« Fundraising learnings from social media | Main | What we know about the nonprofits that received grants from MacKenzie Scott »

A Q&A With Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation

January 26, 2021

Jamie Merisotis is a globally recognized leader in philanthropy, education, and public policy. Since 2008, he has served as  president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent private foundation that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. He previously served as co-founder and president of the nonpartisan Institute for Higher Education Policy and as executive director of a bipartisan national commission on college affordability appointed by the U.S. president and congressional leaders.

A frequent media commentator and contributor, Merisotis is the author of America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce, which was named a Top 10 Business Book of 2016 by Booklist, and the recently published Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines. The Q&A is reprinted here with the permission of Lumina.

Headshot_jaime_merisotisQ: Since March, tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs, bringing the United States' unemployment rate to its highest point since the Great Depression. The near-term pain is obvious, but how will this seismic economic event influence the workforce a generation from now?

Jamie Merisotis: Millions of people are now working remotely. Schools have shifted to online courses, leading to millions of students learning in what was once considered a peripheral method of education. While workplaces, schools, and colleges will eventually reopen, the idea that it is normal to "go" to work or school has likely changed forever. This shift away from brick-and-mortar spaces has a bright side that we should be ready to take advantage of, especially because online learning opens doors to many of today's students, who are more likely to be minorities, working full time, and caring for family members. In [Human Work], I wrote about Marcia McCallum, a single mother of four who went back to school to earn two associate degrees at a community college nearly thirty years after finishing high school. Online learning allowed her to juggle school, work, and family. Now McCallum doesn't have to do double-shifts waiting tables on the weekends. Instead, she works full-time for a biotech company growing cell cultures that are harvested for therapeutic antibodies. This is an example of how we can take advantage of this massive shift in the way we perceive school and work to serve everyone, not just those who can afford — financially or in terms of time — to get an education.

Q: What weaknesses in education systems and workforce training systems has the economic crisis highlighted and exacerbated?

JM: During the pandemic, we've seen that people who can work remotely are less likely to lose their jobs, and that the ability to work remotely is closely associated with education levels. Even before COVID-19 really hit, in April, unemployment for workers without a high school diploma had risen to 6.8 percent. But among those with at least a bachelor's degree, the unemployment rate was just 2.5 percent. That doesn't tell the whole story. Fifty-four percent of people with master's or doctoral degrees can work remotely; the share of people who can work at home drops to 39 percent for workers with bachelor's degrees. For workers who don't have at least a bachelor's, the number bottoms out at 20 percent. The lesson we should draw is that higher levels of education — and the skills and attributes they help people develop, including the ability to communicate, motivate themselves, and work in teams — prepare workers to adapt to the changes in the workplace, today and in the future.

Q: What should the U.S. government be doing right now to help people develop the capacity for human work?

JM: It has never been more important for the federal government and states to be aligned on these issues. States have an especially big hill to climb, because more than forty states and the District of Columbia require balanced budgets. To balance them, states have two major levers: massive layoffs of state employees or raising taxes. Programmatic cuts, by themselves, won't be enough. More important, given the forty-plus million Americans who filed for unemployment because of shutdowns related to the pandemic, the political consequences will be enormous. I don't see any reasonable path forward without a massive infusion of federal dollars to states. And that massive federal infusion cannot be used simply to prop up the "existing system." That system has failed too many Americans for too long. That was the mistake of the last recession: most of the dollars the feds gave states were used to prop up underperforming systems. This time, we should invest massively in generating real results. This includes big investments in community colleges that award associate degrees and short-term credentials for the people in retail, hospitality, and other heavily impacted industries, because many of those jobs will not return. Any additional federal stimulus efforts also should focus on the human work skills that will be necessary for success in the new economy. And these investments must focus on the economic needs of workers and the growing racial disparities highlighted by the spread of the coronavirus. The policy options that are weighed cannot be a "return to normal" because we know "normal" for most of the world is not something people want — they want and deserve much better.

Q: In Human Work, you suggest the need for a large-scale rethink of higher learning and workforce-training programs. Can this crisis force us to be bolder? Are there changes you support that are likely to be adopted after the crisis is over?

JM: I fear many still believe the end of the crisis will bring a return to "normal." But for our systems of learning and preparing people for work, returning to the old normal would be disastrous. People will need new skills, new ways of engaging with their communities, and new ways of relating to one another. The crisis clarifies that we need to make opportunities for work-relevant learning available to every American, regardless of wealth, race, age, or geographic location.

Some colleges are already reinventing themselves to meet the needs of a new generation of students. In the book, I wrote about Amarillo College in the Texas Panhandle. Ten years ago, the college had a graduation rate of 9 percent. Russell Lowery-Hart, now the president of the college, discovered that issues such as child care and transportation were the biggest hurdles for students, so he set up a series of "wraparound" support services to meet students' needs in non-academic areas. Today, the completion rate at Amarillo is 52 percent. Lowery-Hart's most important insight was that colleges have to address students" life circumstances; it's an especially important lesson as the tumult of the last year upends students' academic pursuits.

Q: You write about "learning, learning, and serving" throughout the book and, in places, offer an almost spiritual take on the dignity of work. Can you explain why continuous learning is so integral to developing meaningful human work?

