Skip to content

Maria Flynn, President & CEO of Jobs for the Future: Now Is the Time to Ask the Hard Questions

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Maria Flynn, President & CEO of Jobs for the Future: Now Is the Time to Ask the Hard Questions


The combination of a unique economic moment and major new funding out of Washington is creating an opportunity to rethink workforce development policies and programs. But will the tough questions be asked that will lead to a significant reshaping of the nation’s approach? Maria Flynn, president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, is hopeful, but is not yet seeing the “blue sky redesign” discussion she thinks is necessary. “We are largely operating public systems that were designed for a different era. A lot of the conversations now are about funding but are not questioning those underlying assumptions of 'are these the systems that we need for today and the future'? My answer to that is largely no,” says Flynn.  There’s a lot to learn in this probing conversation with Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan about transforming American education and workforce systems, the growing corporate role in education, helping employers deliver on diversity, strategies to boost innovation, taking a regional approach to economic development and much more.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and health care explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health. The economic recovery in the U.S. continues to be uneven and unpredictable. As our listeners know, it’s hard to keep track of how much is changing in the world of workforce development, between new approaches to credentialing, large funding streams flowing through the public workforce system, and historic shifts in higher education among other trends.

Fortunately, our guest today is in a position to help us tie this all together. Maria Flynn is president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit driving transformation in the American workforce and education systems. Maria brings decades of experience in government and the nonprofit sector to her role, and is a sought-after expert on education and workforce issues. Thanks so much for joining us today, Maria.

Maria Flynn: Hi, Van. It’s great to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

Van: Absolutely. I’m pretty sure most listeners already know of your organization Jobs for the Future. I would love if you could give us more details on where you focus JFF’s efforts these days?

Maria: Sure. So, Jobs for the Future has been around since 1983, and we are a national nonprofit that works to drive equitable economic advancement. We do that by designing, scaling, influencing and investing across the public and private sector at the federal, state and local level. We do a mix of policy and practice across the education and workforce ecosystem. As you can imagine, we have a lot going on at the moment. I feel our mission has never been more important than it is right now as our nation works to recover from COVID.

We are really digging into issues of equity, of quality, of career navigation, and how we can be designing solutions across government and corporations and community-based organizations that truly are worker-centered.

Van: Well, thank you for doing that important work. Like me, you’ve been involved in workforce issues and education issues for decades and you’ve pushed to reshape public systems and institutions, as you say, to be worker-focused. I’ve discovered that many suffer from recidivism and revert back to their prior ways because transformation is really hard, especially when it affects the person that’s in the mirror. How is this moment in time different, or not, from what you’ve seen in the past, and what are the opportunities these days?

Maria: I think it’s a great question. And you’re right, I was thinking about how you and I, Van, have been through a number of roles and have looked at these issues from many different vantage points. I hope that we can look back and see that this moment was different. I think more has to happen in order for that to be true. On the positive side, I think we have an environment in Washington, D.C. right now where we are going to see historic levels of funding and flow around education and workforce issues, which is terrific.

I think there is largely a pretty shared sense of urgency in this moment. I think we have a refreshing and overdue understanding of the importance of racial equity in this work. But where I feel we still have work to do — and I feel we need to really have a greater sense of urgency – is to be sure the policy conversations being held around “human infrastructure” are asking the right fundamental questions.

I get concerned when I see that we are largely operating public systems that were designed for a different era. A lot of the conversations now are about funding but are not questioning those underlying assumptions of ‘are these systems the systems that we need for today and the future’? My answer to that is largely no…that we really need to be stepping back and asking the harder questions, getting to the root issues that are driving a lot of the systemic inequities that we see.

As you said, that does get hard when folks are looking in the mirror because at the end of the day, that brings up issues of power and privilege and who is making decisions and who is allocating resources and so forth. I think that’s where these conversations fall short. For example, if we question whether workforce boards are the right governance mechanism for workforce funds in the country, you’re immediately going to have 500 or 600 workforce board leaders who aren’t too excited to have that conversation. But if we’re really looking to see how can we truly be putting workers at the center of these systems, those are the conversations that have to be had.

