Skills for the Future: JFF CEO Maria Flynn Discusses How Work-Based Learning, Apprenticeships Can Help Prepare K12 Students for Future Careers
In the 21st century, the world of work is constantly changing. This podcast series, Reimagining Career Pathways, will explore the needs of the future workforce, rethinking traditional education pathways to connect students today with the in-demand jobs and skills of the future.
Today, workforce preparation is starting to become more popular in K–12 agendas. So, how can professional learning be best implemented during these years? According to Maria Flynn, President and CEO of JFF, also known as Jobs for the Future, it’s important to focus on skill or work-based education when incorporating employability into academic curricula.
“I would stress not so much what are the exact skills, but more how are those skills taught and how are they assessed,” says Maria. “So skills around decision making and teamwork and communication and prioritization—those are timeless skills that are still going to be just as relevant 10, 20, 30 years from now.”
As technology expands and new types of careers become available, post-secondary educators are trying to prep students with new, high-demand skills. Maria says that one of the biggest challenges is a discrepancy between how higher ed institutions think their students are being prepared, and how jobs view students’ preparedness.
According to Maria, “A Gallup poll from a couple years ago showed a big disconnect where 96 percent of colleges felt that their students were leaving prepared for work, but only 11 percent of employers felt that workers were showing up prepared for the job.”
Listen in to our interview with Maria Flynn and EdTech Times Guest Host Kevin Fudge to learn more about what it takes to bridge the gap between K12, higher ed, and the workforce.
Kevin Fudge: Hi, this is Kevin Fudge. I’m the director of consumer advocacy and ombudsman for American Student Assistance. Today we’re speaking with Maria Flynn, president and CEO of Jobs for the Future. Hello Maria. How are you today?
Maria Flynn: Hi Kevin, I’m great. Thank you.
Kevin Fudge: Excellent. So in a sentence or two, can you introduce yourself and the work you do at Jobs for the Future?
Maria Flynn: Sure. I am the President and CEO of Jobs for the Future. We are a national nonprofit organization that drives change in the American workforce education systems.
Kevin Fudge: So as your work is centered around preparing the future workforce, what do you think the most in-demand jobs or in-demand skills are for the future?
Maria Flynn: I actually would switch the focus more to skills, because I think that they are something that is a bit more consistent. And I would stress more. not so much what are the exact skills, but more how are those skills taught and how are they assessed. So skills around decision making and teamwork and communication and prioritization. Those are timeless skills that are still going to be just as relevant 10, 20, 30 years from now.
Kevin Fudge: So how is that possible to implement sort of skills-based education, when so much of the focus now is on college preparation. How do we shift that mentality and say, rather than focus so much on the subject matter we start talking about skills?
Maria Flynn: I think it’s definitely a mix. I think it’s a mix of the core academic curriculum, but also looking to see how can you embed the employability skill component into that curriculum. And that’s one of the solutions that we really promote is work based learning so even in high school.
Kevin Fudge: So as the world of work has evolved over the last 10 to 20 years—and you mentioned careers in the future that don’t exist now but that will later on—How have employers’ needs and perceptions of those needs changed over the last 10 to 20 years?
Maria Flynn: I think some of the skills have remained constant. I think the big issue that we’re seeing now is educational institutions have a higher degree of perception of how well their students are prepared that employers are seeing workers being prepared. The Gallup poll from a couple years ago showed a big disconnect, where 96 percent of colleges felt that their students were leaving prepared for work but only 11 percent of employers felt that workers were showing up prepared for the job. So one thing that I think would really be helpful is to actually start to embed a more specific employer feedback loop so that colleges or high schools can start really getting information on where are students prepared and where are they not. I think in terms of education technology that’s where we’re seeing a lot of startups and companies coming a long that are (you know) really looking at those specific issues.
Kevin Fudge: How do you then take what students understand in the elementary and middle school levels—about the expectations of being on time or like the regimented school day—and bring that back and help shape the perception of work. Is there anything we can do now for an earlier audience to help them understand what work is like.
Maria Flynn: Yeah. Looking at work-based learning opportunities, apprenticeship programs, after school programs can start to bring these components into their curriculum as well. You know, starting in elementary school even to middle school to talk about this is what the world of work is like—I think is where there a lot of potential.
Kevin Fudge: Speaking of younger students, there’s been talk or there’s been some discussion about early college high school. Can you explain what that is, and then how that’s an option for certain students?
Maria Flynn: Sure, so early college high schools are a dual enrollment strategy. So high school students are able to take community college courses while in high school. And within our network almost 30 percent of lower-income students are actually graduating high school with an associate’s degree. So it’s a great acceleration strategy. It can be a big cost-saving strategy for young people. And can really get them on that kind of on-ramp to college completion.
Maria Flynn: And more and more, in the past couple years, we’re seeing kind of the idea of high quality career education being embedded in that. So the combination of early college high school models along with sector approaches—whether that be advanced manufacturing, IT, healthcare. So it not only gets folks on that academic pathway, but also a career pathway as well.
Kevin Fudge: Sure, mhm. Now do you find the early college high school concept takes hold in different regions of the country?
Maria Flynn: So, I think we have seen states like California, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, where it has really taken off as a model. And you’ll see a big concentration of early college high schools in those states. Massachusetts just recently seems to have gotten more engaged. But it’s not consistent across the states, that’s for sure. So there’s still a lot of room for growth. And I think a lot of room for awareness building about how it is a very effective strategy across populations.
Kevin Fudge: So where do you think the awareness needs to happen?