JM: We live in a complex world. It's not just that employment requirements are changing in ways that demand higher levels of thinking and skill. The knowledge, skills, and abilities people need to develop also are needed to help address the issues we face as a society and the problems we see in our communities. The only way to meet this challenge is through continuous learning on a vast scale. Fortunately, we are hard-wired to learn, just as we are to work and serve. I found a great example of one such "learning organization" in what many might consider an unlikely place: state government. For the past decade, the state government in Tennessee, which employs forty-two thousand workers, making it the largest public employer in the state, has made a huge commitment to offering learning and training opportunities to its employees. But instead of doing one-day job fairs, the state created twenty-eight different state leadership academies, ranging from management training to programs designed to groom younger employees for future leadership opportunities. Trish Holliday, the leader of this  training initiative, says what's most important is that state government has undergone a cultural change and no longer sees workforce training "event-driven" but rather as something that happens all the time and that one builds on throughout his or her life.

Q: New technology and automation have been eliminating jobs for decades. The accelerating pace of technology adoption is likely to displace many workers over the coming decades or force them to work differently. What should retraining look like? And who's responsible for making it happen?

JM: Even the term retraining is obsolete. We have to keep learning throughout our lives. Required work skills constantly change, even for people who don't switch jobs. One problem is education and training continue to be viewed as fundamentally different and separate systems, and whatever people learn in one system is not recognized by the other. The answer is that education and workforce training must be redesigned as a broad, integrated system focused on meeting the needs of individuals.

There already are companies and education providers creating local initiatives to integrate work and learning. In the book, I wrote about an apprenticeship program near Charlotte, North Carolina. The program at Blum, Inc., a manufacturer of high-tech latches and hinges for cabinetry, encourages workers to attend classes at the local community college. At the end of their apprenticeships, workers have jobs with the company, an associate degree from the college, and a journeyman certificate from the North Carolina Department of Commerce they can take with them if they switch jobs.

Q: What are some examples of companies — or even countries — promoting individuals' deeper potential? Is anyone taking the right approach to developing the capacities of human workers who increasingly must deal with automation and AI?

JM: Absolutely. In Tennessee, the Lee Company, a family-owned air-conditioning, plumbing and electrical business with more than $22 million in annual sales and fifteen hundred employees, makes a point of helping its workers thrive. After the recession ten years ago, the company created "Lee Company University," a training program that offers employees a free, structured four-year program leading to an industry-recognized certification and journeyman license. Another example, this one a large publicly-traded company: Cummins, Inc., which makes diesel engines and power-generation equipment, is a $26 billion annual business with sixty thousand employees around the globe. Based in Columbus, Indiana, the company employs collaborative robots, or "cobots," alongside its human employees, freeing the latter from repetitive or physically taxing tasks. In Seymour, a town of about twenty thousand in southern Indiana, the company has created partnerships to improve education, amenities, and  quality of life. These include improved pre-kindergarten offerings, more walking and biking trails, and initiatives to attract more businesses to downtown.

The companies that will flourish in the future are those that take an interest in developing their talent by positioning it for the meaningful work only humans can do while also recognizing that people want to be involved in their communities, continue to learn, and live fulfilling lives.

Q: How do you make all companies see the benefit of taking a broader interest in their employees?

JM: To spread these ideas, companies need to talk with each other about the benefits of talent investments in driving their success. Employers can take charge of their companies' futures by defining exactly what abilities and skills workers should possess, and how to develop and attract that talent. Companies must take steps to ensure their workers can fully develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities over the course of their careers and lives, regardless of the structure of their work. Learning for life will be an integral part of the work of the future, and employers need to ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate. Companies can literally make money as a result of investing in human work. Lumina hired a global consulting firm a few years back to explore the financial benefits of investing in tuition assistance. One employer, Cigna, found that employees who had participated in its education program were more likely to be promoted and were significantly more likely to be transferred and retained, resulting in higher pay for them while saving the company money. Even after accounting for program expenses, for every dollar Cigna had invested in employee education, the company received its original dollar back, plus another $1.29, all in the form of talent management cost savings.

Q: If you could press a button and make a single change in education or workforce training, what would it be, and why?

JM: The durable Rahm Emanuel quote applies here: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." We cannot drift back into familiar ways of thinking out of a misplaced desire for normalcy. We made a massive and sudden shift to remote work this year across large swaths of the economy. Now we need to re-engineer work in ways that create a better work-life balance while also respecting the environment and our global climate. We made an incredibly rapid shift to large-scale online learning, but now we need to redesign programs and curricula to take advantage of the technology available to offer better and more robust learning environments for all students. Similarly, we responded to COVID-19 as a society by changing individual behaviors on a previously unanticipated scale to protect public health. Now we need to find ways to allow everyone to make that kind of difference by serving others. Bit by bit, we are starting to see a new path forward. Our objective now should be to consolidate these gains into a unified system of earning, learning, and serving others.

« Previous post    Next post »

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."


    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

Subscribe to PhilanTopic

Contributors

Guest Contributors

  • Laura Cronin
  • Derrick Feldmann
  • Thaler Pekar
  • Kathryn Pyle
  • Nick Scott
  • Allison Shirk

Tweets from @PNDBLOG

Follow us »

Filter posts

Select
Select
Select