The Rant

A Skills-First Framework - A Conversation with Maria Flynn, CEO at Jobs For the Future

October 04, 2023 Eloy Oakley/Maria Flynn Season 2 Episode 4
The Rant
A Skills-First Framework - A Conversation with Maria Flynn, CEO at Jobs For the Future
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, I talk with Maria Flynn, President & CEO at Jobs For the Future (JFF). Maria and I discuss JFF's focus on good jobs, innovation and a skills-based hiring framework. We discuss the rapidly changing workforce and the importance of centering equity in the innovations that are impacting workers. 

Eloy:

Hi, I'm Eloy Ortiz Oakley, and welcome back to the Rant, the podcast where we pull back the curtain and break down the people, the policies, and the politics of our higher education system. In this episode, I get to sit down with a friend and colleague, Maria Flynn. President and c e o of Jobs for the future, otherwise known as jff. Maria is leading a very dynamic organization and we will talk about the pivot that the organization recently made and dig into what skills-based hiring is all about. Maria, welcome to the ran.

Maria:

Thanks so much, Eloy. I am excited to be here. It's

Eloy:

Yes. Well, great to see you. It feels like I've seen you several times in the last month, so, that's always good. let me first say thank you. Thank you so much for being with us. JFF is doing a lot of great work and I'd love to get into it with you. But before we launch into all of that, let me let me ask you this. for our listeners who may not have had a chance to, to meet you, to work with you, to get to know the work that you're doing at jff, tell us a little bit about your journey your journey on your way to jff, and what experiences along the way influenced your thinking about the work that you're leading now?

Maria:

absolutely. So it really goes all the way back to my childhood. So I grew up, in New Jersey to parents who grew up as farmers. both were born during the depression era. Graduated high school, right after World War ii, 1946 and went right into the labor force. so my mother, didn't have any education beyond high school. My father I had the opportunity to really watch him, juggle multiple jobs and earn his degree at the same time when I was young. So he got a two year degree. Bachelor's degree, master's degree. So I think watching their experience was a big part of it. and then when I got a little older my father ended up working in the workforce development field at the state of New Jersey, and my mother was an office secretary at our local career and technical education. High school or back then? Yeah, exactly. So that's the atmosphere in which I. Grew up. and particularly with my mother, I would go with her to her school every morning before my school started and, you know, would just observe the kids in there back then at the, what we would call the voc ed high school, their interactions, the past that they were on. so it's really has been something that I have spent my life thinking about is how do you help an individual get on a path that is. Going to really be great for them. Like how do you help them find finance and flourish, a pathway to a good career? So I spent the first half of my career at the US Department of Labor, which I loved. I worked across through different presidential administrations. but probably, as you probably noticed, I know you spent a little time in the Department of Ed at the beginning of, the Biden administration. It's a terrific opportunity, but at times it also. I think limits your ability for innovation. So I joined jff, little over 15 years ago and became CEO here about six years ago. and you know, have always across all of those roles have been focused on the integration of education and work and a really strong desire to make the systems that we work within here, work better. For the people that they're designed to

Eloy:

Well, that's a great background and really sets the stage for why you're the CEO of jff. I mean, this is really something that, you've done most of your life. connecting. People to jobs, good jobs is certainly something that JFF has always been talking about. Tell us a little bit about the history of JFF and the impact that you've had and and where your most recent strategy refresh is leading the organization.

