November 14, 2023

Author of “Workforce Education: A New Roadmap”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #120

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with William B. Bonvillian author of Workforce Education: A New Roadmap. William is a lecturer at MIT and served as a Senior Policy Advisor in the US Senate for 17 years. Throughout the conversation, William emphasizes that community colleges and universities must prepare students for the workforce. This includes having courses that prioritize workforce training and developing skills that match with the jobs which are in demand.

William also talks about how community colleges are underfunded, which causes the lack of resources needed for advanced training. Another critical point from this episode is that higher education believes it is not their duty to provide workforce training. William makes a great point that in the US, we don’t learn how to work in the US, we either do one of the other. We must find a way to integrate both for the future of work.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights William shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “College and universities don’t think workforce education is their problem.”
  • “Most American businesses are upskilling pretty systematically. And yet our training system hasn’t caught up to the need to provide that upskilling.”
  • “Employers are decrying the lack of skills in their workforce, but employers have a really critical role to play in kind of turning that equation around.”

Sam Caucci: I guess maybe you could start us off, William. Could you mind sharing a little bit about your background and your journey that brings us to workforce education?  

William B. Bonvillian: Sure. You know, I teach Sam at MIT in the area of Science and Technology Policy. And  you know, I have a prior background in  working on innovation policy issues in the US Senate, then at MIT, doing research projects at MIT And actually  an MIT colleague of mine,  Sanjay Sarma, who I wrote the book that we’ll talk about with. He and I did a lot of work on advanced manufacturing. And I began to really realize, and Sanjay did too, that if the US is ever going to really get to advanced manufacturing, we’ve got a big job ahead of us in workforce education, that unless the workforce education system gets a lot better, we’re just never going to get to the kind of quality of advanced manufacturing we need to get to for competitiveness reasons. 

So that’s kind of what led me into this.  

Sam: You know, when you talk about workforce education, I guess, what are the biggest challenges today from your view?  

William: Well, you know, there is a series.

We’ve got a big disconnect in the US system between learning on one side, the education system on one side. And work on the other. There’s not a smooth pathway between the two in the U. S. Other countries do much better at this. I mean, Germany is famous for its apprenticeship system that really connects work and learning.

We don’t. We’ve had, over the years, a lot of disinvestment, actually, in workforce education by both government and employers, although that’s starting to turn around a bit. We’ve got programs that are disconnected from our big federal agencies. The labor department runs training programs. They don’t reach the higher technical skills. 

They don’t reach incumbent workers. The education department focuses on programs that are aimed to send  kids to college courses, not workforce courses and training.  And the two departments aren’t like their programs don’t match up. They’re disconnected. We dismantled most of vocational education in a reform effort in the 1970s. 

That turned out to be a mistake, frankly. We don’t have a system really for workforce education at the high school level. We’ve got underfunded community colleges and then they lack the resources to provide the kind of advanced training and new fields that we need. And they’ve got low completion rates. 

College and universities, they don’t think workforce education is their problem. They think, you know, they are higher-ed,  even though they’re now at a critical level and providing a really critical credential in the system. We don’t do lifelong learning.  We’ve got underfunded technical education programs at NSF and the Advanced Manufacturing Institute.

We’ve got a  really broken labor market information system. Strong markets are led by strong information systems and, you know, in our mess, workers don’t know what they ought to train for employers, don’t know what qualifications work workers have, cause there’s no certification system. 

And educators don’t know what to educate for. So there’s a real mismatch  and look, this is all these actors. The schools, the institutions are  legacy and legacy sectors. They’re hard to change. It’s not easy to change the system. So we’ve got a series of dilemmas here to create a strong workforce ed system. 

Sam: There’s a lot of stuff in the book that  jumps out. But one of the areas was where you talk about how our overall investment in  workforce training and development programs being 0.5 percent of  GDP ranks us pretty much at or near the bottom of the 31 other OECD countries.  And I want to talk specifically about employers for a second, because it feels like the one thing that is always touted when you go to association conferences across any category is how training is such an integral part of what a company does. And the data shows that we’re not maybe doing as much as we can. 

Is that a fair interpretation?

William: Yeah, that’s a fair interpretation, Sam. And, you know, there’s a big underlying issue here, you know, economic issue, which is that,  you know, historically companies that trained  their employees had them hired away. 

By competitors who would pay a bit more and then wouldn’t cover the training class.  So that’s been that cherry picking has been a big problem in the U. S. system. And it’s a big disincentive to employers to kind of really build up their talent programs at the technical workforce level.  You know, how do you get around that?

