Podcast: A New Roadmap for Workforce Education, With Bill Bonvillian and Sanjay Sarma

April 19, 2021

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There is a deep disconnect between the U.S. education system and the workplace. How can policymakers bridge the gap and create clear pathways to good jobs? How do technical schools, community colleges, employers, governments, and universities fit together as pieces of the workforce education puzzle—and how can new education technologies help deliver the training workers need? Rob and Jackie discuss the challenges, opportunities, and policy solutions with Professor Sanjay Sarma and Bill Bonvillian of MIT, authors of the new book Workforce Education: A New Roadmap.





Rob Atkinson: Welcome to Innovation Files. I’m Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. We’re a DC based think tank that works on technology policy.

Jackie Whisman: And I'm Jackie Whisman. I handle outreach at ITIF, which I’m proud to say is the world’s top-ranked think tank for science and technology policy.

Rob Atkinson: This podcast is about the kinds of issues we cover at ITIF, from the broad economics of innovation to specific policy and regulatory questions about new technologies. And today we're talking about workforce education.

Jackie Whisman: Our guests today are Sanjay Sarma and Bill Bonvillian. Sanjay is Vice President for Open Learning and a mechanical engineering professor at MIT. Bill is a lecturer at MIT on science, technology and society, and a longtime member of ITIF’s board. They’re the authors of a new book, Workforce Education: A New Roadmap, and we’re excited that they’re here to talk about this. Welcome.

Bill Bonvillian: Thank you.

Sanjay Sarma: Thank you very much.

Jackie Whisman: So, I wanted to start, what do we mean when we say workforce education? Can you define it for us, to kick things off?

Bill Bonvillian: I can start. And it’s a good question. If you asked a European what workforce education is, they know. They have a picture of what it is. You ask an American, they know what high school is, they know what college looks like, they know what a community college looks like. Ask them what a workforce education is, you’re going to draw a blank stare. This is a real issue. We don’t have good systems in the U.S. to move from the learning system, the education system, into the workplace. There is a real disconnect between work and learn. And it’s a deep problem here, and part of what we were writing about in the new book is an attempt to reconnect those, to put those two pieces back together again and create clear pathways to good jobs.

Sanjay Sarma: Some professions have it a little bit clearer. If you’re a nurse or a doctor or a pilot, you know what it means to upgrade your knowledge; there’s a certificate or credentialing pathway. But for a variety of industries, that doesn’t exist or it’s sort of made up. You go take a course at edX or Coursera or something, but there’s really not necessarily a pattern of practice.

Jackie Whisman: It seems to me, this is an issue that’s been bubbling up for years. We talk about future of work a lot, but really it feels like it’s reached a fever pitch now, given all the job loss during the pandemic. And I know you guys focus on this a bit and I’d love to get into it a little, too.

Sanjay Sarma: Yeah. Yeah. Look, retail is one of those industries, which... retail is such an important industry in America. It’s a job of... the first job. It’s a job that you take sometimes between other jobs, and it’s been devastated by the lack of foot traffic, especially brick and mortar retailers. A lot of the industries moved to online or what are called omnichannel, which is partly online, partly in person. Order online, pickup in person. Go to the store, see the product, have it delivered to you remote by delivery. So, what’s happening is that in retail, the technology has changed very rapidly. First of all, brick and mortar is certainly... has gone down. And second, it’s very technical. You need to operate in a warehouse, sort of a digital warehouse management systems, and this requires a very significant retraining effort for millions of people who either work in retail or could’ve worked in retail. Bill?

Bill Bonvillian: Similar, deep COVID problems because of restaurant workers, hospitality workers, tourism and travel workers. These sectors are terribly hit. Lot of companies, often small companies, just not going to come back in these sectors. There’s going to be big time displacement. I mean, after World War II, the country had to cope with the return of 16 million soldiers and sailors, and we geared up to do it. We passed the G.I. Bill. That was a massive workforce education project, and we did it. So, something around that scale is really going to be needed here. On the manufacturing side, manufacturing has actually held up pretty well with the exception of the aerospace industry affected by travel and tourism declines. But there’s a big issue in manufacturing because it's an aging workforce. So, we're going to have over two million retirements this coming decade, it looks like, so there's going to be a significant number of new jobs coming up in that area, too.

Rob Atkinson: So, Sanjay, you lead MIT’s extensive online learning programs, which I think a lot of people don't know just how extensive they are. And my understanding is if you're not taking it for credit, you can do it for free. My son's a computer scientist or graduated computer science degree. He lives out in California at a firm, and he’s taken courses just for his own edification, frankly, that weren’t offered in his college. I was talking a while back with MIT president Rafael Reif, and we were talking about this and he mentioned a guy. I had actually mentioned a guy because I was in the newspaper. Some young kid from Mongolia, I think literally 15 years old, and he took this circuit design course at MIT online, and he did so well. He was in the top, I don't know, 10 or something, that MIT gave him a full scholarship and brought him to MIT.