Maria:

So we were founded 40 years ago. This is our 40th anniversary by Arthur White, who was a prominent businessman in Connecticut at the time. And Hillary Pennington, who is now executive vice president at the Ford Foundation, but back then was a Student right out of MBA school, at Yale, and the two of them teamed up and founded JFF as a nonprofit. Really, in the moment when there was a need for states to keep better pace with the changing skill needs, that were coming out of the. Labor market. and so we worked initially with states like Connecticut and Arkansas to build new approaches. and across all these decades, the emphasis has always been on driving equitable economic advancement for all. So that's been the constant, I would say where we have shifted over the past five years is we have kept our. Kind of long term focus on working with the traditional systems, education workforce, higher ed systems, helping them to transform and innovate. But we have added a more intentional focus on also working with the folks who are trying to disrupt those systems from the outside. So whether those be technology enabled startups, entrepreneurs, you know, kind of different models that are coming, Up to speed and into the market, kind of from the outside. We've been, working directly with them through, Our team at JFF Labs and at times we also make direct investments in them through our JFF ventures, impact fund. I really believe that we need both, an inside game and an outside game, so to speak, if we really are gonna get the impact that we wanna see. And for us, that impact, is a pretty big goal that we announced just a few weeks ago, which is that in 10 years, 75 million. Adults who face systemic barriers to advancement will work in quality jobs. So that is almost a doubling of the number of those workers who work in quality jobs now. And our goal is to really have this be a rallying point for the field as a whole. So obviously this is not something that Jeff's gonna do on its own, but we want to really help to galvanize and inspire the field to really be working jointly to create. Those jobs and the pathways into those jobs. And for jff, I think why this is a big shift is. Even five years ago or three years ago, I don't think we would've said that at the end of the day, our work is about jobs. Or I think we would've said, well, it's kind of about college completion, or it's about credential attainment, or, you know, it's about pathway development, and I think we're really, putting our foot down and saying, no. All of this work kind of across our initiatives is about

Eloy:

how, how do you define quality jobs? Jff.

Maria:

So we have a framework, that we put out a few months ago, and you know, at the baseline of course is a living wage and access to benefits, but we also believe that quality jobs have to provide folks with autonomy and flexibility and things that really will help them thrive. So it's, it is that wage, but it's also. A lot more. and so we're doing some work one with the Good Jobs Challenge grantees that were, awarded by the US Department of Commerce last year. We're conducting a community of practice with them, helping them along with their work. And then we are also running a Quality Jobs Academy for the. US Department of Labor where we're helping the public workforce system really think through the leverage that they have in terms of driving more, quality jobs and placements and quality jobs in their communities. So really looking to see how do these, federal funds and initiatives be a lever for impact

Eloy:

Right, and I would imagine quality jobs also means the American workforce having access to great skills. And I've heard you talk a lot about skills-based hiring with equity in particular. What does that mean to you, and how should employers and education and training providers be thinking about the value that such a framework creates for the workforce? And what do you see as some of the greatest barriers in moving toward a skill-based hiring framework?

Maria:

I think, you know, we're at a moment where we're seeing some really exciting movement towards a skills first ecosystem. So a, a labor market that focuses on the skills that workers have, rather than the degrees that they do or do not have. And I think that this is really an opportunity to drive greater equity. In the labor markets since for a long time, degree requirements have disproportionately limited black and Latinx, workers advancement particularly into middle skill jobs. But at the same time, you know, I think the, the counterbalance to that is we need to be sure that this doesn't become yet another form of tracking. So I think. Really pushing forward a skills-based approach with equity at the center is what we are interested in seeing and helping to support. there's great work being done by our partners at Opportunity at Work and they're tear the paper ceiling campaign that is really helping to really spread the word about this opportunity and the, the changes that can be made on the employer side. But as you mentioned, I think there's a lot that can be done on the. Higher ed side as well. So how are we preparing students, to thrive in a skills-based approach, right? How are we helping them think through the skills that they're attaining in their courses? How do we think through how industry recognized credentials are kind of part of the path here? How do we leverage things like prior learning assessments and competency based, education? At scale, like as part of this equation. So I think the opportunity is big, but we need to be thoughtful about it, and we need to be sure that we aren't just, you know, kind of creating new challenges as we go. how is that, what, how do you

Eloy:

Well, I, I think, as you mentioned, if we can. Break things down into skills and really give workers credit for everything that they've done in their, his work history. I know myself as former military, when I got out of the army back in 88, I got no credit for four years of serving in the United States Army. All the leadership training I had, all the, MOS training, I had none of that translated and. You have people in the workforce who come with tremendous skills, particularly people who come from low income backgrounds who may not have had the opportunity to get into a post-secondary institution right off the bat. I think the more that we can focus on skills, skill attainment, find ways to show, that these individuals do come with a set of competencies and skills, I think it, it does create a more equitable playing field. on the flip side, what I hear a lot, particularly from employers, is this seems to be resonating right now because there's in some places a labor shortage. So employers are more willing to forego their previous hiring requirements, which typically involved, some sort of degree or credential and open up to skills. Likewise, Some of the education institutions are talking more about it, but the cynics say, well, that's because we have enrollment decline. So you're more open to, to think about things. So do you see this as something that's really taken root or do you see this as a temporal issue

Maria:

I think it's a, it's a risk for sure. I would say I'm. I'm optimistic though. So we are partnering with the business round table with shrm, for example, and their member companies to really dive into skills-based approaches and have been really pleased with the commitments that we have seen and the progress that's been made. So I think at J F F we're hopeful that this is a, a trend that's gonna continue, but, but we'll see. Right? We've, we have seen, Things, you know, kind of fall back in the past. obviously I also think there's a, a need to not just look at skills-based hiring, but also skills-based advancement. once someone gets hired, how do we ensure particularly with a focus on equity that they aren't being shut out of. Additional opportunities because they don't have, the traditional degree. So I think really looking at, you know, almost like pre-hire point of hire and post-hire approaches to me is kind of the next set of issues that we need to grapple with in this area. but if folks want to read a really great piece, my colleague Michael Collins, posted a piece on Juneteenth of this year that really lays out kind of his. Hopes and fears around skills-based hiring, particularly for black learners and workers. So I encourage folks to check that out cuz he really, does a great job of outlining both the benefits, but also the potential

Eloy:

Right. I, I do see one hopeful sign, and that is that many states are beginning to drop their degree requirements there's always talk at the federal government level about this. And I assume, JFF tracks some of this, some of these developments across the country.

Maria:

absolutely. We've seen, I believe as of now, 12 states that have dropped, degree requirements at the state level. the first one was Maryland, under former Governor Hogan. The most recent, I believe was Governor Jenkin in, Virginia. And, governor Dewan Ohio is recent also. So it's an interesting, I think a very good example of something that has very bipartisan. Supports, we've seen both Republican and Democratic governors taking this approach. and at the federal level as well. It's something that I think first got some momentum under the prior administration, but the, something of the Biden administration has continued to push for. So both the federal government looking at how to move away from degree requirements in their own hiring and then also in hiring requirements for the federal contractors. So I, I think that both. The federal and state pieces give us an opportunity to really get to some scale

Eloy:

Yes, no, definitely agree that, let me turn, our attention to a couple of other things. I know that you. I've been thinking about. So, there's a lot of talk, these days in amongst employers, amongst people in the workforce about the impact of, AI and gai and what it will have on lower skilled jobs and, and workers that come from under resource communities. I know you and I were both at the, the ASU G S V summit. You couldn't turn the corner without somebody talking to you about. Their latest g a i solution. but how is j f thinking about this impact and, and what role do, post-secondary institutions and their intermediaries have in mitigating the impact to low income communities?

