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Co-Creating a Future-Focused Workforce System: JFF’s Workforce Transformation Strategy

October 21, 2022

At a Glance

A comprehensive strategy for activating workforce leaders in a sustained effort of co-designed transformation of our system, culture, and practices.

Josh Copus Senior Director
Practices & Centers

America’s public workforce system is at a tipping point. For years, workers and businesses depended on the nationwide system of workforce development boards and American Job Centers to provide the skills and competencies for in-demand jobs. Today, cloud-based, flexible, and intuitive training programs offer new and exciting opportunities. The national racial reckoning of recent years has identified and named the historic inequities that have shaped the system since its origins. Some believe that the system is, at best, outdated and ineffective; at worst, it’s broken beyond repair.

Jobs for the Future (JFF) disagrees. The public workforce system has the potential to be one of our most valuable partners in achieving our mission of enabling economic advancement for all, and we are driving a national and regional agenda of concerted action and change. Yes, the system requires significant reform and modernization, but it has the infrastructure, talent, networks, and capacity to reach millions of people and thousands of communities year after year. With this in mind, JFF is working to lead a dual transformation: An internal shift in our approach that fully commits to doing our part to expand the potential of the workforce system, and an external resource in the launch of JFF’s full-scale Workforce Transformation Strategy.

Aligning with JFF’s broader vision for education and workforce system transformation, JFF’s workforce transformation strategy emphasizes a community-driven approach to engaging a national network of organizations that share a commitment to elevating equity, applying human-centered design principles, and creating high-quality jobs. Driven by workforce leaders and their communities, this effort fosters a culture defined by a refreshed set of values befitting a citizenry that demands more of its institutions and entrusts workforce leaders to be responsive to market fluctuations, facilitate the growth of emerging industries, and elevate job quality in regional sector strategies. Working within the existing system to leverage its strengths and overcome its weaknesses, JFF is taking a comprehensive approach to transformation, with concurrent initiatives focused on:

  • An honest exploration of equity in our system: Creating a system that addresses racial, gender, and income disparities that impact the quality of a person’s life.
  • A proactive approach to policy reform: Pushing for policies that lead to improved access and economic opportunity.
  • A philosophy that puts people at the center: Creating a system that accurately reflects and meets the diverse needs of people and communities.
  • A focus on measuring what works and quantifying impact: Measuring the impact of the changes we make.

Exploring Equity in Our System

The workforce system is a product of the historic inequalities that inhabit and shape our society, and despite efforts by leaders and staff, the system broadly still struggles to ensure that those most impacted by COVID and its ramifications—people of color, women of all racial backgrounds, and people from lower-income backgrounds—have access to the training and support services needed to re-enter the workforce in jobs offering advancement opportunities. That’s why, as part of JFF’s workforce transformation strategy and with support from Walmart, we are launching a Workforce Communities of Inquiry, where we will work alongside workforce leaders in the South to examine these issues as part of a community-anchored and worker-informed research agenda.

A Proactive Approach to Policy Reform

Bringing programs, policies, and procedures in line with more flexible, human-centered practices while providing an array of services that holistically prepare workers to thrive in today’s labor market is a crucial part of an equitable economic recovery. We’re aware that federal and state policies limit opportunities for innovation in workforce development. Changing that will require an intentional effort to connect practical solutions with proactive policy recommendations that create room for experimentation, risk taking, and streamlined access to services and support.

With support from the National Association of Workforce Boards, Gates Foundation, and Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, we are actively contributing to the national conversation for policy reform via the Workforce Transformation Policy Council, a community composed of on-the-ground leaders and innovators who are leading the way to a modernized workforce development system within their own communities.

JFF can play a role in shifting the largely negative narrative that currently shapes the real and perceived role of workforce boards and American Job Centers across the country.

A Philosophy That Puts People at the Center

Through conversations with members of the workforce community, we realized the need for mentorship as workforce boards journey toward behaviors that center the human experience. In partnership with the James Irvine Foundation, the California Workforce Association, Make Fast Studio, Turning Basin Labs, and CivicMakers, a Workforce Transformation Corps was established in California to partner full-time design-thinking fellows with workforce boards to help them and their stakeholders identify applications for human-centered design practices within their organizations. By thinking beyond skills training alone as a measure of success, and helping organizations identify and procure the resources needed to adapt to the shifting landscape of the gig economy, virtual and augmented reality, digital credentials and wallets, and skills-based hiring practices, JFF can play a role in shifting the largely negative narrative that currently shapes the real and perceived role of workforce boards and American Job Centers across the country.

The ability and, especially, responsibility of JFF in this area rests heavily on our capacity to design, test, and evaluate new ways of leveraging this complex but far-reaching system’s talent, resources, and capabilities. As a system that historically relies on its brick-and-mortar “one-stops” to deliver services in an increasingly digital world where people often find and conduct training and work through online channels, the system must become more proactive in meeting people where they are to create worker and learner opportunity.

Measuring What Works and Quantifying Impact

As the work-and-learn ecosystem evolves, the workforce system plays a critical role in creating a bridge to emerging programs and solutions – ensuring that new solutions are validated, yield equitable outcomes, and efficiently maximize resources. Accordingly, by working to measure and monitor program quality and efficacy of emerging solutions, the workforce system acts as a powerful conduit for controlled experimentation of new approaches. JFF’s work through Outcomes for Opportunity is a promising example of how local workforce boards can expand their capabilities to gather, analyze, and interpret disaggregated data to examine program outcomes to ensure equitable outcomes across race, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds while also aligning with individual learners’ goals and expectations.

How the system will leverage its funding, partnerships, and convening power to influence and advocate for the creation of good jobs remains to be seen as the national conversation around job quality reaches a fever pitch. To help enable workforce boards to develop and integrate job quality best practices into their policies and disseminate those practices to stakeholders, JFF will work alongside DOL to design a Job Quality Academy for workforce leaders.

Our Shift in Perception

Our comprehensive approach to transformation calls for a reevaluation of our own perspective on the public workforce system. For too long, JFF has underestimated the workforce system’s potential as a critical driver of workforce transformation. An ongoing research effort launched in 2019 yielded key insights—in particular, the willingness of leading-edge organizations to act as “Allies of Innovation” in this work. We are building on that field-tested research and, along with an ever-growing group of allies of innovation, starting what will be the next chapter in the evolution of America’s workforce system.

If you are as passionate about this work as we are, we implore you to join our cause. Be the first to hear about opportunities to partner and stay updated on our efforts by subscribing to our mailing list, or following us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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