And then President Reif said to me, “Well, there’s another guy even better. He’s from India, and he was even younger. And he did so well, we brought him here,” and it was to me what an amazing thing of sort of finding the best talent around the world. Those two folks, particularly probably the Mongolian young man, we never wouldn’t have built on those talents. So, can you say a little bit more about that?

Sanjay Sarma: What’s happening with online education is pretty spectacular because MIT itself has reached four million unique people, almost; I think it’s crossed 100 million enrollments. And online education has this amazing net that captures talent from around the world. And the story of this young Mongolian man, his name is [Patrushik Mayan Bogar 00:05:55], by the way. And I tried to take a selfie with him as he was graduating, but we discovered his brilliance through this network. The question really is that, if you have this thing for catching talent, for giving it an opportunity to rise, we do it in a premium way that is... If you just want the content, it’s free. If you want to get a certificate, you pay a nominal amount. If we have this, why can't we use this within this country? And of course, a lot of people do take... I think more than a quarter of our enrollment is from the United States, but I just feel that the penetration within the United States could be a lot more.

And if this became more standardized, if these credentials were more widely accepted, which they are beginning to be by companies; you put it in your LinkedIn page, all that stuff. We think that this could be transformative in answering the question Bill started with. What is the workforce education system? And certainly on the online piece, it could be this. And then you can add in-person sort of weekend warrior boot camps, where if you have to learn something in person, you do the stuff online, you come in, you do it in person. Over time, it’ll become more of invented reality, virtual reality. All that stuff has got to happen and will happen, but this is an effort we need to take on like a moonshot.

Rob Atkinson: I 100% agree with you on the whole credentialing component. ITIF wrote a report a few years ago, arguing that we really need to move towards much more of a... you prove what you know kind of, as opposed to “I have this thing that I went to two years community college” or something like that. And that would open up a lot of new avenues, like edX courses, boot camps as you said, a whole set of other things. Either Bill or Sanjay, how do we move more in that direction? I know a bunch of employers are trying to do that, but it seems to be we’ve got to have something a little bit more collective in nature, organized in nature, not just one-offs here and there.

Bill Bonvillian: Sanjay, you want to talk about badging?

Sanjay Sarma: Yeah. So, there’s a big movement. There’s been for many years. First of all, they’re two different concepts, and one is something called competency-based education, which is, if you can prove you’re competent then do you need to take the course? Can you just prove you’re competent? And then the other side of it is recognizing the achievement, and that’s... there’s a larger movement they call badging and micro-credentialing. So you need to say, “Well, this person is competent and here’s a certificate that says that they’re competent in doing something.” Now, we don’t have a formal system for it. Some of the stuff also requires observation. You wouldn’t take a man off the street or a woman off the street who said, “I can fly a plane.” There the badging is more complicated, but you would take someone off the street if they said, “Listen, here I can program. Here’s my programming thing I did. Here’s my GitHub repository. You can go see what I built. Here are the apps. Here are the references,” so you can prove their competency.

So, this system needs to be thought through, and then we finally need to have a way for the person to prove that they’re competent. And so, one of the things that’s happened recently, actually MIT and others are doing it, is digital credentials, so you can actually put a certificate on your LinkedIn page, and employer can click on it and prove that you actually received the certificate. So, there’s a sort of an ecosystem of things we need to do, and right now it’s a bit of a Wild West. And so, companies are having to sort of go by their gut and say, “Yep, this counts, but this doesn’t,” and we need to resolve that.

Bill Bonvillian: This is one of the gaps in this workforce education, quote, “system”, that we don't really have yet, and it's one of the gaps that needs to be filled. There has been disinvestment in recent decades by both government and employers in workforce education, and our federal programs have real limits. The Department of Labor’s training programs don’t really reach the higher oncoming technical skills, like in the IT world, or they don’t reach incumbent workers, the need to acquire them. The Department of Education’s programs focus on college education, not on workforce education, and they don’t mesh with the Labor Department programs. We’ve got a vocational educational system in high schools that largely got this mantle back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We've got underfunded community colleges that often lack the resources or equipment to provide advanced training in these emerging fields. Most colleges and universities don’t see workforce education as their problem, so they’re not very well linked to the other participants in this potential system. So, overall there’s a big credentialing gap, but there’s these other serious gaps that mean that the education system is disconnected from the workplace. We need to remake these connections.

