Dr. Angela Jackson, Founder of Future Forward Strategies: Reimagining Employee Benefits for a More Equitable Future of Work
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
My guest today, Dr. Angela Jackson, is the embodiment of a future-focused leader in workforce development. She founded the labor market intelligence firm Future Forward Strategies; she’s been deeply involved in the Future of Work Grand Challenge, which is seeking to connect the workforce training system to innovators; she previously led Future Work strategy for the venture philanthropy firm, New Profit; and she’s teaching the next generation of students about entrepreneurship in the education marketplace as a lecturer at Harvard University.
With all of that in mind, she’s the perfect guide to what 2023 may bring as employers, workers and educators continue to face unprecedented challenges from the fallout of the pandemic. How will employers manage the rising power of workers? How will technology be leveraged in training? How can higher education meet the needs of a rapidly changing labor market? I’m looking forward to getting her thoughts on that and much more today. Thanks so much for joining us, Angela.
Angela Jackson: Thank you for having me, Van.
Van: Well, we’re delighted to have you. Before we start looking forward, let’s take stock of this past year in workforce development and the job market. After all the volatility in the economy, one thing hasn’t changed: employers are still having a hard time filling positions. What is your take on where things stand now?
Angela: Well, I think during the pandemic, Van, we realized — and when I say we, I count myself in with all other workers — how precious time was. I think that was part of something I had been calling the corona bonus…that we all had a time out and time to reflect on the work that we did and the meaning that it had for us.
For many people, they didn’t have the luxury to stay in place at home, but for those who did, they started seeing a different quality of life. I heard from fathers who were working and who had stay-at-home moms that they were able to share more of the caregiving responsibilities, and plus they enjoyed seeing their children grow.
Where we’re at now, when we think about workforce development, people are looking for purpose. Some say that’s pie in the sky, but really people want to understand if the work that they are doing is meaningful to the world. Is it meaningful to them personally? It’s more than just what a dollar amount could be.
That’s when we see this phenomenon around the ‘great resignation’ or the lie-down movement, or they’re saying now that working mothers are just breaking up with their jobs. Again, I think that’s gonna really call for employers, and for all of us in workforce development, to think about how we reimagine what I like to call an equitable future of work that is inclusive and in which people can find themselves and find meaning.
Van: Oh, I love that. Reimagining an equitable future of work. What would be examples of practices you think that employers need to consider in order to create this equitable future that you’ve outlined?
Angela: I’ll actually give you a couple of examples of really thinking about centering the employees’ experience. I wrote an article in which I coined this phrase, the ‘social determinants of work.’ What things need to be in place to ensure that someone is able to show up fully in a context to work? These are things like health benefits. They are things like childcare. They’re things like making sure that they have their financial health met. Employers are starting to look at these — as they’ve never looked at them before — as benefits, and are thinking about, for instance, what an individual employee needs to be able to get to work such as solid, cost-efficient transportation.
I’ll give you an example. I’m an advisor to an organization called Guild Education. They work with leading Fortune 500 companies to create opportunities for frontline workers to upscale and earn a two-year or four-year degree. One thing that Rachel Carlson, who is a working mother, did when she founded Guild is create a childcare center on premises for the employees. You say that’s great, and parents love that because during their breaks they can go down and see their child. It’s convenient for them. Instead of trying to drop your child off in another location, you can make a bee-line straight to work.
But also what they did — and this fits with an equitable future of work — they’re providing these services on a sliding scale. Those who make more, pay more and those who make less, pay less. That’s when we’re talking about equitable. It’s about giving the benefit, but then also making sure that people can take advantage of it.
I’ll give you a counter-example. I was working with a CEO of a fast-casual restaurant, and the company had just implemented a 401K plan for their frontline workers. He came to me because he was perplexed. He thought this was a great thing that the company was doing…investing in the financial future of the employees. But he was perplexed because none of his frontline employees had taken advantage of the plan and he wondered why. I said, “One, have you asked them?” He hadn’t. I said, “Two, let’s think about what the disposable income is for a frontline worker. This is a benefit for people who have cash to save and to put away from their paychecks. But if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, maybe that’s not your first priority.”
