JFFLabs Looks to Bridge New Economy, Workforce Systems

Published may. 07, 2018

Jobs for the Future Chief Executive Maria Flynn described the organization’s new JFFLabs initiative as a bridge between “new economy players” and the nation’s workforce development and education systems.

It is a means of connecting individuals and organizations with emerging ideas for innovation with networks in these fields capable of providing real-world scenarios for application.

“At the end of the day, innovations have to be grounded in reality,” Flynn told ETR in an interview about this new endeavor.

Entering its 35th year, JFF is a Boston-based nonprofit organization that works in research and implementation across a host of issues and strategies related to advancing education and economic opportunity for underserved populations.

JFF announced the JFFLabs initiative in February at the NewCo Shift Forum in San Francisco. The meeting was billed as a “business and society conference” with thought leaders from technology and information industries, philanthropy, government and academia convening to discuss topics such as business transformation, the business of food and the future of work.

In June, in New Orleans, JFF will hold its own conference, Horizons, where announcements about new developments for JFFLabs are expected.  

Flynn took the helm of JFF at the end of 2016, after close to a decade of working on economic mobility issues for the organization and a prior career at the Employment and Training Administration. Flynn left ETA as the administrator of the Office of Policy Development and Research.

In recent years, Flynn said she has noticed a growing interest in the future of work and building inclusive economies from technologists, technology investors, start-up entrepreneurs and other “new economy players,” but felt that their conversations were sometimes missing out on the contexts of running community colleges and one-stop career centers.

Strategy and Innovation

JFFLabs is being described as a “strategy and innovation” arm of the nonprofit. It is being set up as a separate nonprofit organization.

A goal is to help players in these fields develop and scale up ideas that relate to economic opportunity using expertise from JFF’s many subject matter networks. The organization’s projects have spanned from adult education to apprenticeship, career pathways to community college persistence, reconnecting off-track young people to education and offender reentry. There have been several sectoral initiatives as well including manufacturing, logistics, retail and green industries.

The Horizons conference reflects an array of JFF’s work. While JFF organizes many meetings as part of its different initiatives, it held a national conference to bring its work together in 2016. It will do so for a second time this year. And this time Flynn hopes to expand the interest pool to more new economy players.

“The more folks we have talking about these issues and coming to solutions together, the better,” she said 

JFFLabs could result in new nonprofits or businesses helping colleges or workforce agencies thrive in the future, she explained. 

Describing potential of JFFLabs, Flynn drew on a recent evaluation of a project that aimed to increase community college student persistence through text messaging.

The Persistence Plus Network is an organization backed by behavioral scientists that specializes in providing individualized test message “nudging” to keep students focused on college completion. JFF partnered with the Network on a randomized control trial at Ohio’s Lakeland Community College, Lorain County Community College and Stark State College, as well as John Tyler Community College, in Virginia. 

The project aimed to increase persistence among students pursuing science, technology, engineering and math degrees. After receiving text nudges during the spring of 2017, a program group of students returned in the fall at a rate that was 10 percentage points higher than a control group of students who were not provided the service. 

JFFLabs now has three “entrepreneurs in residence.”

Entrepreneurs in Residence

One is Josh Copus, who recently stepped down from serving as the chief operating officer at the National Association of Workforce Boards to launch the Advanced Workforce Analytics and Knowledge Exchange, through incubation at JFFLabs. NAWB and JFF are supporting this project.

AWAKE will research and measure local efforts from across the country that bridge policy, programmatic innovation, and the use of data and technology within the workforce system. Some topics the project aims to look into include integrating technology into workforce programming, improving how reporting and data systems inform work at the local, state and federal levels and improving the vetting of frameworks to pilot. 

The other initial JFFLabs entrepreneurs in residence are Sonali Kothari, chief operating officer of Kiva, an organization that facilitates investments in microenterprise loans in undeveloped markets, and Katrina Stevens, a former deputy director of the Office of EdTech at the federal Department of Education.

Both are exploring services that facilitate work-based learning. Stevens is doing so with a focus on the retail sector. 

Flynn said the idea is to see if these residencies, and others to follow, result in new nonprofit or for-profit organizations that provide services or products that support education and workforce development missions. 

JFFLabs also has two “accelerators,” organizations that are off the ground but are looking to scale up.

These partners are the SVAcademy, which works in the field of providing job training for technology sales, and Forge, which is focused on providing services to support flexible scheduling.

Additional partners are expected to be announced at the Horizons conference, to round out the first cohort of JFFLabs. Flynn said she envisions new cohorts being announced perhaps every six months, moving forward.


This post was originally published in Employment & Training Reporter on May 7, 2018. To learn more, visit miipublications.com.