Van: You bring up great points as to who benefits now. It’s very difficult to change the shape and flow of money because those that benefit now don’t really embrace any shifts. But let me ask the question from a different vantage point: if Maria Flynn were designing those policy conversations and shaping those fundamental questions, what is the world that you would like us to move towards?

Maria: The world I would like us to move towards requires a major stepping-back and almost a blue sky redesign conversation that removes all the current assumptions of how funding flows, and of how committee jurisdiction in Congress determines a lot of these things. If we were to design from scratch a lifelong, equitable learning system for the United States, where would we start? How would money flow? Who would make those decisions? How would we be providing the information in robust and actionable ways to individuals and organizations to help them design their best career paths? How would we rethink the connections between what is traditional higher ed and traditional workforce? Even with some of the work JFF has been doing recently about rethinking grades 11 and 12 and high school, how do you think about what is needed to prepare folks for good careers? I think we need to start asking those extremely hard questions.

Another piece is, how do we have a thoughtful conversation about what the best role is for the public sector, for the private sector — particularly in talent development — and think about how do we design around that?

Van: This concept of lifelong learning in the past has been about ‘can I study foreign languages so I can go on vacation’. Now, it has actually infiltrated into the public policy discussions because we know that education and training can’t just be the thing that you do at the beginning of your career, beginning of life. You have to reskill continuously to stay relevant because technology is just having that type of effect on our skill sets.

You talked about the role of the public sector and private sector, but there’s also the role of the individual. Fundamentally, it comes down to who pays, right? Who funds all of these training endeavors so that workers can have the skills to stay relevant in the market? I wonder if you have any insights into how we should think about that because clearly, at the beginning of your life, the public policies are set up so that there’s financial aid and the public system pays for your education, but there’s some assumptions about who pays beyond that. What is your thinking currently?

Maria: I think the question of who pays is a critical one and I feel right now there are some important conversations happening but I’m worried that those conversations are not strategically connected. Let me parse that a little bit. For example, there’s lots of conversation around free college, right? At this moment here in the middle of September it’s looking like free community college is something that we might see come out of the reconciliation bill. That seems to be one big strand of policy conversation that’s happening.

But then, in a parallel track, there are conversations around whether Pell eligibility should be extended to short-term credentials. That’s an idea that at JFF we’re very supportive of, understanding that it’s imperative to have strong quality indicators as part of that. But we believe that short-term credentials, industry-recognized credentials, are a critical piece of this system and that individuals should be able to access Pell Grants to attain those. That’s strand 2.

I would say strand 3, then, is the dollars that flow through the traditional workforce, or WIOA system, which I would argue are pretty hard to get to. It’s a very cumbersome bureaucratic system. There are a lot of hoops and complexities that both an individual and a provider need to go through in order to access those dollars.

Strand 4 is we have exciting progress being made on the corporate side. Just in the past few months, we’ve seen Walmart, Target, and Amazon all say that they are going to pay for college degrees for their employees, which is fantastic. I think it raises lots of important questions.

The last one I would mention is that at JFF, we have a Financing the Future initiative where we are really digging into what are some of the innovative financing models that really can help facilitate lifelong learning such as income share agreements — which I know sometimes have a lot of questions and some controversies surrounding them — but we feel that if done correctly, some of these new approaches really can help drive greater equity and outcomes because we’ll be making financing more easily available to more workers.

I think where I see an opportunity for enhancement is for there to be a more comprehensive debate around these strands together. Right now, we see lots of siloed conversation, but not enough of stepping back and saying, ‘what’s the end we’re striving for in terms of opening up sources of capital to finance lifelong learning, and how do we make those options easier for individuals to understand and navigate?

Van: I’m looking forward to this whole strand of work by JFF. Thanks for your leadership in this area.

Maria: I agree with you. The individual has a key role to play in all of this, but I think we as a country make it hard for individuals to make good, informed decisions in these areas.

Van: You spent many years at the U.S. Department of Labor and understand the dynamics in D.C. Are there any systems-level transformations you’re seeing that are particularly exciting, programmatically?

