Jobs for the Future: Prosperity and Equity via a Learn-to-Work Approach

By | 8 minute read | July 1, 2022

I sat down recently to chat with with Dr. Kyle Hartung, Associate Vice President at Jobs for the Future (JFF). For nearly 40 years, JFF has been driving transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. Dr. Hartung shared a variety of important insights about the workforce and education landscape:

Lydia Logan: How would you describe what your organization does, and why it’s unique?

Kyle: JFF focuses on five key areas where we can be a leading engine to drive equitable impact:

  • Create worker and learner opportunity
  • Reimagine education and career navigation
  • Ensure program quality and efficacy
  • Integrate work and learning
  • Build strong regional economies

Across these areas we design, scale, influence, and invest in solutions, policies and practices with partners and stakeholders across the learn-to-work ecosystem. Specifically, we bring evidence-based models and innovative solutions to life.  We leverage national networks and advanced technologies to drive change in systems.  We shape policy and drive the national conversation among workforce, education, government, and corporate leaders. And we invest capital to incubate new solutions, accelerate innovation, and generate impact. JFF is a leading organization in the field acting as a “big tent” across sectors, stakeholders, and practitioners in the U.S. bridging the traditional players with innovative partners to develop and scale solutions for systems transformation.

Lydia Logan: You partner with many organizations and schools, how would you describe yourself as a partner? And who do you usually partner with?

Kyle: The work of designing and scaling up solutions that transform the transition from high school into postsecondary education, training, and careers requires that we work across typically siloed institutions, systems, and spheres and help them to craft cross-sector strategies.  This means that we work not only with schools but also community and technical colleges, business leaders, state agencies, workforce boards, community-based organizations, non-profit intermediaries, foundations, governor’s offices, among other partners.  We also look for opportunities to aggregate and deepen the impact of such work by creating networks, like the Pathways to Prosperity Network that we co-lead with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and supporting regional consortia of multiple local cross-sector partnerships trying to meet the needs of and grow more inclusive economies.

Lydia Logan: What are 3 of the big achievements JFF has had in its history that you are most proud of?

Kyle: As JFF has been active for nearly four decades across sectors, states, regions, and many aspects of education and workforce development, we’ll name just a couple of notable achievements that relate to relevant topics and work around major JFF driven education-to-work opportunities.

  • With many partners over the years, we have helped to raise awareness of, and participation in, proven approaches that show how redesigning the traditional progression through secondary and postsecondary education and training can have a huge, positive impact on outcomes for young people of color and from low-income backgrounds having direct impact on narrowing the racial and ethnic achievement gap. One example of this was our launch in 2002 of Early College High School, and for which we continue to provide support (e.g., MA Early College High School Learning Community). Building on the need for JFF to redouble its work on racial economic equity, we now have begun developing a significant body of work focused on a framework for improving education and career outcomes for Black learners and workers. The framework, which was completed earlier this year, centers on a call to action to end occupational segregation and eradicate the wealth gap that persists for so many Black Americans today.
  • Our creation of the Center for Apprenticeship and Work Based Learning five years ago and the Pathways to Prosperity Network ten years ago are two, among many examples, of how JFF is shaping the national conversation and advancing practices and policies that increasingly integrate learning and work at a systems level. These initiatives have reached into other bodies of work that JFF leads or helped to shape and partner on, such as The Great Lakes College and Career Pathways Partnership, Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship, and Building Equitable Pathways.
  • We have mobilized leading global corporations into coalitions focused on adopting what we call the Impact Employer Model enabling Fortune 1000 companies to have a positive impact on workers, communities, and the bottom line and can help our nation to recover stronger together.

Lydia Logan: What countries do you work in and what’s an example of one of your initiatives outside the U.S.?