Well, one way to do that is to get employers to work together collaboratively and run programs in regions. That serves, you know, groups of employers. And frankly, it’s much harder to  cherry pick from your friends if you’re all in the same boat together.  But we, you know, just haven’t put together those collaborative programs with industry groups, and we need to supplement that by bringing in community colleges by bringing in state and local education programs, to kind of back those up.

So this kind of triumvirate of employers, community colleges, and state and local support.  You know, we need to put all these three pieces together to really tackle this talent problem. And we just haven’t been able to assemble that mix. And that’s a foundation stone that we really need to put together to make a new system work.

Sam: Yeah, it’s no one group. I mean, I think the recommendation, it’s a long list, but as a community, as a society, there’s a lot of players that have to play a part in it. And it does feel like, to your point,  you have employers that point their fingers at colleges, colleges that point their fingers at employers, you have community colleges that are pointing both ways.

You got the Workforce Development and WIOA programs who are in many ways trying, you know,  doing some stuff, trying to bring everybody into the same room. But to your point, this is a team effort.  

William: Exactly. Unless we do more collaboration across these different actors. We’re just never going to put the system together that we must have. 

Sam: What can an employer do? If I was an operator, I run a 100 unit restaurant chain, for example. You know, what would you advise me that I can do from my seat to,  you know, create a work force or affect a workforce to make sure everybody has the right opportunities, right skills, right capabilities? What could I do in my seat? 

William: Well, I think there’s a real need here, as I said before, for employers to get together and with collaborative groups here and, you know,  running a restaurant chain is not a simple business these days. It’s highly complex and involves lots of information technologies. These IT skills are starting to really be pretty mandatory for lots of employees to kind of manage these systems.

You’re going to have to have, you know, a substantial amount of training and kind of specialized skill areas from the kitchen outwards,as well as in the IT side. So it’s like most of American business, we are upskilling pretty systematically. And yet our training system hasn’t caught up to the need to provide that upskilling.

So we’re kind of leaving workers behind without the school base to do it. So employers, I think, really need to collaborate together to put together joint programs. And they can work with community colleges, get the community colleges to take on the organizational role and a provider role for a lot of the education, but they in turn can collaborate in putting these together.

And for some kinds of jobs, I think apprenticeships are going to be very, very important. You know, we don’t do work, learn in the United States, we do one or the other, right? And we need to really connect these. You know, Germany has done a good job of this. Their apprenticeship programs are famous and they, you know, provide on the job learning and training in a very systematic kind of way.

And they couple that with strong technical education. And then career opportunities that are really quite high quality. So as a result, they’ve got a very strong, talented workforce base and they get a lot of their productivity gains out of their workforce. The U. S. companies tend to invest in new capital, new equipment to get productivity advances. 

They’re slower in investing in their workforce. Yet Germany shows that those workforce investments can really pay off in terms of efficiency and productivity.  

Sam: To that point on measurement, whether it’s a retail brand, and you focus a lot on healthcare retail and manufacturing in the book, are there any metrics that  you have found, you know, I’m going to say easy because of the way businesses are trying to move in there and they’re strapped. But are there any specific measures that you would advise an organization to look at to support its investment in workforce training and education. In my experience, I found a lot of companies don’t maybe have a really simple metric to point to like they do in other areas of the business, whether it’s EBITDA or sales output or other KPIs that the investment workforce education seems to just be a check the box. 

William: Yeah, it’s, I mean, metrics are always, you know, complicated in the education field, but when you do  the right kind of workforce education with, you know, a continuous assessment process going on, you can build metrics into the different programmatic elements that you would feature in a training program. And you know, getting those metrics right is key because you want your workforce to be able to move from the training forum over to the workforce pretty seamlessly, right?  Into the actual work environment.  So building into your training programs, into your education programs, metrics that fit your actual on the job needs become very crucial. 

And all of this again, calls for working collaboratively with institutions like community college.  You know, that’s one advantage our system has got is we built this system of community colleges. The average age of students at community college is 29.

They’re in the workforce. This is the one institutional mix that we’ve got where we can go for workforce education. Too often however, community college programs are not well connected to the employers. That the programs they’re offering just don’t fit actual employer needs. So that means it’s really incumbent on both sides, both the community colleges and particularly the employers to get together with the community colleges and thrash out as a group, not one off companies, but get groups of companies together in similar kinds of areas. 

To kind of thrash out the education programs that they really need. And to get a work learn program going, you know, combine that with some kind of apprenticeship or apprenticeship light kind of on the job training that the employer can provide. With what the community college is offering for the more technical side of these skills and that kind of collaboration, I think, can really yield tremendous benefits to employers.

