JFF Horizons 2023: Takeaways & Trends

New Orleans street car

I had the chance to connect with education and workforce leaders from across the country at JFF Horizons in New Orleans this summer. As a first-time attendee, I was excited to participate in collective learning sessions, attend networking events, and brainstorm actionable solutions to drive equitable economic advancement. In celebration of the organization’s 40th anniversary, JFF revealed its new North Star at the summit: “In 10 years, 75 million people facing systemic barriers to advancement will work in quality jobs.” I look forward to helping make JFF’s inspiring North Star goal a reality through my work with TIP’s talent practice which helps communities build a skilled labor pool and create economic opportunity for residents.

Here are a few of my other observations from my time at JFF Horizons.

Artificial intelligence is rapidly evolving, and its potential effects on workers is still unclear.

Artificial intelligence (AI) remains a hot topic. A nationally representative survey conducted by Morning Consult and commissioned by JFF revealed that over 58 percent of respondents believe that they will need to enhance their skills within the next five years due to the influence of AI. However, the survey also found that a staggering 88 percent of those surveyed do not trust their employers to provide them with sufficient understanding of the technology. With this context, JFF announced the launch of the Center for Artificial Intelligence & the Future of Work at Horizons. This new Center seeks to identify and promote best practices for using AI to accelerate skill development, improve job quality, and drive economic advancement. While the full impact of AI on workers remains uncertain, it’s reassuring that workforce leaders across the nation are actively working to ensure that rapid technology advances don’t reinforce, or even expand, existing gaps in economic opportunity and quality employment.

Deciding between degrees and short-term credentials isn’t an either/or decision.

At Horizons, I had the privilege of attending the Designing Credentials of Value for the Future of Work breakfast hosted by Google and the Texas Higher Education Foundation. The session highlighted the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s implementation of the organization’s strategic plan, Building a Talent Strong Texas. The strategic plan aims to ensure that all Texans have access to credentials that provide purpose in the economy, value in the labor market, and the possibility for fulfilling careers. To meet this ambitious goal, Texas higher education institutions need high-quality, short-term credentials, like Google’s Career Certificates, to infuse into their curriculum. For example, academic institutions within the University of Texas System are integrating short-term credentials in the undergraduate experience in different ways, including options that allow students to earn academic credits. As a native Texan, I’m excited to see the impact of the ongoing work to expand options for students to earn degrees, certificates, and other short-term credentials that lead to economic mobility and dignity.

Community colleges are America’s hidden economic engines.

I was eager to learn more about the incredible work of The Project on Workforce at Harvard (the Project) during JFF Horizons. I got the chance during a session featuring the Project’s senior advisor Robert Schwartz and prior CEO and co-founder Rachel Lipson. The pair spoke about the book that they co-edited called America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges can Drive Shared Prosperity. The book highlights five community colleges across the country, including Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Ohio. Ohio is becoming an epicenter for semiconductor fabrication. Intel’s plans to invest $20 billion in two chip factories has already helped earn the state its “Silicon Heartland” nickname. Beyond the impact of the new manufacturing facilities and the associated high-wage jobs, Intel is investing to build a pipeline of talent and bolster research programs. As the pioneering community college to offer certificate, associate, and applied bachelor’s degree programs in microelectronic manufacturing (MEMS), LCCC has built a solid foundation to equip the workforce required to sustain Intel’s intricate supply chain. LCCC is ensuring that the curriculum provides a clear pathway from training to high-quality jobs in the semiconductor space, serving as a sometimes-overlooked engine driving economic prosperity for the community.

JFF Ventures is investing in and centering human potential for people in correctional facilities.

At Horizons, JFF Ventures hosted the Investing in Human Potential Pitch Competition where selected social impact startups gave five-minute pitches to answer: “How are you centering human potential in your education and workforce designs?” A panel of judges asked the startup founders questions and scored the pitches to determine which of the five startups would win the $10,000 cash prize. JFF Ventures invested in FlikshopVR, an education platform that brings virtual reality training to folks in correctional facilities. Using virtual reality headsets, the startup works to improve the educational environment and expand training offerings within the criminal justice system. JFF Ventures isn’t the only entity recognizing the need to improve training and skills development for incarcerated individuals. After a nearly 30-year ban, Pell Grant eligibility has been restored for people who are incarcerated, opening an opportunity for educational advancement so they have the needed skills and credentials as they reintegrate into public life.

States are following Maryland’s lead to take an equity-centered approach to hiring, training, and retaining government workers by tearing the paper ceiling.

The former governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, spoke at JFF Horizons about the work he led to “tear the paper ceiling” by removing unnecessary degree requirements for hard-to-fill roles in state government. Other states following Maryland’s lead include Pennsylvania, Colorado, and, most recently, Virginia as the 13th state shifting from degree-based to skills-based hiring. As some of the largest employers in their respective communities, state governments have a significant influence on the job market. The role of state government is especially important for workers that the nonprofit Opportunity@Work defines as “STARs,” a reference to workers who are “skilled through alternative routes” such as military service or on-the-job experience, rather than four-year degrees. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to accurately assessing skills, careful consideration of degree requirements before and during the hiring process can lead to more economic opportunities and more robust economic growth by valuing the diverse skillsets of all workers.

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