This year, the U.S. economy has defied the expectations of even the most optimistic observers. At the end of July, unemployment stood at 3.5 percent, close to the 50-year record low. In August, the head of the president’s council of economic advisers said the country is experiencing an “incredible moment,” and the Federal Reserve is contemplating another interest rate hike in late fall to keep the fast-growing economy from overheating.
But recent analysis by Jobs for the Future (JFF) shows that these trends obscure harsher realities for many millions of people. For example:
- While the national unemployment rate for young people has been historically low at 8 percent, Asian and Black youth labor force participation has been stagnant.
- Black household wealth is still 70 percent below that of non-Black households. And Black individuals earn one-third less than white individuals over the course of their lifetime. The racial wealth gap is as large today as it was in the 1960s, according to sociologist Matthew Desmond’s latest book, Poverty, By America.
- At least 19 million people working in America earn less than $15 per hour.
“According to our calculations, there are 92 million adults in our country that are currently shut out of quality jobs and the chance for a better life," said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of JFF." That includes most people of color, most women, anyone without a four-year college degree, and anyone with a criminal record.”
This is why JFF is imploring everyone working in higher education and workforce development to join the organization in its “North Star” mission: helping 75 million people who face systemic barriers to advancement find quality jobs in the next 10 years.
“I know that this is a really bold goal,” said Flynn. “It’s going to take bold thinking and big swings, including reimagining the relationship between our education and workforce systems.”
“We’d really miss who we are and what we’re about if we tried to do any of this on our own,” said Rusty Greiff, chief strategy and growth officer. “To do something as big as reshaping our systems to make them work for everyone means going hand-in-hand with partners who share the same ambition and appetite for change, including important partners in higher education.”
Only 38 million of the 130 million people in the U.S. workforce hold quality jobs, according to analysis by JFF. The North Star goal is to roughly double that number.
To get there, JFF’s work centers around five areas of focus.
- Creating learner and worker opportunity: Addressing barriers within education and employment systems to increase economic opportunity, especially for Black and Latine learners and workers.
- Reimagining education and career navigation: Helping people navigate the maze of options among two- and four-year colleges, certificate programs, and the many other pathways to careers and advancement.
- Ensuring program quality and efficacy: Vetting those options and making the findings available to those who fund, design, and utilize them.
- Integrating learning and work: Breaking down real and perceived barriers between education and work to encourage integrated, lifelong learning models that prioritize real-world work experience.
- Building strong regional economies: Encouraging the sharing of proven models of equitable growth from the national to regional level, and vice versa, to ensure that quality jobs exist everywhere.
“When we look at these five areas, we see so much opportunity to engage innovators in higher education to improve equity in their recruiting practices, explore new financing options, and create pathways for students through nondegree and stackable credentials en route to a degree,” said Greiff. “And there is so much happening already with co-ops and work-based learning in partnership with employers, but we hope much more can be done to ensure that what students are learning in school will improve their career opportunities and their lives."
The future of work
Many of the moving parts of JFF’s North Star mobilization exist within the innovation hub JFFLabs, which takes a forward-looking approach to bringing solutions to scale. Focus areas include the new Center for Artificial Intelligence & the Future of Work, JFF’s primary vehicle for centering equity in the national dialogue on AI’s role in the future of work and learning; Climate Innovation, which looks to prepare an inclusive and resilient green workforce; and Lifelong Learning, which centers learner voice and accessibility in program and product design.
“We have a unique position in the ecosystem to serve as a convener,” said Kristina Francis, executive director of JFFLabs. “We have what we call a curiosity agenda, rather than a research agenda. We want to ask questions, and see how people are using the tools, see what outcomes are happening, see how companies are seeing opportunity.”
Innovative solutions are also coming to light across JFF: “The Big Blur” is a groundbreaking proposal to radically restructure education for grades 11–14, erasing the arbitrary dividing line between high school and college and opening opportunities for the learners our current systems leave behind. And the JFF subsidiary Education Quality Outcomes Standards (EQOS) takes a learner-focused approach to the crowded credential marketplace, establishing universal, independent measures of education and training program quality.