After talking to him, I actually recommended a company called Compt, C-O-M-P-T. What they do is they allow for personalized benefits. Imagine the CEO of the fast-casual restaurant was giving that money directly to that employee and saying, “You can spend this in a way that matters most for you.” That might mean that they may use it for elder care or that they’re using it for transportation. But what we don’t realize is until someone has their basic needs met, it’s hard for them to be in the mindset to work, it’s hard for them to engage.
Van: I really love the idea of Compt, where you have a personalized benefit. To your point about why people do not use the 401k, it’s the same reason why folks didn’t use the tuition reimbursement because they didn’t have the cash flow in order to pay the tuition upfront. I love how you’re pointing out not only these best practices, but what was the unconscious bias that was built into the benefit.
Angela: That’s why when I talk to folks, I see how important it is for us to be in proximity with our workers at all levels and deeply understand their lived realities. Because what I’ve found with many clients that I’m working with now with Future Forward Strategies focused on human capital, is that when you listen, when you ask people to tell you, they will tell you. I tell them to listen, but listen with an action orientation. Not just listening to what they say and then do something different, but listen to what they really want and say what you can do and what you can’t do. That’s why one of the trends that we’ll see in 2023 is a reimagining of benefits. You’ll see more employers thinking, “How can I meet an employee where they are so they can feel valued?” That will help with the retention that we hope to see.
Van: Right now, the workers are in a pretty strong position and continue to demand these better benefits. I love the fact that you’ve highlighted reimagining benefits as a possible strategy for employers, because aren’t they also in a bind due to inflation? There’s going to be a need to increase COLA, et cetera, but then how do you pass on all those costs? How will those different forces balance out?
Angela: Well, there’s a couple of things. I think on the consumer and customer side, we are seeing more and more consumers vote their values at the cash register in terms of what products that they buy. Although there will be inflation and there will be additional cost, there are customers out there who are willing to pay more when they feel it’s an ethical company. That’s number one.
Number two, the thing that we think about with these companies who are making profits is shareholder value. It’s now time to talk about stakeholder value. Maybe our shareholders have to take a little less return so that we can add value to our stakeholders, our employees, who are also shareholders in a very different way. I think that’s the trend.
There are companies that made record profits during COVID. A lot of those weren’t passed on to the workers. Now that we’ve talked about inflation, of course, we have to increase wages. I tell people minimum wages haven’t worked for a long time. I like to talk about family-sustaining wages, and that means that some of the companies are going have to cut their profits to be able to do that, and I think those are the ones that will win in the future of work with retention.
Van: You have an expertise in the area of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing, or social impact investing. When you consider the portfolio of investments, are these concepts of family-sustaining wages and stakeholder value woven into the way that you invest?
Angela: Absolutely. That’s all of ESG. ESG is very interesting right now because many people measure it different ways. I think what we’ll see in the future with ESG are companies, and also some of the evaluators, coalescing around frameworks for what ESG is. ESG gets a bad rap because sometimes people say it’s just greenwashing, it’s not real. But there are forces that are pushing the need for people to coalesce around what are the principles that really make ESG, ESG.
One of those forces is a new Securities and Exchange Commission ruling that is going to ask all public companies to report on their human capital as it relates to that. As companies do more reporting on who they’re hiring, what the retention rates are, and what the diversity is, that’s going to be public information. When I talk about that first phenomenon of people voting and paying with their values, they’re gonna have more information to actually do that.
You’re seeing a new crop of investors who are also investing that way. I’ll give you one quick example of those. I think about Generations. It’s the climate fund that is chaired by former Vice President Al Gore. I was in a meeting with one hundred other investors and they were okay with taking some concessionary returns because of the impact this investment firm was having in the climate industry. The fact is this is something that we have to deal with now. Our house is on fire. It’s not about me getting a 10x or 20x return. I’ll take 3x if I can help the planet and it’s an environment where my kids can work and breathe good air.
