“I think we have a moment in this new decade we are in to start fresh when it comes to how we build our economies and build our communities and build our society,” says Shalin Jyotishi, senior policy analyst at New America. An important part of this fresh start is to further connect workforce development with the nation’s R&D and doing so beyond the nation’s tech corridors. Jyotishi says universities and community colleges have a role to play, but so do faith-based organizations, unions and state governments. A self-described public interest technologist, he counsels against being afraid of the rise in automation in favor of seeing people as the ultimate arbiters of how technology is applied. Join Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan for this insightful exploration of emerging ideas in education, training, tech and public policy that could reshape our economy and society for the better.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, healthcare, and workforce development explore new innovations and approaches. I am your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health. My guest Shalin Jyotishi describes himself with a novel title: Public Interest Technologist. His expertise centers on public problem solving where higher education and the workforce meet science, technology, innovation policy, and governance. In his role as Senior Policy Analyst at New America, Shalin has gained influence as a trusted source of compelling research and ideas that can contribute to building a more equitable and efficient future work and learning. He is associated as an advisor or board member with an impressive array of institutions, including the World Economic Forum, MIT, Stanford University, and the United Nations. I am really looking forward to picking his brain about the interesting and promising experiments he sees emerging in higher education and workforce development. Shalin, thanks so much for joining us today.
Shalin Jyotishi: Thanks so much, Van. Honored to be with you.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Shalin, maybe we can start with an overview of New America and how your work fits into New America’s mission.
Shalin Jyotishi: Sure, absolutely. So New America is a think tank, a media platform, an intellectual venture capital fund — there are many different adjectives you can use to describe New America — but we were founded about 21 years ago by a group of journalists who really wanted to establish a new kind of “think-and-do-tank” and a research organization that is active and engaged in the community it seeks to serve. New America’s mission is to advance new ideas that help us renew the American promise, and within New America, there are a number of different programs that span education to technology to policy, and I found that to be the perfect merriment for me because I touch every single one of those pillars in different ways. So for me, New America was a great landing spot.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, you are always on the leading edge of experiments here. Shalin, a lot of your work focuses on helping higher ed institutions and their partners align technology and talent development with an eye towards emerging work. Tell us a little bit more about what that looks like and where you see the opportunities.
Shalin Jyotishi: You know, Van, since World War II, U.S. federal investments in R&D at universities and other organizations have just led to an enormous level of social and economic opportunity — fortified vitamin D, the smartphone, GPS, the internet, radar, most recently the COVID-19 vaccine — all of this has roots in federally funded R&D. The heart of Silicon Valley, contrary to popular belief, the heart of the Boston Corridor, the heart of the Research Triangle Park has been this U.S. investment in R&D, but what we really have not been doing a lot of thinking about is how we bring the conversation of workforce development upstream to the point of technology development, aligning technology and talent development. No one has really looked at this as sort of a cogent system. They have looked at it as ingredients, as part of a bigger goal, but not sort of tactically. So what I have really been thinking about recently are looking at Manufacturing USA Institutes. These are about 16 institutes across the country, they are federally funded, they were set up in the Obama Administration and they are responsible for developing new technologies that will revolutionize the frontiers of manufacturing in different sectors. Each of these institutes are also responsible for workforce development.
Many institutes are looking at how the technologies that they are deploying for the benefit of U.S. manufacturing are having workforce implications. The community colleges and research universities alike have a role to fill in preventing a gap from emerging, preventing an issue in which a technology that has been federally funded by the U.S. government is put out into industry and results in a skills gap that the local ecosystem is not prepared to handle.
There have been some examples of institutions being innovative in this way. For example, in the photonic space, you have the AIM Academy at the AIM Photonics Institute working with Stonehill College, a private liberal arts college, to develop a non-degree photonic certificate program to train photonics technicians of the future. You have Pima Community College, not necessarily related to a manufacturing institute, but developing an autonomous vehicle certificate program to help meet the demands of Arizona’s growing autonomous vehicles industry. The opportunity for institutions to skate where the puck is going, as a lot of us like to say in the space, is enormous now more than ever because we have this increased emphasis on both two-year degrees and R&D at the federal level. There are a number of other things I could share, Van, but I will pause myself there. I’m happy to talk more later in the discussion.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Shalin, I actually have experience with one of these federal institutes that you mentioned. The one that is located in Silicon Valley is called NextFlex, and they focus on technology embedded in flexible fabrics. I was actually a judge in a shark tank competition that they sponsored where high school students and community college students would pitch business ideas where that technology was deployed. There were some very clever teams. For example, one team proposed that the technology be embedded in baby outfits — the underarm and in the booties — so that if the baby stops breathing you would have an early alert. I can just imagine seeing some of those individuals in the audience going on to have PhDs in this area, but also in technician types of roles because they were exposed to NextFlex. So, I just love what you are thinking and I am glad that the country has had those investments…
Shalin Jyotishi: Absolutely.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: …and hopefully will continue.