Maria: One thing I’m very excited about at the moment is the funding opportunity that has come out of the U.S. Department of Commerce…the Build Back Better funding that is really driving funds to regional economies. I flag that because one of my strongest passions is around the role that regional economies play in driving economic advancement. It ties back to some work that I did at the U.S. Department of Labor during the Bush Administration with an initiative called WIRED, which stood for Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development.

What I like about the Commerce opportunity is it really goes back and takes some of those ideas from WIRED. I think it modernizes them a bit and tethers them to this moment of economic recovery and the importance of looking at the connection between economic development and workforce development, which I know is something that you’ve looked at a lot in your career as well. It’s early days on that because I know the solicitation is just on the street now, but I’m looking forward to see how that initiative rolls out because it’s that type of focus that I think we need more of.

Van: I like that it came out of the Department of Commerce rather than within the silos of the workforce institutions or the education institutions because no one institution has all the resources and competencies to be able to solve the economic development issues of a region, and collectively as a portfolio you have a better chance to do that. When you say it modernizes, what element is being modernized, do you think?

Maria: When I read the solicitation, you could see some elements of WIRED in there. I also think they’ve looked at more recent work that the National Fund for Workforce Solutions and other organizations have done around the concept of industry partnerships. I think there’s some of those structural elements in there as well. For instance, there’s a more enhanced and nuanced understanding of the different roles that organizations — particularly anchor or intermediary organizations — play at that regional level. I’m kind of a geek when it comes to that stuff (laughs). I was telling someone at the Department of Commerce how much I enjoyed reading through all the details because I think it’s really well designed and I’m excited to see how it rolls out.

Van: That’s wonderful. Now, I remember JFF having a role in actually coaching some of the public institutions when I was still at the California Community Colleges. What are JFF’s strategies to help public institutions sustain the changes that they desire?

Maria: We really approach our work through this lens of dual transformation. One side of that, as you’re saying, is working with the traditional systems and institutions and helping them transform and advance. The second half of the dual transformation is actively engaging the newcomers or the innovators or the non-traditional models and meeting them where they are and then working to bring the best of those worlds together. So, we really see ourselves as a bridge between the two sides of that coin.

In terms of the work that we do with the traditional systems, we work very closely with the community college system, as you know, with workforce boards, with community-based organizations, and also increasingly with corporations through our Corporate Action Platform.
Let me tell you about a couple of the strategies we deploy. One is activating networks for them so they can learn from each other. We also run something called the Community College Workforce Consortium where we bring together community college presidents who are particularly passionate and committed to workforce development strategies in their institutions. We do a lot of convening. We also do a great deal of capacity-building technical assistance work and behind-the-scenes support work to leadership teams as they’re moving their transformation agenda forward. Then, also bringing to the table opportunities to test out new designs, new models, and new technologies along the way.

Because we’re not a membership organization, we don’t have a membership that we’re beholden to or anything like that. We have the ability to be bolder, I think, in our approach and really encourage systems and institutions to take the big swings and to move towards a more equitable impact.

Van: Maria, you created the JFFLabs within Jobs for the Future in 2018 to bridge traditional education and workforce systems. I think this is what you mentioned in terms of newcomers. What have you learned so far? What will you do more of, or less of?

Maria: Thanks for asking. We are a little over three years into JFFLabs. We have a wonderful executive director, Kristina Francis, who joined us just about a year ago who’s leading that team forward. A way to think about it is we have a number of core functions for JFFLabs. They include impact investing – we have an early-stage investment fund that sits in Labs called ETF@JFFLabs.

We also have a data services team there. One of the projects that they’re working on right now is Outcomes for Opportunity, which is focusing on helping a set of workforce boards look deeper at their data and their outcomes. We also focus on incubation and acceleration services for startups that are really aligned with our mission and that are focusing at that intersection of education and workforce.

Some of the early products that have come out of that work are market scans that are looking at who are the innovators to watch around career navigation, around assessment technologies, around technologies that enable young people to thrive in the workplace. I want to call those out in particular because I think they do a really interesting job of showcasing some of the most innovative companies and entrepreneurs that are in those spaces.