I think that’s what we’re seeing in this trend. Investors want to know the company’s track record around climate and also their human capital. How are they treating people? How are they treating their workers? How are they being a good citizen in their communities? I think all of these together will help workers because I think a lot of people are fighting for workers now. With COVID, again, we all had a timeout and we saw the importance of essential workers. Now it’s about how do we really honor them?
Van: That is so interesting. In terms of human capital, Skills Future in Singapore tells me that the government has companies report on what percentage of investment they make in training and retraining of employees as a way to monitor how much R&D is being put into human capital. Do you think that could be a measure within our country? Because that’s very difficult. That’s the first thing cut, right?
Angela: It’s difficult, but not. We’ve got companies that track everything. It’s about intention and deciding what they want to track and what’s worth tracking and what will be worth tracking for them. There’s carrots and sticks. The carrot is these investors who really care about it, who are asking these questions which are going to be important. The stick will be the SEC which is asking more and more companies to report on that, right? That there will be issues on the other end if they’re not able to do that. So, I think there’s going to be a both/and.
All of these companies can report on it. Some of them have the reports and have the information. Some of that information doesn’t look good, and so they haven’t released it publicly. I think that there will come a time where we’ll see more and more companies trying to differentiate themselves. You’ve got B Corporations, et cetera coming out who are being very transparent and that will call for others to match them.
Van: How should we think about trends in outsourcing? You’ve written about the rise of “talent as a service,” as a model. What can you tell us about that?
Angela: When we think about talent as a service, it’s really meeting the great resignation and that intersection of gig work. During the pandemic, we saw more and more workers really enjoy having control over their time — even if they made the same amount or a little less –because they wanted the flexibility. More and more companies will be looking to bring people on short-term for what you could call gigs or as a job stint.
It started with Uber and Lyft driving, but it’s gone to services that we hadn’t thought about before. We know that there’s a nursing shortage, for example. There are platforms now that hospitals can dial up and they can book nurses on the spot for that day. These nurses have control of their schedules and control of what they want to be paid for their services. Some nurses want that flexibility because they have other interests…they’re going back to get a more advanced degree or they want time to work with parents or their children. Talent as a service benefits companies who are having and experiencing these shortages, but also benefits talent for really understanding what’s their value on the labor market.
Van: Is there a relationship between talent as a service and control over your time, and the trend about bringing women back to work because we lost so many during the pandemic? What are the measures that need to be put in place to maintain the momentum of bringing women back into the workforce?
Angela: When we think about women coming back to the workforce, there is so much unpaid labor. Research says for every three to five hours that a woman will do in unpaid labor, a man is doing one hour. If you were to take the unpaid labor done by women as if it was a sector that we measured financially, it’d be the number one sector because there’s so much that’s unseen. We saw that when women were at home, they were able to put a load in the laundry, maybe put dinner on so someone could come home at night. I think the biggest thing that we need to do is just recognize that this unpaid labor is real — until we’re compensating it — really know that it exists and not only for women, but also for men.
When we’re thinking about women specifically, we want to know what needs to be true for them to be in the mindset of work. How can we be more flexible with their schedule so they can drop their child off in the morning and not rush or feel scattered in getting into work. Would an 11:00 AM start time work, or a 10AM start time? Making sure that they have flexibility to leave when they need to go to a school play so they’re not constantly making these gut-wrenching tradeoffs.
The second is, we know childcare is an issue. We know it’s hard to find good quality childcare. What can employers do to make that burden easier? These are the most formative years of a child, so it’s important to have them in a solid place where there’s pedagogy. That’s giving a woman peace of mind. That’s helping her with a solution to a problem she’d have whether she’s working at that employer or another employer. If you had your choice, which one would you choose? The one that’s accounting for some of those caregiving benefits, and also adult caregiving with our parents who are aging? Just acknowledging the toll and the disproportionate burden that has on women, and specifically women of color.
Van: Well, to correct that market, unfortunately, there’s no SEC that can be a stick in the same way. I wonder what would be the big catalyst that would really place value on a lot of this unpaid labor?