Shalin Jyotishi: Absolutely.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I just had to share that because you got me all excited! Shalin, I want to ask you about Learning and Employment Records which are known by various names including interoperable learning record. Why does it matter? Why do we have this idea fomenting at this moment in time?
Shalin Jyotishi: Learner and Employment Records, or interoperable learner records, really got a lot of steam a couple of years ago as the White House’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board began discussing this topic as part of their meetings and produced a report on interoperable learner records. These LERs, which is the name that we are now accustomed to, are essentially digital passports where the full breadth of our learning and skills can be brought into one centralized place. It is a comprehensive digital record of all of the skills we have gained through our schooling, through our jobs, through our volunteering, or military service. It includes the employment history or credentials or diplomas we may have picked up on. The idea is that LERs will help amalgamate all of the different kinds of verifiable skills that we pick up on our various journeys through our career progression.
We know that there is a challenge where a student or a worker sometimes struggles to communicate the full breadth of skills that he or she has with what an employer is looking for. And on the employer side of the coin, the employers sometimes cannot really get a sense of the full breadth of skills the candidates have based on a cover letter or resume submitted through some form on the internet. LERs are meant to help educational institutions do a better job of deconstructing their credentials and programs into skills and competencies. They are meant to help employers get a better sense of what kinds of skills they are looking to hire for and advanced competency-based hiring at scale through a digital sort of technology infrastructure, and it helps learners and workers get a better sense of what they know and how they can communicate it out to employers. So, this may seem like a very meta sort of pie in the sky idea, and it is nascent, but there is great deal of momentum underway for LERs. After the White House released its report, the Chamber of Commerce Foundation really took the idea and ran with it and has established a T3 innovation network that is really bringing together a number of different thinkers and doers to do. What many of us hope is that through LERs, we can move to a system in which we are talking about skills and not proxies for skills, whether it is age or gender or credentials — all of these, in some ways, are proxies for skills. So it is an interesting time for LERs.
Van Ton Quinlivan: I would imagine that this ties well into these discussions around portability, especially for adults. I mean the system for transcribing an education record is pretty clean and clear for someone from high school going into college, but once you go beyond college, all the experiences gained, all the additional learnings that you pull along the way, that is what matters, I would imagine, with these learning records.
Shalin Jyotishi: Absolutely. We know that there are some groups within the military who are interested in using LERs to capture the breadth of skills veterans gain when they leave service. We all know people in our own personal networks who are just so talented and have skills to do certain jobs, but they may not have traditional markers of proof. They may have not done graphic design work through their jobs, or they may not have a degree in graphic design, but they may have picked up on those skills. Maybe they signed up for Skillshare or Coursera or they just watch YouTube videos and it is a side hobby. The exciting opportunity I think for LERs, for adult learners in particular, is this ability to deconstruct lived experiences into skills that can be communicated out to employers and educational institutions alike.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: So, the deconstruction of lived experience into skills means that skills would have more currency in the future. Tell us more about how you think about that?
Shalin Jyotishi: If we can move to a system in which we have a common narrative, a common ontology for skills that are used across the board, then the language we use to communicate about education and hiring are more skills-based instead of credentials-based, and that I think has a lot of opportunities for equity.
We know that a significant number of jobs are never really posted anywhere. They are just hired through internal searches, through networks. Networks tend to privilege those with social capital. Networks tend to privilege those with networks. So, a system in which we are really communicating through skills I think would allow the equity conversation to advance a lot more substantively because employers will then be able to assess candidates based on what they are really looking for — the actual competencies that they need to perform certain jobs — as opposed to proxies for competencies. “Oh, well, Shalin went to this institution so Shalin should be able to do that or Shalin did not go to Harvard so maybe he is not really able to do that.” We would have less of the qualitative interpretations of someone’s skills and get more of the verified piece, which is a very important aspect. For LERs to work well, there has to be a really concrete mechanism for verifying that the skill Shalin says he has, he actually has, and that is one of the nuts that this community is trying to crack a bit more acutely.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, thanks for explaining these experiments that are occurring right now.
In a past role, Shalin, you helped university leaders across the country advance workforce and economic development initiatives. One interesting idea you offered in a recent article is to have states provide community colleges with revolving loans as a way to fund startup costs for new non-degree programs. Tell us more about that.