Maria:

Yeah, this is something that we are paying close attention to, and we just launched our new center for artificial intelligence and the future of work, so it's something that we're, we feel that. We are not going to be able to meet our North Star goal if we can't help the education of workforce fields really figure out how to leverage AI for good. And I would say both in terms of what jobs are being created, what jobs are being, eliminated or, you know, disrupted in, in meaningful ways, but then also how to better utilize ai. In things like skills retraining, skills matching, you know, kind of in different things in the education and workforce space itself. So kind of looking at it from both sides, of that coin, so to speak. I think that I, I think you actually said at our horizons event last month on stage that rarely do we see a big innovation, take hold that ends up having positive effects on, poor communities, I believe is what you said, or something to that effect. So we know that this is something that we need to. Try to get ahead of the best that we can to help understand the true impact on learners and workers, particularly workers and learners of color. So through the center, we're going to be, convening folks listening and learning together. We're gonna be testing out new approaches. We're gonna be looking at the policy angle of this, both at the federal and state. Level. and we're, really being driven by data that you know is coming out new all the time. Like there was a study by Lio Labs that found that, of 10 million people who are employed in the 15 most AI exposed jobs, that over 70% of them are women. And over 30% of them are people of color. So to your point, right, this is where the impact is going to be. And I think something that really concerns me is that we're already, in a situation where our public systems and institutions are already struggling to keep pace with the changes that are happening around them, right? And lots of good reasons for that, right? From funding and, and everything else, but. I think the pace at which AI is going to drive more changes is going to make it even harder for these systems and institutions to keep pace and, encourage folks to watch the 60 Minutes episode on ai, that was just on that featured the, CEO of Google and a lot of other folks, and I watched it with my husband and my husband said, this is terrifying. So to to get that reaction out of him, I think we're really, in for something here. So, Yeah, we also did a survey at jff, which showed that 88% of the workers and learners that we surveyed about six weeks ago now, 88%, don't trust their employers to teach them about ai. So all the more reason for us to really help build the capacity of community colleges and community-based organizations and others to help workers and learners kind of navigate, what's coming down

Eloy:

Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more. I mean, just thinking about from the public release of, chat G B T to now, it's just been a flood. Of changes, a flood of new products, a flood of new apps. so it's just, it's gonna be a, an interesting ride over the next year or two. So let's talk a little bit about your work, in, the education space. JFF has led work to reimagine the interface between high school and college based on a lot of what you've been speaking about. You published a, a well-read report titled The Big Blur. What are some of the main takeaways that policymakers should be paying attention to? particularly in light of what we just talked about,

Maria:

I wanna, give a big shout out to my colleague Joel Vargas and his team who authored this report and have been pushing the work. Forward and thanks to you, ELOs. I think you were one of the first, readers of that report when we were getting ready to formally publish it. So thank you for your input back at the beginning. This idea really comes out of probably about two decades of work that we have done in the dual enrollment in early college high school space. we've learned a lot from those efforts, a lot of things. That work and approaches that work and great evidence that's been developed. But at the end of the day, like we really feel that in order to truly form a cohesive, transparent, quality, job driven pathway for young people, that we need to re-look at the traditional high school and community college institutions and. Consider the creation of new models, new governance structures that really combine grades 11 through 14 into a more cohesive system. Because I think at the end of the day is, you know, from so many different roles in your career, right? That getting community colleges and high schools to partner or collaborate, coordinate, Is challenging and adding in kind of the employer and career component to that, I think makes it even more, complicated and challenging and difficult to to scale. So we are really calling for an integration of those sectors, the K-12 community colleges, labor market, into something that can really pave the way. Calling it the big blur model of the blurring of those lines across those systems. So we've been working with a small, handful of states as part of an action lab to start actually putting some of these ideas into practice. and most recently, governor Polis in Colorado actually launched a big blur task force where they are really starting to dig into, you know, how specifically can they, Put this into action and make it, make it a reality. So I think that, this is no short order, right? There's a lot of issues obviously around governance and accountability and, and funding. and it's really calling for a pretty seismic shift in our existing systems. But we're excited. We're excited that some states have stepped up to move in this direction and that there's some, philanthropic funders who are supporting these efforts to really think about things in a, in a new way. But curious, like what's your take? Like having been in the community college sector for big

Eloy:

Well, I don't think it would come as a surprise to most folks who know me. if I say that, I think the notion of high school being some sort of indicator that you're prepared for the workforce is outdated. I think certainly my experience talking about things like the Long Beach College Promise when I was in Long Beach or the America's College College Promise, when. president Obama made it clear that a high school diploma is no longer the default. You know, some sort of post-secondary experience, a credential is what people need. So, I mean, we built high school around this notion of what we needed for folks to be career ready or workforce ready. And of course we lose sight of that now for all the reasons you just mentioned. For all the bureaucracy we've built around the two institutions and the governance structures and. if we put the learner at the center of this, then the answer is obvious. We need to restructure in much of what you just described, But, governments are slow to do this because again, competing self-interest and the only interest should be in the learner And. You know, we need to think about what's best for the learner going forward into the future. We need to really rethink this and I appreciate the work that you've done and I hope that this conversation continues we need to Really think about what's best for the, learner and. Their future in the workforce. And so you can tell this is a

Maria:

Yeah. I love that. I agree. That's right. too. I think we're very aligned on that.

Eloy:

let me ask you one final question as we, begin to wind down. There is, and I know you know this, a lot of turmoil in the workforce these days. whether it's because we're coming out of the pandemic and workers are. Rethinking the value proposition of what it means to be in a career, what it means to have to go to work, what it means to have to drive miles and miles from home, and commute to work. workers are demanding a lot more these days, and particularly this younger generation of, of worker, they're just. Thinking about work very differently and, I don't know if it's gonna be a good thing or a bad thing, but it's definitely different. so given all this turmoil in the workforce, what, what opportunities do you see in, the future of jobs? given everything that's, that's happening, do you see an opportunity there or do you just see a lot more? Turmoil over the next few years.

Maria:

I always tend to be optimistic, so I'm optimistic about the opportunities that can be created as long as we continue to push for those opportunities being equitable. Right. So are we really, creating. a country where we are driving equitable economic advancement for all. I don't think we're doing that today, but I think that we can get there. I think it's gonna be hard for us to get there if our policymakers continue to just tinker around the edges of what's needed in terms of reform. so I think that I'd love to see us Stepping up to take some bigger swings at what's possible, at what's, what needs to happen, both at the policy level and even in the, you know, state and community level in terms of how can we move away from the status quo. And I think your point about self-interest right, is very true, right? I think that's what holds, change and opportunity back in a lot of cases. So how can we kind of create the coalitions that are needed to get. Beyond kind of that resistance. Cause I think at the end of the day, a lot of the, pressures that, you know, gen Z and the younger generations in the workforce are putting on us are good ones, right. I think as someone who's been working in this field for over 30 years now, It can be, you know, hard to hear at times, but I think, the importance of. valuing your work, feeling belonging at work, having clear, transparent opportunities. You know, these are important things and I don't think that that's going to, to fade away in the years to come. I think it's just gonna get stronger. So I think what we need to do is we need to build those pathways and help individuals find their path, help them figure out the best way for them to finance those opportunities and how we help them flourish once they've chosen the path. To me is where I'd love to, to see us get to. So forward to working with you along the

Eloy:

Well, it sounds like we've got, plenty of work to do.

Maria:

right.

Eloy:

keep busy for quite some time and that's, the greatest proof that this new generation is right.

Maria:

That's

Eloy:

all this work because we the problem. All right. Well, listen, Maria, I really appreciate you taking time outta your busy schedule to join me here on the rant, and I really appreciate the work that you're leading at Jobs for the Future.

Maria:

Thanks so much Eli. It

Eloy:

It's great to see you as well. And thanks everyone for joining me here on the Rant. If you enjoyed this episode, hit the like button, and. if you're following us on the YouTube channel, subscribe so we can continue to bring you great content like we just had with Maria Flynn. So thanks for joining me on the rant. Follow us on your favorite podcast platform and we'll see you next time. Take care.