Angela: Well, I think one is the recognition that women are leaving. There aren’t people stepping up in their place. We have the next generation that are coming in who are like, “We don’t want to work like the boomers. We don’t even want to put our heads down like the Gen Xers. We want and deserve more.” So, you will continue to see brilliant women who are creative building outside lives and have portfolio careers. They’ll do some consulting and they’ll be able to come in and out. Now, will they rise through the corporate ranks? That’s going to be the loss, and that’s what we have to grapple with.
I think when you talk about the stick…the stick is the board of directors. The stick is the shareholders holding the leadership team’s feet to the fire on why we can’t get more women leaders. Why are they leaving? If you’re tracking this, it gives a narrative in the story. Now, we just need to make sure that we take that and use that to give people the incentive to do what they already know is the right thing.
Van: Very good. Angela, you’ve written about augmented reality and virtual reality having the potential to make training less expensive and more accessible. This is such a fun space. Is that potential being realized yet?
Angela: When we think about the emerging technologies of AI around training, it’s very nascent, but I’m hopeful for the promise. There was a research report that came out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and also the Joyce Foundation out of Chicago. They did a survey of workplaces and found that most employers spend 80% of their professional development dollars on their highest wage earners. That’s traditionally the way it has been. That’s not a surprise. In my prior life I worked for Nokia. I was in the C-suite. They paid for me to go back and do an MBA. I could have afforded to do that on my own, but they did that as a technique to retain me.
Unfortunately, the problem is those opportunities have not been distributed along the lines, from frontline to middle management, equally. What happens with people who are entry-level or on the frontline is that 90% of their training is around safety. That’s unfortunate, because there’s an opportunity — if the costs are right — to train people for jobs that could have pathways.
I’ll tell any employer that an unfilled vacancy is an upskilling opportunity for someone that’s already on their team. With virtual training, when it’s done right, you can do the training of many with the same cost. People are able to train at a place and time that works for them. For example, I could be at home and do the training and it’s ten o’clock at night. I could do it during the workday. You have the flexibility. That’s, again, thinking about how do we meet people where they are? I’m a firm believer that people want to upskill, they want these opportunities, but how do we do it at a time and place that works for them, not what’s easiest for the company, per se? It’s centering the worker and centering the worker voice.
Van: I’m with you. I love that space, and I’m looking forward to tracking the developments of Stryker, Immerse and all these new technologies that enable us to do education differently. Well, speaking about education, there used to be a hard line between higher education and employers, but clearly the two segments need to work together much more on workforce development. How is this continuing trend going to play out for colleges and universities? What’s your prediction on the future of higher education?
Angela: When I think about the future of higher education, I’m really thinking about the players who are entrenched where there will always be someone who wants to go to an Ivy League school, so they’ll have to innovate. In fact, they are. I can give some examples of what Harvard is doing in terms of distance learning that they’ve just never done previously, and how they were able to get an older student because they were offering hybrid classes or online classes. You’ll see places like Harvard that will innovate, and they’ll still get students. Then you’ll have middle-of-the-road colleges where there’s so many choices out there that they will be forced to innovate because there are models that are coming up that are combining this ‘work and earn’ model.
One example is Reach University. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but what they’re able to do is to take job-embedded learning and translate that to college credit. So, someone is able to advance on their degree by doing their actual job, and their supervisor is talking about what are the different topics and competencies that they’re learning that would apply to a degree.
Those models that center the worker and center this new traditional student — I say the majority student who’s older, who has familial responsibilities, who can’t afford to take a year off to go back to graduate school because they have rent due next month or a mortgage to pay — are going to blossom and bloom. When I go back to Reach university, they’re now working with twenty other universities to share their model because in terms of their impact, their scale is achieved by scaling through working with other universities to actually take this model and scale it out.
Van: That will be an exciting organization to watch.
Angela: It is one to watch. I think there are others who are thinking about the new majority learners. We’ve got institutions who are thinking about what does it mean to be a working single mom on a college campus? Again, how do we attune to the realities of people in front of us versus what we perceive those realities are? College is not just that eighteen-year-old. It’s a more mature person. And even for people who are eighteen, they need to make better decisions.
