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An Interview with Lois Johnson, Workforce Development Institute of NY, on the need for Future Skills!

People Centered. 

An Interview with Lois Johnson, Workforce Development Institute of NY, on the need for Future Skills!

Hello Friends!  Happy September from Santa Fe, New Mexico!

It’s time for another SHIFT Blog.  The purpose of this blog is to really elevate work happening across the Globe around making an impact in workforce and learning. 

Just last week, I had the opportunity to sit down (or “Zoom Down”) with Lois Johnson to talk to her about WDI-NY’s Statewide efforts to ensure future skills for all New Yorkers.  Lois is the Director of Workforce Strategies for the Workforce Development Institute of NY, a Statewide not-for-profit organization. 

Full disclosure, I have known Lois since we became warriors for skills in 2009.   We started as a small tribe (Lois, myself and Dr. Merrilea Mayo) that worked on a skills-based hiring initiative funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation in New Mexico in 2009-2013 called “New Options NM”.  The goal of the work was to create new employment pathways for disconnected (out of school/out of work) young adults ages 16-24 in New Mexico.  What a journey that was!  People looked at us like we were crazy?!  What do you mean, pushing skills and not degrees?  How terrible of you!

Well, we know now that the “skills for the future tribe” has now become a global army of leaders realizing that skills are the key to economic success and mobility.  That not everyone can get a degree.  Why not?  Because degrees take four years of time and four years of money….at the same time.  How many have the luxury of that?  Not a lot, especially in our global crisis we face now.

This is a longer interview than most.  But, it is an important message to get out during a time of need for so many workers that are unemployed or must re-skill to a new industry to ensure economic vitality.
JB: Lois, thanks so much for the opportunity to discuss your work at Workforce Development Institute of New York.   One thing that I have understood over the past few years as I+E and WDI-NY partnered on some projects is the unique place WDI-NY sits in Statewide workforce. It is rare that you find a State entity that is not a workforce board that is able to do such significant work to ensure employment for a State.     What is the history of WDI-NY and the role your organization play in New York?
Lois:  It is rare, you are right about that. Our founder, Ed Murphy started WDI in 2003 in partnership with the NYS AFL-CIO, with a vision for an organization whose priority was focused on working people and good jobs. We are a statewide not-for-profit organization working on a regional basis all across the state.  Our underlying mission is to grow and keep jobs in New York.  We still have very strong partnerships with organized labor, and we also work with over 1,000 companies and community-based organizations every year all across NY State. We use a range of tools including a boots-on-the-ground approach, with staff in ten regions across the State developing regional knowledge and significant expertise.  WDI also plays a critical role to support New York’s workforce ecosystem in the midst of significant changes in the world of work and education. The Future Skills Exchange platform that we will be talking about is part of that work.  Due to our support from the NYS Legislature, we have funding for projects that increase workers’ abilities and skill levels and strengthen employers’ ability to hire, promote, reskill and retrain workers. 

JB: So, what is your affiliation with the statewide workforce system?

Lois: On a regional level, we work closely with local workforce development boards and statewide, we serve on the board of NYATEP (New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals) and work with them on larger workforce policy issues. 
JB:  So, what changes have you made in 2020 in how your organization is working across New York?   Obviously, everyone went virtual.  But, if you were to reflect over the last six months, what really stands out to you in the role of WDI-NY has served during COVID times?

Lois: Oddly enough, we were one of those organizations that did not miss a beat.  Our regional staff were used to moving company to company, organization to organization, and now suddenly had to do that virtually.  We were pleasantly surprised how seamlessly we shifted into remote work, given our emphasis ona  boots-on-the-ground approach.  We have actually been very successful in supporting our stakeholder relationships and continuing the development of projects in a remote way. We made a number of shifts to support the environment, one being our emphasis on small manufacturers in NY State needing to pivot to other types of manufacturing. For example, we helped several manufacturers pivot to manufacturing PPE.  This helped these companies retain their workforces and also addressed the crisis at the same time

JB:  So, you feel you all have been able to continue the work at full capacity during COVID then.

Lois: Yes, we have.  Most of our team would say that in 2020 we have been busier than we have ever been.  We quickly looked at how we could be of service, and found new ways to do our work.  We hadn’t worked with companies virtually, but it fell into place rather easily, and that work continues.
JB:  I have really enjoyed our work with WDI-NY and your vision for the Future Skills Exchange (futureskillsx.org).  What’s interesting, is that when you first started designing this in 2018, no one knew how much skills would become even more mainstream, and then that most learning would be navigated via platform technologies!   What was WDY-NY’s vision for Future Skills Exchange in NY?  And has that vision changed with COVID?

