The American education system has been in need of transformation for decades. Inequality, systemic racism, and lack of proper funding have led to a system that’s riddled with issues.
Today’s schools need an overhaul if we hope to set the youth up for success down the road. As the head of JFFLabs, Kristina Francis is acutely aware of the problems with today’s education system, and what needs to change to create a better future for young people.
Transform It Forward with Kristina Francis: Upgrading Education to Build New Pathways to the Workforce
In the latest episode of Transform It Forward, I sat down with Kristina Francis, Head of JFFLabs at Jobs for the Future. JFFLabs collaborates with everyone from ambitious entrepreneurs to larger enterprises and Fortune 500 companies. They even work with investors to foster innovative solutions that create positive change in education and workforce systems. They support these causes through corporate leadership, impact acceleration, incubation, investment and innovation networks that work to modernize practices and systems.
I wanted to know, what does this mean tactically? And what are the specific core systemic issues and barriers that JFFLabs is working to break down?
Building new models
One thing that became quickly apparent in my conversation with Kristina is that although the traditional pathway to the workforce may not necessarily be broken, we cannot be stuck in the mindset that there is only one pathway that exists. The classic model involving university education isn’t dead, but it’s one of many different viable pathways, and until we begin recognizing modern opportunities, we cannot rightfully modernize education to benefit today’s population.
College degrees can no longer be considered “the great equalizer” and there are a number of important opportunities for youth and students that institutional bodies and workplaces alike need to recognize. These include apprenticeships, boot camps and work-based learning.
“Our mission is really that we care about the individual’s ability to discover and access opportunities, for entering the workforce as well as identifying jobs. It’s interesting because I believe our mission is more important now than ever. I think job openings right now are at a 20 year high. We have such transition going on in almost every sector, and we have to look at how we’re bridging the traditional systems with new relationships, new innovation practices, new models.”
Although building these new pathways is critical, arguably even more important is working closely with employers to validate them and build a framework that can help enhance the credibility of candidates coming from diverse educational backgrounds. Employer behavior is changing, and facilitating this change is one of the core things Kristina’s team at JFFLabs is working on. This shift is towards skills-based hiring; building a team based on competencies rather than a more traditional route that views a candidate’s college degree as a main deciding factor.
The role of higher education and government
With the return on investment and general role of a college education being questioned, higher education institutions need to innovate to keep above water with the changing times. Kristina says, this will spark collaboration and partnerships. Many are providing alternative routes for financing to their students. Micro-credentialing through partnerships with other institutions or companies like Coursera is also becoming much more prominent as modern students are searching for differentiated and customized educational experiences with more benefit and flexibility.
Colleges and universities are finding new ways to provide education based on the changing times. For example, one initiative that JFFLabs is partnering in is a “skill up coalition” which helps workers find low cost career and training resources to find employment. There is an opening for many universities to partner with coalitions like this one. Kristina says that we are likely to see many public school systems identifying what jobs are or will be available in their region and partnering with institutions to build customized training programs for workers.
This pivotal moment in education and work is what Kristina calls an “all hand on deck moment”. Educational institutions and even government bodies alike need to focus on partnerships and collaboration in order to set future generations up for success. For government bodies specifically, their input on things like R&D will be extremely important, but in many cases government simply allowing the space and policy for industry to build new solutions will be critical.
“Outside of policy and regulation, I actually think that government has the opportunity to really help with research and development. I do believe the funding that’s set aside can help regions and help institutions and help industry in general identify and begin to test and pilot new models and solutions. And then, in some cases, I think that government needs to step back a little bit and let industry try to come up with new solutions. Neither has been easy. But, you know, it’s an all hands on deck moment. And so, I hope to see more cross-sector collaboration and partnership like seeing government work with industry, work with economic development, work with entrepreneurs, work with schools, to me, we will get to a society that we need faster if we see that type of collaboration.”
Systemic issues in learning and work
A key conversation to keep top of mind in considering pathways to the workforce is the one focused on what Kristina calls “wraparound support”. There are many significant barriers to education and work, despite the pathway that one chooses, and we need to take steps to manage these barriers in order to truly build a better future. Childcare support, social services, healthcare and wellness including mental healthcare, housing and transportation are all important factors for the average American worker that can significantly affect the pathways that they take or are able to take.
“We’re looking at the social determinants of work. What do people need to be successful? They need to be healthy. That’s mental and physical health. They need to feel secure. That’s making sure that their families, spouse, children, parents are okay. They need transportation. So we’re looking at all areas that support the individual on their path to employment and career.”
When she looks to the future, Kristina is hopeful. JFFLabs is focused on optionality for individuals, no matter what stage they are at in life or what barriers they may be facing. Individuals should be able to choose the pathway that makes sense for them, and have ample opportunity to match their skills and desires to open employment opportunities that are right for their lifestyle.
- JFF’s mission is more important now than ever. Kristina mentioned that she and her team are doubling down on career and education navigation by bringing together a number of different models to help young people “find their genius.” We need to find new ways of looking at career and education pathways so we can ultimately diversify the talent pipeline across industries.
- With almost a million possible credentials out there and over half focused in areas other than traditional educational programs, our society needs a mindset change around what we accept as qualifications. Kristina mentioned JFF is working on an initiative to promote talent records, which could help broaden the scope of acceptable qualifications to include a variety of different skills training programs outside college education.
- Today, we’re seeing more employers taking a new approach towards hiring, talent retention and training. Kristina mentioned that especially in industries with talent deficits like hospitality and law enforcement, employers are getting creative with new programs like micro-credentialing.
- In the future, AI and new technologies will continue to play a prominent role in the transformations taking place in education. JFF is looking for new ways to use technologies like virtual reality, AI and blockchain to continue creating new opportunities and remove some of the barriers standing in the way of innovation like inequality and systemic racism.
- Students are looking for a differentiated experience today and questioning the return on investment they may get from attending a traditional college. If colleges don’t continue to innovate and meet the demands of the youth and the workforce, they may begin to see a decline in enrollment in the future.
Listen to the full podcast episode here.
And if you missed previous episodes, catch up here.