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Jaime Fall, Director of UpSkill America at the Aspen Institute: Invest in a Culture of Learning

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Jaime Fall, Director of UpSkill America at the Aspen Institute: Invest in a Culture of Learning


If you want to know how employers are changing their thinking about educating workers in the wake of COVID, Jaime Fall is in a great position to tell you. As director of the Aspen Institute’s workforce development initiative Upskill America, Jaime is constantly in touch with some of the 5,000 businesses in the program’s network and he has plenty of news to share with host Van Ton-Quinlivan in this episode of WorkforceRx with Futuro Health. From diversity to digital literacy to new safety protocols, businesses have many targets for training and advancement practices that were not necessarily priorities pre-COVID. And have you heard of the new trend in “outskilling”? Jamie is here to fill you in. Bottom line: as the pace of change continues to accelerate, companies need to invest in a culture of learning so their workers will have the skills they need to be effective and productive.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to Workforce Rx with Futuro Health, where future-focused education, healthcare, and workforce leaders explore new education-to-work approaches and innovations. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health. Today, I’m happy to welcome Jaime Fall, a nationally recognized leader in workforce development with more than two decades of experience in government service and policy development from Washington, D.C. to California. He is bringing that wealth of experience to bear in his current role as director of UpSkill America at the Aspen Institute, an employer-led initiative to expand economic opportunity for front line and entry-level workers by promoting training and advancement practices. 

UpSkill America’s network includes over 5,000 businesses and organizations representing millions of workers across the country. Thanks so much for being with us today, Jaime.

Jaime Fall: Hey, my pleasure. Thank you. I appreciate the invitation.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Let’s start by having you tell us about yourself and your career path that led you to your current role.

Jaime Fall: I’d love to. Van, I think I need to go back to my very first job, and that was as a janitor at a local radio station back in the day. By the time I graduated from high school then, I was working for them full time, and they offered to pay for a couple of years of community college if I would stick around.

So those two years of free education were wonderful, gave me more work experience and made a four-year degree possible for me, which it really wasn’t before then.

So, I went on to work in communications and marketing for a while, and then I moved over to workforce development communications and marketing, and that opened some doors to get into workforce development policy.  And then in 2011, I left state and federal service and started working with large employers about their talent sustainability practices. That opened the door for me to be here at UpSkill America. It’s part of the Aspen Institute, and I’ve been here now for a little over five years.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: That’s a wonderful story and a great example of how education and opportunity tied together. There has been a lot of focus on the problems COVID has revealed in our healthcare system. What do you think it has revealed about our economy and workforce?

Jaime Fall: Van, I think that in some ways, it’s revealed what we knew all along. Too many employers acted like people were kind of one person at work, and one person at home. It really has helped us understand how the home and the work are not that separate and the impact that they have on each other.

All these things going on with us personally can affect our performance at work under certain conditions, and it’s really shined a big spotlight on those issues —  child care, elder care, education, digital skills, and access to mental health resources. All those things have become much more important.

In a similar vein, what workers do at home can affect what’s happening in the workplace. If they aren’t wearing masks or taking care of themselves at home, they can really have a very negative impact on the workplace.

It’s important to note that many of the people most affected by COVID are those who are facing the greatest systemic challenges also in the workplace, and so much more needs to be done to help lift them up.

I think it’s important to look at not just the pandemic, but also the heightened awareness around the disadvantages that some racial groups, particularly black and brown people, face today, and all of that really began getting more attention about the same time as the pandemic got really bad. All of that together has brought on a whole new range of training needs.

Employers are focused on helping people be more productive at home, managing a remote workforce, helping workers face all that they have on their plates at home, whether it’s caregiving, providing education for their children, and then the issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion, not to mention new training needs for organizations around helping their workers stay safe in the pandemic.

It’s so important that the workers stay safe, but also taking care of their customers so that they can stay safe as well. Those are some of the things that have really come up since like February that we weren’t talking much about prior to that Van.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Jaime, education, and jobs are certainly very much on the minds of Americans right now. Lay out for us the big picture of the U.S. economy and the need for skilled workers. We’re obviously aware of the shortages in healthcare, but what other sectors are facing the biggest gaps between supply and demand?

Jaime Fall: Van, we really see employers primarily investing in three different areas that I think are really important here. The first one is basic skills. You know these are cross-cutting across different industries, but they would be things like English as a second language, literacy and numeracy, high school completion, and also digital literacy.

Then in addition to that, a second area, we see employers investing where they have acute skill shortages. You already mentioned healthcare as one of those, but I would add to those things such as I.T. and also skilled trades. Those are just some of the areas, and then we also see employers investing in new skills. I would point to things like data analytics and machine learning in particular. There’s also a fourth area that I think deserves mentioning and being called out, and that is outskilling. This is where we see employers who have decided they don’t need a group of workers anymore through automation or whatever it might be, so they are providing them with training to prepare them for another career.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: As workers are thinking about their employers, what’s on the minds of employers, what advice do you have for employees as they consider these emerging trends that are on the minds of employers?