And we’re seeing, you know, lots of reforms going on in a number of community colleges across the country to kind of aim exactly in that direction.  

Sam: This is my favorite question. I wanted to ask you. You ready?  

William: Ready. 

Sam: So I sit on the Newark Workforce Development Board. I’ve done one term. I’ve just started my second and they just put me in charge of their tech task force, which I’m going to ask you for some recommendations on how to do that job better here in a minute. Because I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m trying.

William: Good for you Sam. That’s a great thing to do.  

Sam: There’s a lot of talk in a lot of these meetings where the words ‘unskilled’ and  ‘low skilled’ gets thrown around. And even in a trade association convention or conference where you’ll hear an employer say workers don’t have the skills and  I read your book workforce education.

I walk away from it and I say, well, if we’re not even giving people the opportunities, can you really call the workforce unskilled or low skilled? Or is that fair to do it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.  

William: Yeah, look, I mean, all of this is a product of a kind of a broken system that doesn’t connect  work with the education system.

You know, we’ve got them running in two separate worlds and they are connected to each other. And if we integrated them better, right? So that students started to see what the opportunities on the work side might be, what possible careers might be available to them, than the interest by students and young people.

And then there’s a whole job we’re going to have to do with incumbent workers and upskilling them.  But if they started to see what the opportunities look like from actual work experience, if they develop the skills, then frankly, we’d have a lot more enthusiastic interest in getting those technical skills down and participating in programs that we could put together to serve those needs. 

So,  you know, employers are decrying the lack of skills in their workforce, but employers have a really critical role to play in kind of turning that equation around. Now this look, there’s other things we’ve got to do here. I mean, one set of issues is that  we’re upscaling into a lot of IT areas. For example, you know, lots and lots of jobs that require more and more kind of IT based skills.

And we just don’t have the training in place to provide those skills in a terribly efficient kind of way. Those new skills are going to have to be built into programs. So one issue  that, you know, workforce boards have got and I’m sure yours shares this concern. How do you reach? And you know, the workforce boards have been good at reaching underemployed workers right? And unemployed workers that’s been their job and that’s obviously an important historic problem that we’ve got to continue to deal with. But their job has not been to reach incumbent workers or to reach workers with the new advanced skills that are going to be needed.

So I think that’s a task the workforce boards are going to have to take on. And then if we can get some funding support from the education department through things like Pell Grants that were more open to workforce education, not just college education, then we’d have some of the funding tools to be able to make kind of a new system work.

So I think all of those,  you know, all those pieces need to fit together to make this puzzle fall into place.

Sam: Yeah, I just found out in our recent board meeting that I guess 20 percent of the wheel of funding that you receive, 20 percent of it can go to incumbent workers. And, you know, I wonder if that’s enough.

I wonder if  other workforce boards are focusing as much on it or not. But I think that’s a very valid point. The of people that are  in current roles who maybe are not getting access to continuous skill development or learning development because, Yeah,  I don’t even know what the number is, but I would bet that the majority of workforce investment by employers is not skill building, but is maybe compliance related or safety related, maybe not pathway focused. 

William: Yeah. And again, that gets back to this problem of cherry picking, you know, where one employer would take advantage of another employer doing the training and they just buy the worker off at a slightly higher salary. So that’s been an historic problem. Again, you can get around that problem with, if employers  build systems together and are in the same room with each other and putting them together. 

You know, there’s a lot of things we need to do here, Sam. I mean, for example, community colleges still are oriented by a large round semesters, but we can put short programs together. One advantage of community colleges is that, you know, they can be pretty much 24/7. They’re not restricted like colleges are to, you know, the agricultural calendar that colleges are organized around.

They can run programs year round and they can put together short programs  that are five, six, eight weeks for particular skills that particular employers kind of need. Not semester long, six month long, year long programs.

You need to connect those programs to degrees because, you know, and stack these programs so they lead to degrees so that the workers have the opportunity to get an associate degree, for example, which can really help them long term in their careers. But we could do a much better job in organizing short programs with certificates that come with them that are tested by assessments and real workplace kind of experiential learning related. And that would, I think, help employers as well in the kind of timetables that employers face. 

Sam: Employers, to your point, they got to talk to community colleges and share and come to the table and not just, you know, and vice versa. Community colleges got to connect with employers. 

William: Yeah. And community colleges, you know, they work if they can get 20 to 30 students into a classroom, that’s their economic model, right?

They can’t do very well if they got three students in a classroom, the economics don’t work. So if employers want to collaborate and put together the kind of pool of talent that a community college needs for its model to work.  Then you got something, then, then these pieces can start collaborating and working together. 