Kyle: Although JFF’s work is primarily focused in the United States, we have engaged in strategic international work overtime to amplify the global impact of key partners and to harvest key lessons for adaptation to the U.S. context.  A couple examples are:

  • JFF Senior Advisor, Nancy Hoffman, worked with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on the Learning for Jobs project, and on a number of studies of national vocational education systems (e.g., Hungary, Norway, Iceland, etc.).  This work influenced the initial design of the Pathways to Prosperity Network and resulted in seminal, influential books about systems for preparing “young people for jobs and life,” including those in the Work and Learning series.
  • JFF has co-led and designed trips with CEMETS VET Institute to Swiss vocational programs that have inspired and influenced practices and policies in the United States and around the world including effective apprenticeship and work-based learning programs.
  • JFF has also provided technical assistance to international non-profits in Latin America, Canada, and Europe to implement programming for learners and workers so they can earn IT support professional certificates. This work included developing supportive resources and case studies to speed the uptake of best practices, and developing and facilitating a learning community within and across countries.

Lydia Logan: I have followed JFF for many years, and one of the programs that I think are moving the needle for a more thriving and equitable economy is JFF’s Pathways to Prosperity. Can you explain a little bit why you created the program and what are the capabilities it brings to the table?

Kyle: In the wake of the 2008 recession when unemployment ran high while employers said they couldn’t find enough skilled workers, the Harvard Graduate School of Education published a paper, Pathways to Prosperity, pointing to one cause of the conundrum:  employers’ needs for postsecondary trained/educated workers but not necessarily those with bachelor’s degrees, the latter of which had been the focus of over a decade of high school reform efforts.  The report called for promoting more high school routes to other postsecondary credentials aligned to good jobs, local labor market needs, and preparation for further education.  When governors and other leaders expressed interest in advancing this vision, Harvard partnered with JFF to create the network.  Over 30 regions and states have joined the Network over the last decade, receiving assistance from JFF and learning from other network members’ experiences about how to redesign their systems to build toward the Pathways to Prosperity vision.  It has also motivated their efforts by being part of a movement to build grades 9-14+ college and career pathways systems.  Actually, IBM and P-TECH leaders participated early on in the network as P-TECH work was rapidly expanding, and members learned so much from this effort. JFF’s focus for Pathways to Prosperity includes bi-annual network meetings, deep-dive advisory and technical assistance services to members, and our policy and advocacy efforts on building systems that pull on five key levers for successful pathway systems:  secondary-postsecondary integration; career navigation; intermediaries; leadership and policy; and work-based learning. A core focal point of the expansion and work of the Network going forward will bring a stronger and more intentional focus on co-design and collaboration with employers on the scaling of pathways systems.

Lydia Logan: JFF published a paper titled “The Big Blur.” What does this paper say about how JFF is thinking about the future of education?

Kyle: There have been a lot of important incremental steps that the field has taken, including as a result of some of the work JFF has supported over the years, to improve postsecondary and career outcomes for young people.  But The Big Blur argues that these changes are not occurring at a pace sufficient to meet the demands of the economy and to create equitable economic advancement for all.  If you look at some of the more effective innovations achieving better results by transforming the way young people transition from high school into and through college and career preparation, it is happening in spite of and as “hacks” to systems designed for a past economic era where we did not need so many postsecondary-trained/educated workers.  So, The Big Blur is a bold and impatient call to action to build new institutions better suited to our modern economic needs and the developmental needs of mid/older-adolescents:  what if we created institutions co-designed with business to serve students from grades 11-14, enabling all to graduate with a postsecondary credential at no cost to them, complete work-based learning experiences, and be able to enter the labor market with firm footing upon graduation ready to pursue further education if they choose?  If we did so, we’d need new financing, staff training and credentialing regimes, different governance, accountability, and other systems built around these outcomes for 16-20 year olds.  One of the reasons we are excited about working more closely with P-TECH now is because the model already strives toward some features of The Big Blur that we think can be elevated and accelerated and catalyze systems-level change at scale. We also are excited about the increased traction that The Big Blur is gaining since we released the report a year ago.