I’ve always been a fan of programs like Northeastern’s co-op model, or you think about the University of Rhode Island that has a comprehensive program in engineering where there’s job-embedded learning where students are earning and learning and getting real credentials when they go out to the job market. I think that’s what’s going to be the differentiator. You can’t do college for college’s sake anymore. It’s just too expensive.
Van: In Canada, co-op programs are part of the structure. You’re expected to do work interspersed with your education and, of course, students come out much more prepared for work, right?
Angela: Absolutely. Northeastern University here in Massachusetts has been doing this since the sixties. My partner is an alum of Northeastern from back in the nineties. We met a gentleman when we were having coffee one day who was at Northeastern back in 1967 and he went through the co-op program. He talked about how that gave him a lift up. He was able to advance because he was the trader who had the background in it and tangible knowledge. I just think we need to care more about what happens when we graduate someone. What are the outcomes? What are the labor market outcomes?
Van: Let me shift a little bit, here. You have been very involved in a multi-year project called The Future of Work Grand Challenge. Tell us about this competition.
Angela: The Future of Work Grand Challenge was funded and seeded by New Profit, a venture philanthropy firm based here in Boston. What we really wanted to do in the Future of Work Grand Challenge is understand how people were upskilling. We wanted to learn about how people transition to a new sector or field without having to go back and get an advanced degree or without quitting their current job, because we knew their lived realities.
We had been planning this Future of Work Grand Challenge during all of 2019 and we were thinking about launching it in December of 2021. Then, COVID hit in March of 2020. We felt we had aligned a group of partners to really meet this moment. With philanthropic partners like Strada Education Network, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Walmart.org, Lumina, and many others, what we coalesced around was that people needed to be upskilled. For instance, people who had been working in hospitality for the last five years. We know what happened with hospitality and restaurants…those jobs stopped immediately and people were thinking about what’s next for me?
We wanted to be a short burst program that would be no more than sixteen to thirty weeks to train someone. We benchmarked that with Europe where it typically takes six months to a year. We said, “What if we could cut that time in half? Then what if we could train people for jobs that had a family-sustaining wage according to the MIT calculator?” We thought, “Can we do this? Is this even possible?”
We put a call out, and we had over 1,500 innovators come to us with challenges and with innovations to upskill around healthcare, manufacturing, and for jobs that have a living wage. We narrowed that down to fifteen that we deployed in five different markets working with local workforce boards and career centers because we also wanted them to be able to train people who had the most barriers to employment. For example, people who had been justice-involved, people who were single mothers, people who had transportation issues. We didn’t want them creaming, because it’s easy to place people who already have a four-year degree. All of these folks did not have a four-year degree. That was the other requirement.
What we saw were some innovative trainings that — even though I work in the future of work every single day — I hadn’t heard of. One of my favorites is a company called ChargerHelp! which trains people to be electric car charging technicians. I said, “Who even knew that existed as a job?” Funny enough, it actually didn’t exist. Two African American women were living in Compton and they saw all of the charging stations popping up in their community and they were trying to figure out what could be a business around that.
They figured out that most of these stations regularly need servicing, so they created a workforce company and service company to service these stations. They hired former Lyft drivers, Uber drivers and single moms who had been home to basically be the technicians because most of the servicing actually happens in the cloud. When someone’s going out to check on a charging station, they use their phone and they just type in what they see troubleshooting, and then the service happens in the cloud.
I thought that was just so brilliant because they were able to train them in sixteen weeks, and during the sixteen weeks they’re making upwards of $50 an hour. Their hardest challenge with retention is their competitors pay upwards of $120 an hour, but their competitors would not consider the people that ChargerHelp! does. They had an embedded workforce mission and they really wanted to bring people who didn’t have a four-year degree into this sector as a pathway into tech and into a higher wage. They’ve been able to accomplish that, which is why I’m a huge fan of their model and the impact that they’re having.
That’s just one of the innovations of the Grand Challenge. We had fourteen other phenomenal solutions that we deployed in these five communities. The first goal was, can you place and train 500 people? That happened, and now they’re in what we’re calling a ‘rapid reskilling’ phase where the goal is to train and place 5,000 people in two sectors into living wage jobs.