Lois:  Our organization started talking about skills as a way of focusing the workforce and the educational system on the need to provide a simple, concrete way to navigate an educational and career pathway. With so many of us in workforce and education talking about the future of work and the need to continuously develop and upgrade your skills, there didn’t seem to be an easy, transparent way for someone to locate, compare and connect to individual courses, short-term credential training or even apprenticeships.

We felt there needed to be a tool that allowed potential learners to sort through all of the options out there and connect directly to the provider of that training to get additional information or enroll. Trying to find that information used to require searching across all higher education web sites.   It also meant that you might find a course without realizing that there also might be an apprenticeship training on that subject or an online course in another region that you could access.  It opens up the whole range of opportunities and provides the ability to compare and make the best choice for your skill pathway.  So, FSX evolved from our original vision of a simple “clearinghouse” to a highly functional, easy to use platform that allows for a lot of options and ease of navigation for both the end user and education and training providers.  
We certainly didn’t envision that when we were ready to launch that there would be a global pandemic with a huge economic downtown and largescale unemployment! 
JB: So it seems timely for something like Future Skills Exchange!

Lois: Yes, historically during times of high unemployment many people have chosen to upskill, to go back and take additional courses, or do a whole career re-shift. As of right now, we are looking at employment in some occupational sectors coming back at 50% or less through the recovery, and some positions being totally eliminated.  So, the need for tools that can help people reskill rapidly is really, really important.
JB: Especially if you look at the labor data from the State of New York (source: EMSI), the top growing industry in NY in 2019 was hospitality and food services.  But, now, in the last quarter (ending June 2020) it is educational services.  If you think about the gigantic population in NY that was in some type of service industry, that will require a whole retooling and reskilling as it will take time for that industry to rebuild.   Also, only 19.5% of the New York working population has a four-year degree.  And 8.5% have an associate’s degree.   Another 26.6% carry just a high school diplomas, and 15% are less than high school.  8.7 Million are of racial diversity, which is almost 50% of the working populations.
Lois: We definitely recognize that pathways to various careers must be made much clearer (FSX should help with that).  Many are unaware of the full range of career opportunities available these days and how to access and grow in those careers. WDI has done a lot of work supporting development of career awareness in high schools, with the goal of raising the profile on certain occupations/careers like Clean Energy, Manufacturing and Construction.

We talk about stackable credentials, but what does that mean, and how do we ensure it is understandable and accessible for the end user?  Making training that leads to credentials available and easily discoverable is something we want to support.  I want to add that this does not mean that a four-year college degree is not still extremely valuable, but it does mean that we need to provide more onramps to post-secondary learning based on the growing population of working learners.   People may have to balance learning and taking courses while they are also working.  I believe the statistic is that close to 2/3 of learners (and maybe more now) are working while in school.

JB:  Based on the current data, 96% of businesses across the entire State employ 50 or less employees (like most States).  How do we ensure that small businesses have the same access and opportunity as the large companies?  This includes skills training and resources that connect them to talent.

Lois:  This is true. The workforce system – Community Colleges, non-profits, Workforce Development Boards – all need to more actively coordinate on support to small businesses.  Increased focus on skills required on a regional basis, and programming structured so that it benefits multiple employers is key. 
JB: How are you enlisting partners on Future Skills now that it is live?

Lois:  Community colleges (SUNY and CUNY) have been extremely strong partners in this.  We are also focusing on apprenticeship (with a focus on Union Apprenticeship programs).  For education and training providers, FSX enables them to reach a wider group of individuals, possibly more diverse, that they perhaps haven’t had access to before.  There are other training providers that are on the Eligible Training Provider (ETPL) list that are partnering as well. We work closely with local workforce boards across the state as well other private and non-profit workforce organizations. We are just now beginning outreach to trade associations, school superintendents as well as the large number of employers in WDI’s network that we have worked with over the years. 
JB:  When you think about your journey the last 25+ years in workforce, what do you reflect upon the most?
Lois:  As a workforce professional for many years, I love that I need to continue learning and growing myself, continuously disrupting my own complacency as our field rapidly changes and accelerates. I was talking with my 19 year old college student nephew recently about all the new skills I have had to learn while launching FSX and I saw that I surprised him that an “old” person could and should still learn and upskill.

I would like to finish with a grateful acknowledgement of the privilege of being part of the original Kellogg New Options grant working team you referenced earlier. That work originated with the extraordinary thought leader of skills-based hiring, Merrilea Mayo. Merrilea’s vision – that if employers hired by skills, they would see a large talent pool that had been previously invisible based on traditional hiring methods such as resume and degree – has gained enormous traction since then. She put up the first Wikipedia for skills-based hiring in 2011 (URL). That research has carried skills-based hiring to where it is today. 

To carry it further, tools like the Future Skills Exchange evolved as practical applications that ensure that skills training is available for companies, employees, and learners as we watch the new Future of Work unfold.
Questions?  Email info@closeit.org
Life is “still” what happens while you are busy making other plans. John Lennon.