The other function of JFFLabs is to serve as a greenhouse, so to speak, where new bodies of work for JFF can really start to take root. We plan something in Labs and then we will move it into JFF once it is matured. Our first example of that is our corporate-facing work, led by Cat Ward, which we launched in Labs about three years ago and will probably be moving over into JFF in the coming year. We found that it’s a very valuable way to give entrepreneurs some room and some space to really try out new things and to grow new bodies of work.

Van: Are these entrepreneurs employees within JFF or are they entrepreneurs from the outside?

Maria: We do both. Cat is a JFF employee. Michael Collins is another JFF leader who is building out some work around racial and economic equity within Labs. We also have external entrepreneurs and residents who take tours through Labs. One example from the past year is Alex Hernandez, who is a Dean at the University of Virginia, did a tour as did Shelly Bell, who is the CEO of Black Girl Ventures. So, we do a mix of both.

Van: What a great intentional structure to allow the organization to learn from within.

Maria: Yes. I think too often, organizations forget — as we are trying to help the field evolve and transform — that our organizations also need to evolve and transform. We see this as an opportunity for the organization to be on a learning journey and journey of transformation at the same time that we’re trying to help the ecosystem do that hard work as well.

Van: I hope our listeners are taking away a lesson: if you want to facilitate agility, you actually have to build-in the structure so that employees and staff and whatever your network is can actually experiment and take on risks more easily, right?

Maria: Exactly. I think we found JFF, like many nonprofits, had become a very risk-averse organization. So, we have been finding ways to encourage more thoughtful risk-taking and more innovation at the same time that we are delivering our deliverables and our projects that we are hired to take on. As you said, be intentional about how you design for all of that.

Van: Absolutely. Well, employers are really in a tough spot right now with 10 million open jobs. What’s your take on how employers are trying to meet this challenge? What advice can you offer to those attempting to find solutions?

Maria: I really appreciated a recent op-ed that David Autor from MIT had in the New York Times where he was really reflecting on this unique labor market moment that we’re in. I don’t think anyone quite understands exactly what’s happening at this moment with the extreme labor shortages that some industries and occupations are feeling. The good news around that is that the tightness of the labor market is causing employers to be more innovative and creative about how they’re thinking about their talent pools and how they do their sourcing and recruiting.

I think now is the moment to push on that lever and see how can JFF and others really help employers lean into this moment and lean into more equitable ways of
bringing on talent — and not only the recruitment process but also the career advancement strategies that they deploy internally. The good news is there are a lot of good models to learn from. Through our Corporate Action Platform, we document a lot of those.

We have a Recover Stronger playbook that we released in June that codifies a lot of the strong employer practices that we have seen deployed since the onset of COVID. I encourage folks to take a look at that. That said, there’s still a long way to go, right? I think we need to still be looking at this issue of ensuring that companies who are making bold statements around DEI really take the action that’s needed to live up to those statements. You don’t want to take the foot off the pedal on ensuring that happens.

We also need to make it easier for those commitments to be acted upon. For example, I was talking to an employer the other day who was saying that the good news is they felt very strongly that they wanted to remove the degree requirements from a lot of their jobs. The downside was they were having a hard time finding an efficient way to sort through the applicants. They’re finding it very challenging to do the right thing. So, we need to look at how to make it easier for employers to do the right thing. I think that there are a lot of organizations, like Byron Auguste’s Opportunity@Work, which have some very practical platforms and tools that can help, but it’s getting these actions happening at scale where we think we still have some opportunity to do a lot more.

Van: I remember when I was back in the corporate sector, one of the HR folks was complaining that they couldn’t get diversity into their pipeline. When I asked what they were doing, they said they would post the job listing but would close it within the hour because there were too many candidates that would come in, and they didn’t have the bandwidth to be able to sort through them. It’s interesting to see the circular issues that are brought about, but I am glad you’re pushing employers to think about their DEI commitment.

Talking about playbook, I just came out with my first book on Amazon called WorkforceRx: Agile and Inclusive Strategies for Employers, Educators and Workers in Unsettled Times. I don’t know if you are aware, Maria, that you and JFF are mentioned quite a few times across the chapters.

Maria: Oh! Awesome!