Shalin Jyotishi: We have this project called New Models for Career Preparation in which we are looking at how community colleges can design quality non-degree programs that lead to quality jobs. So, these are programs that are above the high school diploma, but below the associate’s degree. Of course, one key challenge that colleges face in this work is finding the funding to cover the start-up cost associated with a number of these programs. Even if you have a really engaged industry partner and they are willing to put a little skin in the game, and you have this defined need, they are still going to need to fund that program.
So, one example that we came across recently is this idea of state-based revolving loans in which the state essentially makes some funding available for start-up costs for non-degree programs that are meant to be a replenishing fund. The institution borrows from the funds at no interest and that funding is paid back over a set amount of time as students enroll in the program. Now, this model is most suitable for long-term programs that you expect to have in place for a number of years. If you have a program that is meant to be customized training for say 200 workers in two years, this strategy may not be so helpful because you’ll likely fulfill your program’s goals within two years’ time and you may not have the need or timeline to pay back a loan that you borrowed. But let us say you have a more significant development. Let us say Amazon comes to your neighborhood and has a workforce need that they really need to have filled and you do not have funding available at your institution. Maybe you are a rural institution, maybe you are not located in an area with lots of financial assets.
States making temporary funding available for entrepreneurialism for non-degree programs and new models career preparation we think is a really exciting opportunity, but it is not the only way that colleges can innovatively finance these programs. We are looking at partnerships with unions. We are looking at partnerships with community-based organizations, faith-based organizations. What’s the role of faith-based organizations in non-degree workforce development? Whether it is from the financing and fundraising lens maybe through scholarships or sponsorships, or even just promotion of opportunities. So when it comes to this question of financing non-degree programs at community colleges, we are really trying to think out-of-the-box. Revolving loans is one tool that we found, but we are expecting to find others as we carry on our New Models project.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I like these policy ideas that you are advocating. Launching a new program is very risky for our colleges, so the more we can lower the risk to them that would help us get the capacity out there. Shalin, until recently you were the CEO and publisher of the Journal of Science Policy and Governance and you also focus on coordinating federal science and innovation policy with workforce policy. What is top of mind for you in the policy space today?
Shalin Jyotishi: Yes. I really enjoyed my eight years with the Journal of Science Policy and Governance and I think my role with the journal as an academic and a practitioner in this space really painted an interesting lens on these issues. One thing that is really top of mind for me is how we fund science and workforce development programs in the United States and how those two funding pots and strategies are connected to one another. There are a number of really exciting developments. We have the director of the National Science Foundation testifying before the House and Senate on White House’s funding increases for the National Science Foundation for R&D. We also have a hearing on the Endless Frontier Act, which has been proposed by Senator Schumer and Senator Young, which proposes to transform the National Science Foundation into a National Science and Technology Foundation in which we would have a part of a federal agency that is really substantively looking at propagating new technologies in United States technology development. Well, what better opportunity to be thinking about the workforce implications of R&D then when we are focusing on technology development?
So now more than ever, I think we have an enormous opportunity to “build back better,” truly, by aligning science and workforce policy. There are legislative actions, there are executive level actions, and there is a lot of state-level innovation happening all across the country through tech-based economic development organizations, through university-industry partnerships, and through community college industry partnerships. So, if it is one thing that is really exciting me about this question and my interloping background, it is just the moment we are in. We have emerged from a really, really challenging time, but there was another time in which the country emerged from an enormous challenge by aligning its workforce and science policy. It was World War II when the GI bill was put in place, when Vannevar Bush introduced Endless Frontier, and the Office of Science and Research Development was established. There was a big movement for U.S. policy in terms of economic development, and in some ways, I think we can look at the pandemic as a similar development. So, I am looking forward to just carry on the discussion with our space.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Technology is indeed morphing work and jobs, and you have been thinking about job quality. When it comes to job quality, what should leaders in our audience be thinking about, Shalin?
Shalin Jyotishi: Well, I would be remiss if I did not give a plug for a recording of a session that the OECD hosted a couple of weeks back which I moderated, and the topic was advancing job quality and equity in the context of workplace automation and augmentation. So really dot-connecting the impact of technologies on the workplace with our job quality conversation. We had Maureen Conway from the Aspen Institute and Leticia Gasca from Faethm Ai, and Jeremias Adams-Prassl from Oxford. We had a fantastic discussion. One thing that I came away with is proactiveness is really important. There has been a lot of debate about automation over these past several years hemming and hawing about “Oh, it is not going to destroy any jobs.” “Oh, it is going to destroy all of our jobs.” “Oh, we need to stop talking about automation destroying all of our jobs and we need a new sort of paradigm shift for economic structures.” It could be all of those things, but the fact of the matter is if you look at the evidence, what we have is some jobs being destroyed, some jobs being created, and a lot of jobs being changed, and it is really in the augmentation space that I think there is a lot of area of opportunity in terms of policy recommendations. We really need to be mindful of social safety nets in the country, and a lot of social safety nets are tied to employment. You lose your job, what happens to your health insurance? Well, so thinking about the gig economy and the proliferation of contract-based work — whether you are an Uber driver or you are a coder trying to get some projects on Fiverr or you are a data cleaner in the AI industry — there is an increased growth of contract-based work and we need to be thinking about sort of the policy implications for that.