Sam: And that leads to the next question, because you’re saying putting them into a classroom now we have more technology at our fingertips than ever before with digital and with online learning. I guess what role should education technologies play in this process in the future that there may be not doing so well right now? 

William: Well, that’s a major opportunity space. Right. And,  you know, this younger generation is much more used to online. I mean, they live off their iPhones. I watch my kids do this. And,  you know, they’re going to be much more fluent with these online possibilities. We had a big test of online during the coronavirus, as you know well.

It didn’t work very well, frankly, for younger kids. But certainly by the time you’re in your 20s, That system actually can work. And kids are used to it and more and more familiar with it. And education institutions had to shift over to it during the two years of the coronavirus pandemic. So we made a lot of progress during that time period. 

You know, what we and online can play a real role in improving access and improving the efficiency of the system. You can move a lot of the information piece that students will need  to the online and then save the face to face instruction for real mentor based hands on kind of learning. And kind of really take advantage of combining hands along with the kind of technical learning side. 

You know,  Zoom, frankly, doesn’t take real advantage of a lot of the opportunities in the online medium. You know, Zoom is kind of like a stage play, but look, we can do movies now. So asynchronous video with continuous assessments built in, that take advantage of some of the new pedagogy we’re learning about for online education can be key.

You know, for example, online should be delivered in kind of bite sized chunks. You should never have a talking head talking for more than about eight or ten minutes, right? Because humans have a mind wandering problem, right? It’s actually a survival instinct. You can’t focus on something exclusively. You’ve got to keep an eye on, you know, the saber toothed tiger jumping through your thatched roof.

It’s a survival instinct. So our minds are going to wander, but that in turn means online has to be organized into bite sized chunks. So you do a 10 minute segment and then you do like an assessment, right? To see if you’re catching on to the material and get tested for it. Or you do an exchange. A short back and forth presentation, a Q and a kind of session.

And then you move to another bite sized chunk of 10 minutes. And you can incorporate with the new technologies like VR and AR. You can incorporate much more kind of tactile and active learning, really develop a blended learning kind of system here.  Which I think can be very helpful in workforce education.

VR and AR are very suited  to the kind of skill sets that you have to demonstrate on the job. 

Sam: In the book, you focus on manufacturing, retail, and healthcare. I guess, why those three?  

William: My co-author knew a lot about retail. Both of us knew a fair amount about manufacturing and I had done some work on healthcare.

So, but when we added up the workforces in those sectors, you know, we’re talking about one third of US employment. Those are very representative sectors. You can, each sector is going to have a different set of workforce problems. Right.  And it’s, you know, and a set of solutions. It’s gonna be somewhat different from other sectors. 

So those were  and unless you know what you’re talking about is real in particular sectors, you’re not really helping anybody. So we felt we really had to make it concrete by diving into particular sectors and seeing how some of the ideas in the book worked. And, you know, and so we dug into those three and each one is in a very different kind of state of affairs.

Manufacturing after a long decline has stabilized in recent years. It used to be a major middle class pathway for those without college into the middle class. But median income is down for those without high school diplomas and I’m talking particularly men who used to still staff the manufacturing system predominantly. So manufacturing employment fell by one third between 2000 and 2010.

We’ve got a higher labor non participation, right? So we’ve got a lot of workforce issues in manufacturing as advanced manufacturing comes along, we’re going to have to upscale our existing workforce and then a lot of that workforce in manufacturing is retiring. We’re going to need to, to have a new workforce emerge that’s going to require higher skills. 

So in manufacturing, a lot of upscaling is going to be required. That’s not a growing sector for employment, but that’s one that’s going to offer a lot of new job opportunities because of retirements.  Retail, and I know you spent some time on this, Sam. That’s face to face retail has been, has got a declining workforce, but at the same time, it’s an upscaling workforce. More and more IT entries. 

And we’re kind of heading towards a new model where the sales clerk becomes like your personal advisor. And that means they’ve got to master things like omni channeling, as it’s called, where you blend face to face with kind of online skills  and the sales clerk becomes your guide to, you know, selecting these complex products, they’re going to have to have more and more.

Skills, they got to be more IT fluent. They’re going to have to be guides for the customer. And you know, how do you train them?  That’s going to require a whole new training system, I think, to get to that level in the retail sector. So face to face retail is down, in terms of total employment, but the skills are going up. 

And healthcare, you know, we’ve got an aging population, more healthcare demands, new medical technologies are entering that are creating new sub professions, right and left require higher skills. So that’s a greatly expanding sector  with all kinds of new training system required.  So each one of these is different, but it turns out that all three has substantial upskilling requirements.