The challenge will wrap up in December of this year. We’ll have the net results of how many people were placed, how many people were trained, and then how many people were retained for at least sixty days. It’s not enough just to place them. We want to know, are they there and are they thriving? I am writing a new book that’s titled, right now, Good Jobs Promise that will talk about the results of this challenge and what we learned along the way about the barriers that prevent people from upskilling, but also what are the bright lights, like ChargerHelp!. What are the innovative models that can really make a difference in terms of workforce development?
Van: Since Futuro Health is in the space of growing the allied health workforce, I want to ask if were there any proposals that touched in the healthcare space?
Angela: There were. There are two of them that I thought were just really meaningful. The first was called Hire Me and they worked with Boston Medical. They created a training for surgical sterilization technicians. Similar to ChargerHelp!, I didn’t know that that was a job that didn’t require a four-year degree. What they were able to do was to create an online training that was asynchronous, so workers could take it anytime they wanted to over sixteen weeks.
Once they created the training, the Massachusetts Workforce Board sent it out to everyone that was on the unemployment rolls. They had 1,600 people respond and say they were interested. Typically, the board says when they sent out a training opportunity, they may get fifty to sixty people who respond. 1,600 responded, and then 800 went through the training.
What was brilliant about what the platform did is they were able to customize the training to the hospital and to the job. Two, they knew that there were jobs available, so that’s a good incentive for someone to go through the training. Because it was asynchronous, people could do it at midnight, they could do it 10:00 AM, they could do it on their break. They had a 24-hour chat or call if someone had issues with the training. If they got stuck, someone would get back to them in three to five hours and help them troubleshoot.
What they also did using AI and data is they were tracking all of the 800 participants and they could tell which units they got stuck on. Once they got data that multiple people were getting stuck on a particular unit, they could, in real time, change that content so that more students could actually obtain it and pass it. I thought that was just a brilliant use of technology…actually adjusting the curriculum and personalizing it for the students to make sure that they could achieve and learn.
All of those people who’ve gone through it have gotten jobs. All of them. When you think about healthcare, how can you train people who want to get into this pathway who don’t know how? The stakes are low and the company did it for the board as a pilot for free. Because it was so successful, the board went on to hire them for other placements and other trainings.
Another company did something very similar, but they did it in a Web 3 virtual environment. As learners were training for these health positions, they would put on goggles and they were training in VR. We did that work with the Dallas Workforce Board. It was great when we heard from the workers that actually went through the training that they could actually see and feel how it would be in the hospital, being in that lab, and how for them, they had never had that experience. So, how do you know you’re going to like something before going through this experience where you’re immersed in it?
We got even higher satisfaction ratings from that. We had some people who said, “I thought I’d like this, but I didn’t.” That was good knowledge before placing them, right? There were others who said they felt like it was just so informative and so real for them. When I talk about the metaverse or the promise of Web 3, I’m thinking about this for high schools, thinking about this for college. And when we talk about an equitable future of work, a lot of people can’t travel for internships, they can’t do it from nine to five. How do we give people job-embedded experiences in a very inclusive way?
Van: Well, these are very inspiring case studies and vignettes. Thank you for sharing. Let me wrap up our time with you by giving you the opportunity to share what makes you excited about 2023.
Angela: What gives me hope in 2023 is really this focus on centering worker voice, and also the increasing employee power and the fact that employees are exercising that power. We’ve always had it, and we had it more when there were unions, but the problem is we didn’t exercise it. I think that’s what we’re seeing with the great resignation. People are not leaving jobs, they’re leaving people. They’re leaving bad managers. They’re leaving people who won’t really recognize their humanity and lived realities. We talked about this, Van, the unpaid labor.
What I’m excited about is that companies are paying attention to that now and that’s going to bode well for workers, that’s going to bode well for retention, and I think, in general, that’s going to bode well for the economy. I’m really excited to see how employers will respond and meet workers where they are in their needs.
Van: Well, thank you very much, Dr. Jackson. We learned so much from you today, and we were very inspired by this concept of reimagining a more equitable future of work. Thank you for spending time with us and imparting your knowledge to our listeners.
Angela: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure. Thank you.
Van: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.