There is one phrase that came out from the session that the OECD hosted that is really top of mind for me, which is that technology does not change the workplace, people change the workplace. People choose to do things. A knife can be used to slice fruit, but it could also be used to poke someone in the arm. Technology is a tool which can be used in the public’s interest or against the public’s interest and whether it is in the workplace or in the school grounds or in the hospital, we can all work to use technology in the public interest. That is why I am a public interest technologist by practice and by training. So, Van, there are so many things I could say about job quality and automation augmentation, but if I were to say one thing that sort of captures it all, it is that we need to ensure agency for workers, for employers, for states, and for society because technology is not changing anything, people are.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: And I think this ties back well to our prior discussion about portable learning records and you just recently brought up the topic of portable benefits. So many things will need to be decoupled from employment in order to give us agency as the worker or as the individual given the way the economy is heading. Shalin, you have been recognized as a World Economic Forum Global Shaper. I am wondering how you see the economic trajectory of the U.S. compared to other leading economies over the next several years?
Shalin Jyotishi: Oh gosh. That is a massive question, Van. I will share my personal view. I am not an economist. I am not an expert in financial systems or financial paradigms, but I am actually optimistic of our future. I am not pessimistic when it comes to technology changing lives. Again, technology is not changing anything, right? We are. We choose to get addicted to our cell phones or to be over-reliant on email or to be absorbed in the pinging and buzzing of Twitter and LinkedIn and this and that. I think what we will need in terms of our economic structure is a greater level of emphasis on how more Americans can benefit from the advances in science, technology, and innovation, and I think one vehicle to accomplish that is aligning technology and talent development. We need to get away from this notion that science and tech really only benefit those who are at universities doing research or those who live in these coastal elite areas. There was also mention of innovation hubs in some of the recent policy proposed, and Marc Muro and Rob Atkinson have advocated for these regional innovation hubs that take R&D out of the locus of control of San Francisco and Seattle and Washington DC and New York City and Boston, and bring them more into other regional economies where more Americans can benefit from advances and investments of financial investments in R&D.
So when I look at paradigm shifts or economic structures or financial movements or anything along those lines, I would say that there needs to be a little bit more of a strategic emphasis on standard of living increases as well as the sort of macroeconomic GDP enhances that we tend to focus on in Washington circles because it is going to matter. It is really going to count. Like I said before, technology is a tool. It can be used in our public interest or it can be used against our interest, and in this day and age, I think technology development is so intertwined with economic development. It is really one and the same in many regions. We need to be thinking more proactively about how we broaden the pot for others to share in.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Shalin, what excites you most within your portfolio?
Shalin Jyotishi: Oh gosh. That is a question that might get me into trouble, Van! If there is one thing I really appreciate about New America, it is this emphasis on newness. It is this emphasis on really pushing ourselves to push the envelope and to think about things that have not been thought about before, or to think about things differently and communicate them differently and be responsive to the moment, and that to me is really exciting. There is an opportunity, I think, to sort of skate to where the puck is going and we have the privilege of opportunity for that. So I would say my favorite part of my portfolio is this opportunity to focus on very tactical concrete issues of today, but also look beyond the horizon a little bit and sort of future cast a little bit.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, let us talk about future casting. I would like to close by inviting you to go 10 years into our future and look back to now. What do you think you will observe about the transitions that we are seeing at this moment in time?
Shalin Jyotishi: Fantastic question. I would like to think that we have built a world that is more enjoyable, more robust, more fulfilled, more engaged, and I would like to say that we made it. We cracked the difficult nuts, not all of them, there is always going to be some challenges here, there, this, that. But I would like to think that 10 years from now, we would have taken the right steps emerging from this global pandemic to build back better. I think we have an opportunity. I think we have a moment in this new decade that we are in to start fresh when it comes to how we build our economies and build our communities and build our society.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, thank you very much, Shalin, for being with us today and talking about our own agency in building that better future.
Shalin Jyotishi: Thanks again so much.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I am 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.