Back-to-School Q&A: Stacey Clawson Details Jobs for the Future’s Efforts to Build a Future That Works

For nearly forty years, Jobs for the Future (JFF) has worked to accelerate change in the American workforce and education systems to promote economic advancement for all. With the rapid pace of change in our economy, particularly during the pandemic, JFF’s work to increase success for individuals and employers is more important than ever.

In a Q&A with ETS, JFF Associate Vice President Stacey Clawson shared how JFF initiatives contribute to the advancement of personal, professional, and academic growth, especially as back-to-school season is underway. ETS is proud to support the efforts and programs being led by Jobs for the Future that are not only prioritizing equity in academic advancement but preparing individuals for life beyond the classroom as well. To learn more about Jobs for the Future’s mission, programs and community impact, visit the organization’s website here.

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In 2019, JFF hosted educational trips to Memphis and Denver, where members of the JFF team and the Congressional Staff Network learned about successful training and job placement strategies. Pictured from left are JFF team members Mindy Martin, Taylor Maag, and Erica Cuevas in Memphis, and Erica Cuevas and Amy Loyd in Denver.

What’s JFF’s mission, and what does your work involve?

At Jobs for the Future (JFF), we strive to drive transformation in the American workforce and education systems to create a society in which everyone has the skills, resources, and credentials they need to achieve economic advancement.

Our tagline is Building a Future That Works. A future that works is a future in which our education and workforce systems are aligned to support all people—no matter their racial, ethnic, or socio-economic backgrounds—and ensure that they have opportunities to thrive in our society and advance in our economy. We see this as an ongoing effort, because until everyone has an equitable opportunity to succeed in school and in the workforce, we all still have work to do.

We focus on people, places, and systems, and we have adopted a structured approach with four components—Design, Scale, Influence, and Invest—to ensure that we develop and implement comprehensive solutions. Here’s how it works:

  • Design: We bring evidenced-based models and innovative solutions to life.
  • Scale: We use national networks and advanced technologies to drive change in systems.
  • Influence: We shape policy and drive the alignment among workforce, education, government, and corporate leaders
  • Invest: We support new solutions, accelerate innovation, and generate impact

Being mission-driven, bold, transformative, rigorous, and passionate are JFF’s core values. How does the organization put these guiding principles into action to help accelerate educational and economic opportunity? 

Those five guiding principles inspire everything we do at JFF. They fuel our work to help people advance, build inclusive regional economies, and redesign the education and workforce development systems. Embedded in our strategic framework to accelerate equitable educational and economic opportunity, our core values ensure that JFF’s work provides the field—and ultimately the populations we serve—with distinct value and impact to lead systems-level change.

Why do you believe workforce training is such a critical component to economic and financial success? 

Workforce training, which comprises myriad learning options, methods, tools, and programs, is essential—both for the economic health of U.S. businesses and the financial success of the learners and workers who make up the current and future workforce. To put it simply, we can’t have one without the other. Training—whether it comes from traditional postsecondary institutions, online learning platforms, work-based learning programs, or some other model—needs to help workers develop the skills that are in demand in today’s rapidly evolving economy. And regardless of the training approach, equity is a key component to ensuring that we build a productive workforce, and a vibrant economy—and create opportunities for economic advancement for all.

Now more than ever, people need this kind of training so they can build the most up-to-date and in-demand skills to succeed in the jobs of today. And they need opportunities to pursue ongoing education and training to prepare for the careers of tomorrow. Those who are returning to the workforce during the pandemic expect more from their employers, pushing companies to, among other things, raise pay, offer more flexible scheduling options, and provide more generous health care coverage and other benefits. In addition, employers are enhancing their tuition assistance plans and offering new training and education options for employees who want to learn new skills.

With the economy constantly fluctuating due to the pandemic, how has your approach changed in setting both employees and employers up for success? 

JFF has always focused on creating more and better opportunities for everyone, especially people who have historically faced systemic barriers to success in our economy, including Black, Latinx, and Indigenous workers, women of all backgrounds, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.

We also recognize that employers are part of the solution. Throughout the pandemic, JFF has worked with some of the largest U.S. corporations to help them prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their talent acquisition initiatives and employee development practices.

In the past 18 months, with the economy in flux and the pandemic shifting norms for how people work and learn, we at JFF have refined our approach in an effort to bring expanded solutions to people who are most in need at this moment. Among other things, we are doing the following:

  • Tailoring our programs to specific populations in specific regions
  • Expanding partnerships across sectors to align systems and solutions
  • Investing in technology and innovative models to accelerate delivery
  • Increasing our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion—both in the way we work and what we do

During the pandemic, the country saw unprecedented job loss across industries. How are you preparing people to re-enter the workforce and find opportunities that are right for them?