Maria Flynn: It’s definitely an issue of the K–12 districts being willing to partner with post-secondary. It is also an issue of convincing community colleges to build that on-ramp back into high schools. So I think it’s both an issue for state leaders and district and college leaders. So there’s a lot of buy-in there that’s required. And I do think that there is a growing evidence base that can really tell a compelling story about why it is a great model.
Kevin Fudge: Excellent. So I was doing my homework and reading all about JFF and I stumbled across something called AWAKE, which stands for the advanced workforce analytics and knowledge exchange. What problem are you trying to solve with that initiative, and can you explain a little bit?
Maria Flynn: Sure so to back up a little bit so awake is one of the first initiatives that were incubating within JFF Labs which is a new entity for jobs of the future. And JFF labs is really intended to build a bridge between the traditional systems that we work with across K-12, post-secondary, and workforce. And really kind of the emerging technology-based solutions that we’re seeing in the education and workforce field. I think technology providers often think that their single-point solution was gonna solve all of the fundamental problems. And I think traditional systems, I think being a little too standoffish from some of the new models that are coming along. So, in JFF labs, we are going to be accelerating companies, we’re going to be incubating initiatives like AWAKE. And AWAKE itself is really focused primarily on the public workforce system. And this is something that we’re doing in partnership with the National Association of workforce boards.
Maria Flynn: So what we’re seeing is the way that information is gathered right now and the impact of those programs is somewhat limited. So it’s very hard to tell a compelling story about, is the system effective or is it not? And so, through awake, we are doing a deep dive with workforce boards to really look at what data they’re collecting. And then at the same time really starting to look at what are the technology platforms that could be leveraged, again, to drive more efficiency in the system.
Kevin Fudge: And is it also like there’s a database component to it? Where you talk all about data sharing and like a cleaning house.
Maria Flynn: That’s what we want to get to. Is to really have a database of effective practices to really be able to drill down into what boards are doing.
Kevin Fudge: When you say tell the story, do you mean like to state legislatures as you’re looking for a new policy. Who’s the intended audience?
Maria Flynn: Yeah, I would definitely say policymakers is one a top one. At the federal and state level. I think also knowledge of the public workforce system among employers is really a bit haphazard. So really being able to build awareness that there are billions of dollars being pumped into the system every year and how we maximize the impact of that.
Kevin Fudge: Right. So almost like an ROI thing, right? Excellent. So I’m curious. I’m a futurist I’d you know, I’d love to live on the moon one day and traveling on a hovercar and all that. But as we’re looking to the future imagining what sort of jobs will exist 20, 30 years from now. How do we balance that future approach with still making sure that students and workers are prepared for careers like right now?
Maria Flynn: I think, the key to me is agility. And something that concerns me about a lot of our traditional systems today is that they are not agile. They do not change quickly. So how can we make these systems, workforce boards, community-based organizations, school districts, community colleges more agile and adaptive to change. And then I think in terms of, particularly young people, the awareness piece is critical. And I think that one of the biggest gaps we have in our country is the presence of a really useful career navigation system. Because that’s just not around. And my eighth grader tells me every couple of weeks how she can’t believe that they don’t have career information at their school. Knowing what I do for a living. So I hear a lot about that at home. Unfortunately. But I think, you know, even now because in the future right now most families don’t have a great sense of what jobs exist now right outside of what’s in their near term environment.
Kevin Fudge: Which I think contributes to the idea that there’s only one path to success. How are you working with employers to develop programs that will better prepare the workforce? Is there any anything you can do with the people that are actually an employer and these workers in the future?
Maria Flynn: So we are seeing some companies really taking some interesting steps towards upskilling their current workers. And that is a change that in the past say two years that is really encouraging. So I think really looking to see how to encourage and how to help employers design those investment strategies for their front-line workers is key. And then I think really knowing that lifelong learning is going to be so key, how to really design learning strategies that work for folks who are employed. And I think that that’s something that a lot of our traditional systems don’t do a very good job of yet.
Kevin Fudge: Right. Right. So do you think there are the. Because I was reading a report about workforce development. One of the one of the challenges that was cited if we’re helping workers get more skills then they’re going to leave and then What does that mean for my organization. And so how do you address those concerns while still acknowledging the reality of it. I mean how do we change the culture, or narrative, or mindset.
Maria Flynn: I think it’s all those things and I think that’s where there’s a lot of potential. Going back to the unemployment rate—just because the unemployment rate officially looks low, that doesn’t mean that folks are not on the sidelines. So really thinking of it as a system of advancement pathways that folks can move along, I think is the way to get employers to think about it.
Kevin Fudge: Sure. I think one of the concerns that is often raised when you talk about jobs in the future, workforce development, and service economy, is how do we make it an equal opportunity venture, where it doesn’t matter where you come from or not? And we’re just focusing on one particular segment of the population.
Maria Flynn: At JFF we’re really about providing good quality options to all young people. So, not at all backtracking to kind of the tracking that happened in the 70s or so. We released a report a few weeks ago that we did in partnership with Burning Glass, where we did an analysis of 40 million resumes and really started to parse out which middle skill jobs really lead to advancement. Because again, I think it’s an example of where we tend to talk in generalizations and the more we can dig deep and using an emergent ranging dataset to do that really starts to make the conversations and the solutions a little more interesting.
Kevin Fudge: Excellent. Well that’s great.
Kevin Fudge: Thank you so much for speaking with me today. It’s been a pleasure.
Maria Flynn: Great, Thank you.
This podcast episode is sponsored by American Student Assistance®. ASA® is a national nonprofit committed to helping kids know themselves, know their options, and make informed choices to achieve their education and career goals. To learn more about ASA, visit asa.org.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.