Jaime Fall: I think an important thing that I would want to point out there is that COVID really has underscored many of the problems that people were facing before the pandemic, but they weren’t really receiving all that much attention. There really wasn’t enough quality child care available. Also, people didn’t have access to technology as they needed in their own homes. A large number of people didn’t even have digital skills or access to reliable Internet.

Workers were being treated, in some cases, frankly, like they were easily replaceable. The quality of education across the country at best was uneven and, at worst, was grossly inadequate in a lot of places. So with that as background, let me get more directly to your question.  All of a sudden, these things really matter. They were kind of being pushed to the background, and employers now want to make sure that their workers are productive so that they can be productive at home or in the workplace.

People who are working at home need access to quality up-to-date technology. People need digital literacy skills. Front line workers, in many cases, were working at jobs that were very low paid jobs. Now, all of a sudden, they’re essential workers. In many cases, they’re the face of a company to their customers. Plus, then these workers aren’t being kept safe so they can’t be in the workplace, and they open their workplace to a lot of risks.

Those are a lot of the background things that I see going on, Van, that really are getting and deserve a lot more attention. What we are hearing from employers at this time is we’ve seen a lot more emphasis being placed on issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, including the hiring of people to lead the efforts and also rolling out training programs.

We’re seeing more employers rolling out wellness programs with an emphasis on mental health. We’ve seen some employers, especially manufacturers, speed the implementation of robotics and technologies because in the workplace, if they have more machines and fewer people, it’s easier for people to space out and be socially distant, and it also helps reduce absenteeism. And then in healthcare, as you know much better than I do, the pandemic has sped the adoption of telemedicine.

Those are just some of the changes. Other things may be worth mentioning. We’ve seen some employers that have really doubled down on their education and training plans. In some cases, employers are training workers on new skills or new protocols on cleanliness in the stores or, for example, on airplanes. In other cases, even though they have laid off or furloughed workers, they’re still providing them access to education and online training programs.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Jaime you’ve given us a lot of things to think about, a lot of insights into how employers are focusing on the moment. Are there any added points that you’d like to make in terms of how employers should be helping workers through this unsettled time or to reopen or recover?

Jaime Fall: Yes, absolutely. These are recommendations that are consistent throughout our work, not just because of the pandemic, but they need to be making sure that workers are eligible for education and training programs really early on in their hiring when they begin with the company. Also, we want to see employers make sure that the programs are free or at least low-cost enough that workers can take advantage of them and afford them.

I could talk for a really long period of time about some of the problems with tuition reimbursement program, so we’re really encouraging employers to change from tuition reimbursement to direct relationships with education providers where they cover those costs directly.  And then we want to make sure that employers are making programs accessible so they’re available online and that people have the technology that they need to take advantage of those programs.

We love to see employers provide people with time to be learning when they’re in the workplace as much as possible. I know that isn’t always possible. Then it’s important that employers provide employees with good career counseling to help them understand what skills are going to be in demand, what is going to signal competency in that skill — whether it’s or certificate or a degree — and which job opportunities are available for people when they complete these programs.

Many more people are being forced to consider a career change right now with the economy the way it is, but, unfortunately, not much hiring is going on, so we really need to be sure that if people are going to invest in education and training, a good job is going to be awaiting them at the end.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: You alluded to some of these good practices on the employer’s side. Tell us an example or some examples of employers going about workforce development in the right way.

Jaime Fall: Companies are very different, and their needs are very different. We have to keep that in mind. They’re investing in education and training for the most part because it solves some business needs. That need can be improved skills on the parts of the workers, a wider, more diverse pipeline of workers, or even retention, just trying to keep the workers that they already have.

All of those are really important reasons that employers are funding programs, but that said, some of the really positive developments that we’ve seen are companies making it easier for employees to participate in programs by either reducing the eligibility requirements, moving away from tuition reimbursement, like I just mentioned, and going to models where they’re paying through direct relationships with education providers.

Employers are also offering a wider variety of programs from more providers. In some cases, companies are working with providers such as Guild Education, and workers have the opportunity to take advantage of a couple of different hundred programs through many education providers. That’s very encouraging to see.

One example that I would mention there, Van, is that Walmart recently rolled out a skilled trades program as part of their talent development strategy, which is designed to connect workers who want to learn the trades with openings within Walmart or their supplier network so they can gain the experience and certifications that they need to have successful careers in those fields.

Also, companies are doing a better job of providing career counseling so people can make better decisions about what fits their needs. Finally, companies are providing more success coaching, which we’ve been very happy to see, to help people when they get stuck in their program so they can move on to completion.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: These training and learning practices are very encouraging, Jaime, and it seems like more and more companies are investing that way. Jaime, the Aspen Institute has been a proponent of employers paying education costs upfront — you’ve alluded to that — as a way to increase employee participation in education benefits programs. Is that a best practice that is becoming more common? And what would you say to an employer who is thinking of cutting this benefit during these difficult times?