Jackie Whisman: The credentialing issue is interesting to us. For the last few years, we’ve been doing a tech policy kind of boot camp course for Hill staff, and one of the things that our graphics person said, “We could do this badge on LinkedIn that shows that they completed this ITIF course, and that’s the most popular thing about the course.” I mean, I’m sure they’re getting a lot of knowledge in their seven weeks with us, but the credential itself on LinkedIn is a huge, huge draw. And it seems like if we can figure that out, so can others.

Sanjay Sarma: Yeah, but figure it out in a way that’s collective in the sense that we all agree to the standards and the practices, right Bill?

Bill Bonvillian: Right. We need credentials that are industry recognized and industry approved so that they can help workers get jobs. So, just adding pieces to the kind of Wild Western credentials out there doesn’t do it, as you learned from your own experience. So, ITIF is a respected organization, that’s got respect in the policy community, so that’s an enhancer, but we’ve got too many credentials that don’t have this tie-back to industry and industry recognition.

Jackie Whisman: How do you think that the government can do this in an effective way?

Sanjay Sarma: Well, and I don’t think the government particularly should be doing it, but what they should be doing is instigating it. So, for example, by creating... First of all, we need to research to figure all this out, just in terms of... I’ll give you example. What does it mean to be a data scientist? We don't have a lot of industry recognized patterns and standards of what it means to be a data scientist, leave alone some other quickly emerging skill. So, what the government needs is, frankly, efforts that build industry and academic and other coalitions, non-profit coalitions, that systematize this and create consensus, but that takes some heavy lifting. And then the next step is for companies and governments to hire people based on these things, that create a central map.

Bill Bonvillian: And in terms of the overall system, there is an important role for government at a series of levels to be able to play here. States are going to be major actors. States, quote, “own” a lot of the educational institutions that are going to be key here. Community colleges are going to be critical, and States manage their community college systems. They’re going to have to get more resources and move to the kind of upskilling in the education system that we need. States often abandon their vocational high schools, but new technical high schools could be a very crucial input, or bringing technical programs into existing high schools to help in that work-learn barrier. That could be key. That’s going to be a state and local role.

So, it’s not simply the federal government trying to make it’s Education Department and Labor Department programs mesh better and reach the incumbent workers and new populations we’ve got to reach, there’s a lot of work that could be done at other governmental levels that are needed. And of course employers are going to have to be brought into this coalition, so there’s going to be a joint effort that’s required; educational institutions, employers, and state, federal, and regional government.

Rob Atkinson: So, I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, right outside of DC, and while I have problems with the education system, I have had two kids go through it, it does some things well. And in the case of Montgomery County, a number of the high schools actually have, I don’t know what they call them, but technical areas where kids can go in there and specialize in these areas. Like for example, Montgomery County is really good in biotech. There’s a lot of biotech firms because of NIH; one of the high schools, Thomas Edison, they have an in-depth program to be a biotech technician, and you learn all these things and then you go and you work one day a week at one of the biotech companies. It’s a fantastic program, but I guess, Bill and Sanjay, I’ve been involved in this and probably you all have, too, long, long time.

And I remember conversations about this in the ‘90s and in the 2000s and 2010s, and I’m like, “Okay. Yeah, right. This is great.” But I guess my frustration is, we talk about it, we talk about it, we talk about it, and I simply don’t see the federal government taking this seriously. And they could take it seriously because your point about, we need to get companies organized to lead; I 100% agree with that, but I’m waiting for that one. I don’t see the business round table taking the lead, stepping up on that. So, how do you allay my frustration? Why should I be hopeful?

Sanjay Sarma: Well, let me give you some hope to begin with. First of all, unlike the three of you I'm an expat. I studied in a different country. My mother was a school teacher in India. I have to say that while we have concerns about the American education system, I’m not one to throw the baby out with the bath water. In fact, there are many things that the American education system does that are really, really good and very unique; creative thinking, big picture, giving students agency, and I think we need to build on that. The challenge here is leadership in terms of... not leadership. I mean, I’m not saying that somehow we don’t have good leaders, but leadership in this activity means a lightning rod that brings together the coalition, talks to willing sort of CEOs of companies to say, “Let's do a pilot,” and then staying the course through rough times, because when you do something new things will succeed, some things will fail.

And really sort of using the magnetic power that various offices give these folks to build a critical mass, or it can be self-sustaining. That is what's been missing; the staying power, the commitment, and coming out the other end with early successes and then building on it. This is not something you can solve, flash in the pan, in a few weeks or a few months. Even the vaccine’s taken us a year to do, but that was spectacular. This is a 10-year vaccine for society, and it’ll take that staying power though.

Bill Bonvillian: We are starting to see a bunch of new models. We're seeing community colleges that have developed kind of new programs that are short, that fit the kind of timetable that older adult students have to have. Programs that’ll get them to new skill sets in a 10 to 15, or maybe even 20-week time period, not two years. We’ve seen a growth in this whole credentialing movement. That’s going to be one of the building blocks. We’ve seen a whole new approach in education that Sanjay alluded to earlier; competency-based education, to kind of train for particular skill sets. That’s starting to enter the education system.