Van: You have to take a look. Some are surprised to see me acknowledge in chapter 10 that the playbook for resiliency for workers in the next economy is not just solely about training — – we just can’t train our way out of this economy — and that we’re growing a lot of jobs that don’t come with any assets like healthcare and retirement. So, therefore, we’re still leaving the community unstable. Some believe the solution is universal basic income, but others have different ideas. What human infrastructures do you think we need to build so that workers can thrive in this next economy?

Maria: I agree with you that training is not the silver bullet here. I think it’s an important ingredient in the recipe, but not the only one. At JFF we have been similarly talking about “skills plus.” I think it’s another example of where the broader debate or dialogue isn’t quite focused on the right thing. It’s an example of where we tend to have very fragmented policy dialogues. There are folks who are looking at the portable benefit issues, or there are folks who are looking at universal basic income issues, but they tend to be isolated from the folks who are advocating for more workforce funding.

And so, how can we start to drive a more comprehensive dialogue and policy agenda that can really bring in all of these key strands? Because I agree that jobs are fundamentally shifting in nature. How folks navigate them, understand those changes, understand what skills or degrees they need or don’t need as part of that…all of that is very opaque right now.

I also have felt recently that one shift in these 18 months during which we’ve been navigating COVID is that some of those previous “future of work” discussions have gotten sidelined. We went through an initial moment when everyone was switching to virtual training and service delivery and people were saying, “Oh, look, the future of work has arrived.” I feel we have moved on from there. I think it is time to resurface and re-elevate the fact that automation has not slowed down in these 18 months, instead it has picked up. The future of different occupations and industries are still very much in flux and we need to continue to position our institutions and our systems to be agile and nimble enough to be ready for that future.  I feel that because we are, rightly so, focused on this near-term recovery, we are losing sight of the bigger issues that are soon coming our way. So, I like that you’re calling for this more robust approach that can be pulling in these different resources because I would agree that training is key, but not “it.”

Van: And it’s also hard for public policies to mimic or to magnify a solution unless we actually have the solutions tested and modeled. This calls for a moment of experimentation to design what is worker-friendly.

Maria: Exactly. One of the other ideas we have been advocating for is this idea of an “ARPA-L” or a DARPA for labor because as you’re saying, I don’t feel that as a country we invest enough in the truly innovative ideas that could be spurring worker advancement. It really requires Congress and the Labor Department to almost have a dual transformation of their own, right? Getting today’s systems in the place that they need to be to push us towards an equitable economic recovery, but also investing in the new ideas, the bold innovations, the technology solutions that can be bringing new ways of approaching some of these historic issues that have been very hard to address. I don’t think it’s an either-or, I think it’s a both. Hopefully, we will get to that point.

Van: Well, let’s wrap up by imagining the 10-year future, or maybe it might take 20 years. Let’s say DARPA-L has gone into effect. What is your hope for that future that is different from today?

Maria: I think of this a lot because I have two girls and they are 9-years apart. My oldest daughter is a senior in high school and is embarking on a pretty traditional path of looking at colleges and so forth. I often think when my little one, who is in third grade now, is in 12th grade will this system look different, and I sure hope the answer is yes. I think it’s going to require a lot.

I would say one big category is around information and navigation. Having much more transparent data on pathways, on programs, on occupations that can be easily accessible to students, parents and workers. These are things that we just don’t have now. I think for the demand side to have shifted beyond a four-year degree as the default requirement and really having a more agile and fluid way of recognizing skills and experiences. But I think you need the demand side to shift significantly enough so that the post-secondary education system can shift along with it. And then, I do think that technology is going to play an incredible role, now and in the future, in ways that we probably can’t even envision yet. But if we really start looking at the power of blockchain and what that means for skill portability and things like that, then I think the sky is the limit in a lot of ways.

I think that the pandemic has pushed us faster into the future, but we still need a lot of systemic changes to be happening in order for there to be a real, significant shift to a different way of thinking and being in this space.

Van: And that’s why we’re so glad that you continue to be at the helm of JFF, Maria. Thank you very much for being with us today and lending your insights into this really complicated set of questions.

Maria: Thank you so much, Van. It was great to talk with you, and I look forward to digging into your book.

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.