Jaime Fall: Yes, Van, I’m really happy to say that it is becoming more common. More employers are forming these partnerships, working with intermediaries, and paying for programs directly to the education providers and not making workers carry the costs out of pocket.

That’s so important because, in the past, so many companies offered tuition reimbursement programs, but yet only a highly-paid executive, perhaps somebody who had their MBA already and wanted to go back for their law degree could afford such a program and too many workers were being cut out of the opportunity to learn.

It’s just so important that we seen more employers making these investments on behalf of their workers and also carrying the costs, making it affordable so that the workers can take advantage of the programs. We hear from employers all the time that the pace of change continues to accelerate. If that’s true, they’re going to continue to need their employees’ learning, and they need to be able to afford to take advantage of programs, so it’s just critical that employers make this really the standard way that they provide programs.

Also, to the second part of your question, even though we see a really tough time in the economy, employees are going to need to continue to learn. It’s important for companies to invest in a culture of learning and to make it possible for people to be able to learn. The only way they can do that is if they fund these programs. They can’t be cutting back on these programs now because of the economic downturn. It’s too important to the future of the company and to the future of their workforce.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Jaime, I have forwarded many times to employers and policymakers the toolkit that the Aspen Institute has created to share the elements of a good tuition disbursement program. Would you like to share that URL with our listeners?

Jaime Fall: Van, thank you. I really appreciate that. Yes, I would just encourage people, if they’re looking for the playbook in particular or that series of tools that we developed to sit down and work with employers around their education and training programs and policies, that can be found on the UpSkill America website, and the UpSkilling Playbook for employers and tools for employers can both be found right there. Thank you for giving me that opportunity.

Van Ton Quinlivan: Absolutely. Jaime, what would you add to the description that I gave of Upskill America, and what are your focus areas and achievements to date?

Jaime Fall: You already mentioned that we work with employers around creating, expanding, and improving education and training opportunities for workers. We specifically really focus on the front line and entry-level workers who need opportunities to advance in their careers. I would just add that the reason that we focus on them is because so often frontline entry-level workers are women and people of color who face the greatest barriers to advancement in the workplace.

As far as what we cover, we really cover a range of things all the way from apprenticeship programs to high school completion programs, certification programs, incumbent worker training all the way up to college degree programs that employers pay for. As far as achievements, I would want to be really careful here, Van, and make sure that all credit for anything that we’ve been a part of goes to the companies, the education providers, and the intermediaries that we work with in the UpSkill America network who really have poured billions of dollars in new spending to open doors for literally hundreds of thousands of workers across the country. In a nutshell, hundreds of thousands of workers have opportunities for education and training that they didn’t have five years ago.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Now, you spent a lot of your career in the policy arena. What policy changes will support employers and adult learners and deliver a more inclusive recovery?

Jaime Fall: Well, on behalf of all of us who are putting kids through college right now — and I know you’re in that situation as well — education just needs to be made more affordable. Employers need to be doing more to step up to help make education and training — and not just college degrees — but also certification programs affordable and available to the workers in the country.

Just way too many people have been shut out from that possibility for too long. It’s fantastic that more employers are stepping up and doing more, but we need even more employers to step up and do more.  Secondly, I would also just speak to job quality. We need to be sure that people who are investing in their education and devoting time and resources to learning have a job with a livable wage and benefits when they complete it.

If you work a job in America, you should be able to take care of your family, so we need really more of a focus on job quality and making educational opportunities affordable.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Affordability and job quality. These are very thoughtful points. What other advice do you have for employers about upskilling their employees at this moment?

Jaime Fall: Well, I think it’s just important for employers to take the long view. We don’t want them to just look at what’s happening in the workplace today. We want them to look beyond what’s happening today, what’s coming down the road in a few years and look beyond what’s happening in the economy today.

We want employers to be thinking about, “Do we really want a workforce that’s going to be learning in the future?” If so they need to be investing in strategies and programs that make that possible.  They should also take the long-range view toward the skills that are going to be needed in the future and not be cutting back on training today.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Let me flip that question then. What’s your advice to workers who are interested in building their skills and growing their careers during this chaotic time?

Jaime Fall: I have to say that my heart goes out to people who are in really difficult economic times right now, and I don’t want to give any advice that would sound like, “This is easy” or that it is just a matter of will. The last thing I want to do is say something that comes off as “people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” People have no boots right now.

This is such an incredibly difficult time. I just wanted to emphasize that, but for people who have the opportunity, just do the best you can to put some sort of support network in place – whether that’s your employer, your family, whoever it might be, friends, local nonprofit organizations that can help you make good decisions about the type of education and training you should be focused on, and then help you get the best possible job once you complete that education and training.

The last piece of advice I would have for all workers, both employed and unemployed, is to find employers who are going to invest in your future and in your development and go to work for those employers who are going to show that they believe in you by investing in you.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Thank you, Jamie, for acknowledging the moment and how difficult it is on both workers as well as employers. You shared so many good strategies and good practices today.

Thank you very much for being with us today. I am Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of Workforce Rx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.