If we’re going to get the talent base we need in each of them.  

Sam: Totally. You know, I can’t talk to you, given your background with the U. S. Senate, without asking you a policy question. So especially, you know, we’re talking about technology, and  some of the technologies that are entering the space, especially with mobile technology, are rubbing up against labor laws that were written at a time before there was the Internet.

And you know, whether it’s the Fair Labor Standard Act or affecting state by state labor rules. And these more often than not affect our most vulnerable workers who are low wage frontline, who are hourly, who may not be able to  access the right transportation to get to the community college, or may not be able to be put on the clock for a training time because you know, the employer doesn’t want to do it. 

What recommendations do you have or policies should we focus on  if we’re going to make, you know, workforce education become a strength for us, you know, in the time ahead? 

William: Yeah, and we really need to make it a strength. You know, we owe it to our people. Right?  You know, we’ve always been a country of great opportunity.

We’ve had growing economic inequality. You really need to turn that around and make this an opportunity land. You know, once again, and you know, what kind of policies ought to be pursued? You know, I think we need to look at it in some new ways at what we’re doing. There’s been a fair amount of work in, in the last two administrations really on apprenticeship programs.

I think youth apprenticeship programs that start in the second year of high school are particularly promising.  That they break down this work learn barrier, they require employer cooperation, they can link up with both high schools and community colleges. A promising model that a number that has been started now in a number of places.

We have some good examples out there. I think that we need to see community colleges. It’s not just teaching community college students but also reaching out on either side to really work with incumbent workers and upskilling them but also reach down into high school and start bringing high school students in for more kind of skills training so a new way of looking at community college  We’ve got to improve community colleges funding And we’ve got to turn those completion rates around in community colleges, and there have been some successful examples of pulling together higher completion rates.

Community colleges are going to need to do short programs, right? They’ve got to be connected to degrees. You stack their credentials towards degrees. But we need to work on a timetable of six weeks, eight weeks, twelve weeks, kind of shorter programs that lead to certificates that fit employer needs.  You know, we’ve talked in this conversation, Sam, about the need for regional workforce efforts that bring together employers with states and community colleges.

We need that mix of institutions involved here if a new system is going to get built.  We need to integrate our federal programs, right? The labor department programs ought to be complementary and vice versa to the education department programs.  You know, we’re going to need a new labor market information system.

We connect, collect an enormous amount of data on employment. But we need more targeted information that will help break down this disinformation system we’ve got where employers don’t know, you know, the skills that  Applicants to them have got the applicants. Don’t know what skills the employers have. 

These are all information system problems that we need to have, you know, a better base for, and we’ve got the IT technologies now to be able to do that.  And then we’re going to need new education technologies. This system is going to have to scale up. We’re going to have to reach many more people than we’re reaching now. 

And IT is going to be a way to scale that. So blended learning is going to be best. You need a mix of face to face with online, but online can help make this. You know, a more efficient kind of system. So those are some of the policies. I think that we need to pursue it. It’s not just one thing we could do.

There’s no silver bullet here, but there’s a series of things we can tackle that I think will lead to a much better system.  

Sam: Bill, I appreciate you’ve been really gracious with your time. I have one last question for you talking about future of work.  What is your hope for the future of work? 

William: You know, first of all, I think we need to be, we need to stop being afraid of the robots, right? There’s been a lot of media hype on robots and AI taking away jobs.  I think the reality is actually much more complicated and much more interesting. Sure. There’s going to be some job displacement,  but there’s also going to be all kinds of new tasks and job opportunities in figuring out how these new technologies get integrated into the workplace.

And then third They’re going to be a whole lot of jobs making the robots, right if we do it, right let’s make them here. So I think these will open up a new space, but at  the same time, these technologies are evolving.

We’ve got to do the upskilling to be able to meet the entry of these new technologies into the workplace. And we’re seeing the relentless entry of IT into many, many jobs. And we’re just not, we haven’t developed the education system to really cope with that yet. And we’re leaving too many people behind.

So my hope would be that we need to build. Really a new workforce education system that’s got a strong information system behind it, that’s got integrated federal programs, that’s got regional collaborations with employers and states and community colleges, that’s got short programs at community colleges that fit employer needs, that we have youth apprenticeships that break down the work learning barrier. 

We need these kinds of pieces in place for a new workforce education system that will really expand opportunities for us.  

Sam: Bill, thanks. Thanks for your time. I appreciate it. It’s great to meet you.  

William: Great to meet you, Sam. More power to you. 

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Workforce, Education, Work

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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