Employers are struggling to fill jobs even though wages are up 4 percent from one year ago. And people are looking to change jobs, in search of positions that offer long-term career paths—either with their current employers or with new ones. Meanwhile, 62 percent of American adults who plan to enroll in education or training prefer a nondegree credential or skills training over traditional degree programs.

Our Boosting Opportunities for Social and Economic Mobility for Families (BOOST) program is one initiative JFF has undertaken to address that situation. Through BOOST, we are supporting partnerships between community colleges and human services nonprofits in six cities nationwide to connect people in low-wage jobs to services and educational opportunities that could prepare them for jobs in middle-skill occupations in their communities. The students in these types of programs are often juggling work, family, and school, and the BOOST model includes critical supports that can help them manage those responsibilities, thereby lowering barriers that may prevent them from accessing pathways to economic mobility.

BOOST is just one of many ways we are supporting partnerships across the education and employment spectrum.

Do you have any predictions for the school year ahead? 

The status of teaching and learning is changing day by day. Although it’s difficult to predict what the next year holds, here are some things that we can count on:

  • Equity is becoming a central priority for most colleges and other providers of postsecondary education
  • The need to design quality learning experiences—especially hybrid online/in-person environments—will finally get the attention it deserves
  • Advanced technical platforms and innovative new models will continue to flood the market
  • Platforms that support mobility and transparency of student records will be more important than ever
  • Linking coursework to in-demand workforce competencies will become standard in the development of college curriculum
  • Wraparound supports for students in need will become more prevalent.

These are not new advances in teaching and learning, but I believe we can count on them happening more frequently and at an accelerated pace. And the driving force behind these advances will be the voices of the learners who represent an increasingly diverse student body. Like workers, students are now more vocal in their demands, and they have made it clear that they are seeking low-cost, high quality, flexible, and transparent options for education that lead to skills with labor market value. It’s about time we deliver that to them.

How is the transition back to in-person learning, and the prevalence of hybrid learning, affecting the work that JFF is doing? 

Online and hybrid learning models are not new. Many schools, and many individual instructors, have been using these methods successfully for more than 20 years. However, during the pandemic, instructors and colleges across the country were forced to embrace fully online instruction, and that involved learning how to use a wider range of education technologies than the basic systems they may have used on occasion in the past. By now, we are too familiar with images of our teachers trying all sorts of tactics to keep their students’ attention in Zoom rooms, and dealing with the challenge of reviewing schoolwork through online portals.

One of the ways JFF supports learners in their educational pursuits is through our leadership of the Student Success Center Network, which serves more than half of all U.S. community colleges. Early in the pandemic, JFF took a step back to identify the most pressing needs of students and educators at that difficult period of transition, and we were able to reallocate resources to provide training for college faculty to help deliver online instruction and student supports.

Many students fell behind during the pandemic. As schools begin to reopen, how can educators ensure that all students have equitable opportunities and are able to stay on track? 

We know that a student’s success is not just about what happens in the classroom. Nearly three in five college students need help meeting their basic needs in the midst of the pandemic. There’s a whole network of supports that can help them stay on track. I’m proud that our Student Success Center Network is partnering with the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice to accelerate the delivery of emergency aid and other supports to learners in California, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, and Texas.

As learners return to in-person learning, what words of advice would you offer to encourage them in their pursuit of employment that provides opportunities for long-term economic advancement? 

Learners who have clear pathways between education and work tend to have lower educational costs, take less time to complete their studies, and are more likely to move into jobs that offer long-term career opportunities. My advice to learners as they consider their future educational paths is to be your own best consumer advocate. Specifically, I’d encourage them to do the following:

  • Gather information about the employment outcomes you can achieve through your chosen course of study—and focus not just on the amount of money you could earn in a particular career, but also on the type of work you’d be doing and what you need to learn to prepare for that work.
  • Focus on what type of job and career you will have after your graduate, not only what you will be learning while in college.
  • Find opportunities to gain work experience while you are in school.
  • Expand your learning and employment options by building your personal and professional networks.

About Stacey Clawson

Stacey Clawson is associate vice president for learning at JFF, where she is committed to improving learning systems, experiences and outcomes for young people and adults. Her work focuses on redesigning how people learn in both traditional education settings and work environments to increase opportunities for underrepresented communities. She works across the education and employment ecosystem to foster partnerships among postsecondary institutions, employers, workforce agencies and experts to test and scale learning models and technologies. Stacey oversees JFF’s postsecondary network of traditional state education systems, policymakers and institutions, as well as the Student Success Center Network, the largest community college network in the nation. Stacey has 25 years of experience leading higher education reform efforts on both the national and local levels. She has served as a faculty member and administrator at nonprofit and for-profit, two- and four-year colleges, and has worked in nonprofit leadership and philanthropy. Before joining JFF, Stacey served as senior program officer with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as led education innovation at Capella University, University of Minnesota and Arizona State University.