistent in their efforts to help people – especially students of color, first-generation students, and students from underinvested communities – successfully achieve both higher education and workforce success?

Intentionality is critical to equitable economic advancement, because our systems don’t create the conditions for equity on their own.

Data is a key starting point for any institution: What are the markers of success and key performance indicators, and where are the gaps in achieving those? Don’t make assumptions about what’s needed — instead, look at the information and see what needs it surfaces.

We recently kicked off a collaboration with Northern Virginia Community College to help connect Black learners to high-wage, high-demand careers, and it began with a comprehensive discovery process that yielded a lot of valuable insights about enrollment versus completion, accessibility of academic and career resources, and institutional use of career outcomes data. All of this led to a new strategic plan for the college that’s tailored to student needs and the local market.

Will you share a memorable moment from collaborating with colleagues on workforce development – one where you saw firsthand how this work affects people’s lives?

I’ll share two. First, at JFF’s 2023 Horizons summit, we heard from a fantastic group of Gen Z learners and workers about what they want the workforce of the future to look like. These young people came to us from all over the country and told us, bluntly, that they are not willing to inherit these broken systems. They highlighted how critical it is to center the voices of the learners and workers who are part of these systems and calling for change.

The other is from our Center for Justice and Economic Advancement, which works to eliminate systemic barriers for people with records and people who are currently incarcerated. They’ve launched a new advocacy framework and campaign called “Normalizing Opportunity,” and they have partnered to create beautiful pieces of art to celebrate icons and leaders in this effort. I was fortunate enough to meet the people portrayed when the artwork was unveiled, and they highlighted for me how much talent, drive, and passion are left on the table when we exclude people with records from the workforce. It reminded me how important this work is — for our systems and our economy, but also for the people at the heart of it.

Maria K. Flynn is president and CEO of Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit that drives transformation of the U.S. education and workforce systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all by designing solutions, scaling best practices, influencing policy and action, and investing in innovation.