The Rising Need for Soft Skills: J.D. LaRock of Commonwealth Corporation Discusses the Need for Workforce Adaptability
In a developing workforce, the need is higher than ever for workers who are able to take on whatever is handed to them. With an existing older workforce and an upcoming new generation of workers, employers are looking for adaptability in their workforce. There is a growing need for employees with soft skills and other critical-thinking and decision-making abilities.
In this interview, we speak to J.D. LaRock, President & CEO of Commonwealth Corporation, about the growing desire for workforce adaptability and the systems that are being created or retooled to fit this. Listen in to learn more.
Hannah Nyren: Welcome to the EdTech Times podcast.
Hannah Nyren: Hi. This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times. And today I am speaking with J.D. LaRock. Hi J.D. how’s it going?
J.D. LaRock: Hi Hannah, how are you?
Hannah Nyren: Good. So tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.
J.D. LaRock: I’m the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Corporation. And Commonwealth Corporation is one of Massachusetts’ public-private companies. We work at the intersection of higher education workforce development and economic development. And we work with companies and adult workers, and also youth, to upscale the workforce of today and to train the workforce of the future here in Massachusetts.
Hannah Nyren: Well it definitely seems like there’s a need for that.
J.D. LaRock: There absolutely is. I mean, we are facing a good economy, which is great, but we also have a tight labor market which presents opportunities and challenges. There are a lot of folks who have been left out of the promise of a good economy. And at Commonwealth Corporation, we’re very focused on folks like opportunity youth, out of school youth, immigrant communities, low-wage workers, long-term unemployed workers, to try to find solutions both live in-person solutions and technology-based solutions to help them get into the workforce, get good jobs, and lead productive lives.
Hannah Nyren: So, we’re here today at the 2018 Learn Launch conference. And you were speaking on a panel about pathways to the workforce. So, can you tell me a little bit about what the panel was about, and what the conclusions were of the panelists?
J.D. LaRock: Well, we were talking about what we saw as some of the big issues in workforce development and pathways to the workforce today. And a lot of our conversation focused on the fact that there is great interest in new models, or really old models that or have new currency, like apprenticeships and work-based learning. But in order to gain scale, they might be well coupled with a technological solution. And so we were talking about a variety of technology-based approaches such as online competency-based education, such as online systems for ascertaining prior learning and giving credit for prior learning to people who come into education or training programs, as well as things that are not technological but really relevant to the conversation, like programs that are designed in close coordination with employers, particularly employers who are important to our economy’s future.
Hannah Nyren: What are employers looking for? How can you work with job seekers to make sure that they have the skills they need?
J.D. LaRock: Well I think employers, what we hear from employers is that they’re looking for folks who can be adaptable and who have a broad base of general skills that go beyond knowledge of a specific content area so that workers can come into a company, be successful at the first job they hold, but also have a line into future jobs and a career with the company. Oftentimes we hear that things like soft-skills, communication, critical-thinking skills, the ability to work in teams, the ability to problem solve, that our education and training systems aren’t doing a good enough job at helping young people and older people develop those skills. And if we can do that through on the ground and technology based solutions we can help move the ball, both for the companies and the employees.
Hannah Nyren: It’s really nice to hear that the soft skills are in demand now because I feel like growing up, and everyone experiences this, you’re told “Do your math homework, do your science homework, learn your stats and figures.” But now that we have all this information at our fingertips soft skills are becoming even more and more important. And it’s not so much knowing the information, but knowing how to learn the information, that is an important skill.
J.D. LaRock: Yeah absolutely. And you know I think as we get deeper into this conversation as a society around AI, robotics, automation, and advanced software what we’re seeing is that those technologies can handle, they can handle facts, they can handle data, they can handle the type of analysis that gives you a right answer and a wrong answer. What they can’t handle are situations that are ambiguous, where there is no right answer necessarily, where there is a series of choices in a series of options before you. And that’s why soft skills become so important in this highly-technological workforce that that is that we have today and that is increasing even further. Commonwealth Corporation, we’ve done some work on this. We’ve developed a curriculum called Signal Success which is a workforce readiness curriculum, a soft skills curriculum, that is meant to help people, young people and older people, develop a wide range of those basic skills that go beyond content, that help people become successful at the workplace over the long term.
Hannah Nyren: And who do you work with?
J.D. LaRock: We work with all sorts of people so I like to tell people the Commonwealth Corporation operates a little bit like a foundation, a little bit like a think tank, and a little bit like a program delivery operation. So I’ll go to the first one, we have a program called the Workforce Training Fund where we give grants to employers in all sectors in Massachusetts to help them upskill current employees and to engage in job creation. We also do a lot of data-analysis reporting publication on labor market information. So like Burning Glass Company and one of my colleagues on the panel today we do a lot to help tell employers and the state of Massachusetts and people in general what’s happening with the labor market in our state.
J.D. LaRock: And then finally on the program delivery side we do a wide range of things with adults and youth. We have some programs that support long-term unemployed people and help them get into better jobs. We operate the largest summer jobs program for youth, subsidized summer jobs program in the state of Massachusetts that’s called Youth Works. And we also in effect run a statewide school district in that we help provide all-education to the Department of Youth Services facilities, in other words, the juvenile justice facilities in the state. So that’s why I say we work at the crossroads of education, training, and economic development. Because across the wide diversity of our areas, that’s what we really do.
Hannah Nyren: So best case scenario, what are your hopes for the next 10 years? How do you think the work that you’re doing now will be able to change the economy and education and the way that people are prepared to enter the workforce?
J.D. LaRock: Well I think we have a really special opportunity right now and I’m so pleased that Governor Baker, who is our partner in the work that we do, it has recognized this special opportunity. So he’s just as Commonwealth Corporation to lead a new commission on digital innovation and lifelong learning. Essentially it’s a commission about the future of employment and the future of education and how the two go together. And here’s my hope for the future: that we have the opportunity to take some of the methodologies that I mentioned: online competency-based education, experiential learning, credit for prior learning, a robust soft skills development program, and a student-support program and bring them together in a new way to create maybe a new way of doing education and training that doesn’t quite exist yet today. What we see in the history of education and training in our country is that every couple of generations someone comes along and proposes a new way to do education and training that takes place, that takes its place, alongside all the things that came before the last big innovation to the education and training space was community colleges about 50-60 years ago. Given all the technological changes we’re seeing in the workforce with automation, advanced software, and AI I personally believe that it’s time for us, as leaders, to think about that next evolution of the system and in cooperation with the governor and in the context of this commission Commonwealth Corporation is going to be figuring out how to do that and proposing some bold ideas.
Hannah Nyren: Awesome, well I can’t wait to see those ideas come to fruition. Thanks for speaking with me today J.D. It’s been a pleasure.
J.D. LaRock: Thank you very much, Hannah.
Jonah is a sophomore at Emerson College studying Writing, Literature, & Publishing as well as Political Communication. On campus, he is a publication editor, radio host, and on-air news talent. When he isn’t doing media-based activities, he enjoys reading a good book and having a warm cup of coffee.