Rob Atkinson: So, Bill and Sanjay, in your book, by the way, which we've been remiss to point out, is an excellent book. It really is. I think in some way, it’s kind of the definitive current take on where we are, what’s really innovative, why it’s important and what to do. But this is really, what you're talking about is broad-scale institutional change, and that's never easy. There are always people or institutions who resist that. Oftentimes, universities don’t want to do credentialing, or they want to be able to keep having students make more money. You see that in terms of the federal government. I remember years ago, I was involved in helping pass legislation for these regional skills alliances. It would be industry led.

In fact, there was a... I don’t know, 80 to $100 million dollars, and unfortunately the powers that be, including the state workforce boards, put so much on this that the money all went to the Department of Labor. And it really didn’t do anywhere near what it should have done, because the whole idea was to have industry engagement and labor union engagement, not just to run it through the traditional. How do we overcome kind of institutional inertia and risk aversion here when we want to move forward with new and bold ideas?

Bill Bonvillian: We’ve got a big problem on our hands right now, and we’re going to have to tackle it. We’re going to lose probably more than 10 million people out of existing occupations, which have been nailed by the coronavirus. We have got a major workforce re-education problem right now. This is not some abstraction that’s going to evolve over a period of decade. We’re facing it right now, and it’s going to be a very serious problem for a whole bunch of people. And then secondly, we’ve got a lot of disruption and ongoing upskilling, so there is definitely interest in industry and trying to get this problem tackled. Workforce education has now moved to the top of the list for the manufacturing sector in terms of what their overall industrial concern set consists of. So, we're seeing real concern by industry that they catch up on the IT advances, digital production advances. This whole new suite of technologies is starting to enter the workforce.

US productivity rates are in disastrous shape. We’ve had this productivity stagnation, as you have written about for 15 years now, and unless we provide some input that's going to start to change that equation, and one of those inputs is going to be workforce, we’re going to be stuck here. So, I think there’s going to be building pressure to tackle this. In terms of political support, there is very strong bipartisan support for these workforce education projects. The political system can’t agree on much else, but this one is one they actually can agree on.

Sanjay Sarma: I think what’s missing is a lightning rod, really. I mean, there are lots of ideas out there that people can pull up creative sort of proteins, just waiting for the lightning to sort of spur the first life form. There’s lots of very, very... in fact, one of the reasons we wrote the book is to capture the breadth of ideas and the capabilities we have. But to systematize it we need the pilots to learn from each other. We all need a bunch of pilots with an intent to scale with, beyond what we’re seeing and what we wrote about in our books.

Jackie Whisman: What's the most important takeaway about this challenge, you think, we should close on?

Bill Bonvillian: I think the key is going to be closing the gap between the education system and the work system. We’ve really got to close that gap. At this point, the gap is enormous and students are spun out of the education system with no sense of what their futures will be or where they may want to go. They make absolutely critical decisions at ages 17 and 18, that will be determinative for their future. They decide whether they’re going to go to college. That college education turns out to be a key dividing line in these deep problems of income inequality that the country is now facing. So, we’re heading into a much more divided classes than the US, because of this work-learn barrier disconnect that we’ve created, and we really need to close it and there’s got to be much stronger connectivity in the two systems, the work system and the education system.

A lot of European countries have solved this. They’ve got those connections in place and they’re able to keep building their middle classes. They don’t have these extremes of inequality that is just kind of happening now in the United States, in the last 15 years. So, I think that’s a key political agenda item to keep our democracy healthy and well, and I also think it’s a key social problem we’ve got to tackle, and I think it’s connected to this workforce education problem.

Sanjay Sarma: No, I think Bill said it really well. If a young person cannot list what workforce learning options are, and if that connection between study and work is as tenuous as it remains today, we have a problem, and that is the one to address.

Rob Atkinson: Thank you so much for being here, Sanjay and Bill.

Sanjay Sarma: Well, thank you very much. Good to see you both. Sorry for all the hijinks; it seems like today was not a good technological head, as they say.

Jackie Whisman: Between MIT and ITIF, we made it work.

Sanjay Sarma: And you know they got... the shed two letters are? IT, so.

Jackie Whisman: Well, that is it for this week. If you liked it, please be sure to rate us and subscribe. Feel free to email show ideas or questions to [email protected]. You can find the show notes and sign up for our weekly email newsletter on our website, itif.org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn: @ITIFdc.

Rob Atkinson: And we have more episodes and great guests lined up. New episodes will drop every other Monday, so we hope you'll continue to tune in.

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Podcast: A New Roadmap for Workforce Education, With Bill Bonvillian and Sanjay Sarma