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Book conversation on workforce development spotlights special role for higher education

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Stanford Digital Education and Trinity College host an online discussion that delves into the practical steps needed to create a smooth transition from school to employment for those who do not pursue a college degree.

By Jenny Robinson

Workforce development is a team sport that works best when three groups join in the effort: employers, community-based organizations and higher education institutions, said Van Ton-Quinlivan in a September 28 discussion of her book WorkforceRX: Agile and Inclusive Strategies for Employers, Educators and Workers in Unsettled Times. Ton-Quinlivan was interviewed by Mitchell Stevens, professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for the book series Academic Innovation for the Public Good, a set of online conversations that examines universities’ roles and obligations.

The conversation took up practical questions about how to build education-focused partnerships that connect adult learners with job opportunities. It also stepped back from the specifics to ask broader questions about U.S. policy, funding, and social narratives that have not historically provided much support to students as they make the transition from school to the workforce.

Ton-Quinlivan, former executive vice chancellor of California Community Colleges, is CEO of the nonprofit Futuro Health, which does workforce development in the health-care sector. She related her drive to create opportunity for others to her family’s history. When she was six, her family fled the Vietnam War for the U.S. Ton-Quinlivan explained that her parents valued education above possessions, partly because education could never be taken away.

To encourage higher education to be more attuned to workforce development, employers should band together to make their job opportunities more interesting to two- and four-year colleges, said Ton-Quinlivan. A single employer may not have enough positions to justify a certificate or degree program, but if that employer combines with others in the sector and region, that can spur community colleges and universities to invest in new programs. The idea is to get a variety of local players uniting behind a goal: when regional actors collaborate, they tend to braid resources—to direct funding from various streams toward a common goal, she said.

Adults without a college degree benefit when education connects them with employment opportunities, said Stevens, who studies education for adult learners. But he followed that up with a question: whose job is it to develop and fund education for adults entering the workforce? That responsibility exists in a gray area in the United States, he said, pointing to a disjunction. While education through high school is publicly funded, there’s no similar infrastructure that connects high school graduates with apprenticeships or other training opportunities. “What affluent families do for their children is they circumvent all that anarchy by sending them to a [college] that will do a lot of that sorting and training for them,” he said. 

Funding for workforce development is necessary, but not enough, said Ton-Quinlivan. “It’s not just about more money,” she said. It requires aligning the moneys, the metrics and the data systems. ”Then you are putting wind behind institutions rather than having a lot of obstacles,” she said. Dedicated money can help mobilize what she called “coalitions of the willing” and help them avoid “pilot fatigue”—the weariness that can develop when you are constantly trying out something new without adequate resources. 

Stevens speculated about what is required in the United States to mobilize national will around significant capital investment, noting that large-scale efforts emerged out of crises: the New Deal out of the Depression, the G.I. bill out of World War II, and the war on poverty out of the crucible of the civil rights movement. Ton-Quinlivan added that it would be in employers’ interests to invest in training programs and education for employees who may have come to them in entry-level jobs. “The best practice is tuition support” up front, rather than tuition reimbursement, she said. 

Ton-Quinlaven and Stevens agreed that universities have a role to play as well. They can lead by training those who teach working learners in emerging areas of knowledge.

But the challenges are steep. Employees' access to their employers’ support and resources has decreased as jobs have become “gigified,” said Ton-Quinlivan, and Stevens suggested that national employers such as Starbucks, Amazon, and Walmart may have less interest in long-term, regionally focused workforce investment than companies of earlier eras.

Attendees engaged in the Q&A and the general chat, asking, among other topics, about the role of labor in workforce development partnerships and the appropriate measures of success for such efforts. Are we focused solely on earnings and economic activity, or are there other important goals? Another question focused on competency-focused education and how it might be made more popular and viable.

For the tenth and final event of this year’s Academic Innovation for the Public Good series, Estela Mara Bensimon, Tia Brown McNair, and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux will discuss their book From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education with Anita Davis, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Trinity College. Register here for the October 26 conversation.

Published October 10, 2022


Academic Innovation for the Public Good  is co-organized by Stanford Digital Education and Trinity College. Its co-sponsors are Bentley University, Brown, Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke Learning Innovation, Georgetown University Center for Design in Learning and Scholarship, Jay Hurt Hub for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Davidson College, Johns Hopkins University, McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning at Princeton, Minerva Project, North Dakota State University Graduate School, Northeastern University School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northwestern University Women's Center, Notre Dame Learning, University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation, University of Missouri Online, and University of Pennsylvania Online Learning Initiative.