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5 Questions for...Zoë Baird, CEO/President, Markle Foundation

September 12, 2016

We've all heard that necessity is the mother of invention. And like most clichés, there is plenty of truth to it. But for every other UpWork professional using Uber to a get to a client meeting, there's a CEO who would prefer to convert that freelancer into a full-time employee. Or so shows a recent survey conducted by the Markle Foundation, the Aspen Institute's Future of Work Initiative, Burson-Marsteller, and TIME magazine. While employers recognize the benefits of hiring "contingent workers" and embrace the principles of the "on-demand economy," the survey found, among other things, that 56 percent of employers believe full-time employees provide more long-term value to their businesses and are more invested in the company.

Recently, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Zoë Baird, who has led the Markle Foundation since 1998, about the results of the survey, the foundation's Skillful initiative, and how the job market in the U.S. is changing.

Headshot_Zoe Baird_MarklePhilanthropy News Digest: Markle recently released the results of a Workforce of the Future Survey, which examined new employment models in what many people have taken to calling the "gig economy." What, if anything, surprised you about the findings?

Zoë Baird: What really surprised us was the extent to which employers preferred to have full-time employees. It's clear that employers are using independent contractors, but over 60 percent of them really prefer full-time employees, which we view as a very positive finding. The concern that twenty-first century employers have no loyalty to their employees did not come through in the survey. Employers want full-time employees, and the main reason they hire independent contractors seems to be that they need specific skills or have a surge in work and need to hire people faster than the people they already have can acquire new skills.

PND: Did respondents say why they prefer full-time employees to part-time or contract employees?

ZB: Loss of productivity and the cost of replacing a skilled employee are factors, but the main reason seems to be that full-time employees are more loyal and committed than part-time employees. And that fits well with the work we are doing with Skillful, which is designed to get people who have a high school diploma but no college degree on a path to attain the skills they need to thrive in the twenty-first century economy.

PND: You don't have to look far these days to find someone willing to talk about the lack of skilled employees in the marketplace. Have we made progress in closing the so-called skills gap?

ZB: What we’re finding, both in the work we’re doing and in the research, is that jobs and the nature of work are changing, but people aren't getting retrained fast enough to keep up with those changes. Increasingly, employers are eager and willing to re-train workers, whether or not those workers have a college degree. And what we're trying to do is to work with employers to define the skills they need and then help job seekers demonstrate to potential employers that they have those skills.

With Skillful, we've created a platform that lets everyone, employers and job candidates, see what they need to see. Individuals who are interested in a career path can see what a particular job pays and watch videos showing them what it looks like to do a particular job. We also have videos of people talking about what a job in, say, advanced manufacturing is all about. People often end up doing the same kind of job a parent did, in part because it's often the path of least resistance. Skillful enables you to see what different jobs look like and what they pay. Then you can sit with a career counselor at a workforce center, or at Goodwill, which is partner­ing with us on the initiative, and talk with them about how to get the training you need to get onto a career path that leads to a brighter future. It's designed to be a "begin-again" system and remove the mystery of how you go about switching gears.

PND: Can you give us an example of how it works?

ZB: Sure. Say you've been working with computer systems in the oil and gas industry. Those jobs are slowly going away, but those same computer skills are very much in demand in advanced plastics manufacturing. You can demonstrate you have those skills on the Skillful platform, and you can also find jobs that require those skills in plastics manufacturing, see what the career paths in that sector look like and what various jobs pay, and begin to take steps to get yourself on a different path. And it's all done at the kind of granular level that the Internet makes possible. In other words, you don't have to go back to school to get a dif­ferent degree just because you've lost your job; with Skillful, you can reinvent yourself at the skill level.

PND: What else should we be doing to skill up Americans for the twenty-first century economy? And are you optimistic we'll figure it out?

ZB: We all know the economy is undergoing a major transformation. It's fast becoming a digital economy that requires digital skills. For employers, that means they need to do a better job of understanding and communicating the skills they require if they want to find the right people for the jobs they have. For educators, it means thinking about the skills people are being taught in their institutions. And for job seekers, it means staying curious, being ready to learn throughout one's life, and expecting that you're going to have a lot of different jobs over the course of your life.

Today in this country we have something like five-and-half-million jobs that are unfilled. People need to be able to figure out how to get onto a path to those jobs. We need to make it easier for people to identify new career paths and see that there are lots of career paths that lead to good-paying jobs. At the moment, Skillful is only in Colorado and Phoenix, but there are other efforts of this kind going on around the country.

Do I think we'll figure it out? I do. The economic transition we are going through is not unlike the one we went through a hundred years or so ago, when we moved from a predominantly agricultural economy to an industrial economy. As part of that transition, we had to invent the high school and accommodate the movement of vast numbers of people from rural areas to cities, and it was all extremely disruptive. But at the end of that transition, we found ourselves with a vibrant, exciting economy that served lots and lots of people well. I believe we can do better this time around. We can make the transition to a digital economy work for even more people, but we have to do it in a way that is inclusive and doesn't leave anybody out. That has to be our high­est priority.

— Matt Sinclair

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