The NationSwell Council is made up of social impact-oriented leaders and changemakers who are committed to pioneering solutions in order to better their communities — and the world around them. In NationSwell’s latest series, “Five Minutes With…,” we sit down with members of our community whose exemplary leadership deserves a deeper dive. Here’s what Maria Flynn, President and CEO of Jobs For the Future (JFF), had to share with us:
NationSwell: What does an equitable, human-centered future of work look like?
Maria Flynn: Becoming truly human-centered will require shifting our focus from the future of work to the future of workers. There will always be jobs, but skill requirements will continue to evolve. We must ensure we’re preparing people from all backgrounds to meet these rapid changes while also helping them to develop fulfilling and flexible careers. Skills-based hiring, for example, which emphasizes experience gained over degrees earned, is an important first step — in particular for Black and Latinx workers, who are disproportionately excluded from degree-requiring opportunities. We’re seeing many ways tech can help, such as providing individuals with strong career navigation support and easier access to trusted information about non-degree credentials and which ones best lead to fulfilling careers. Above all, workers need access to quality jobs throughout their lives. Decent pay and health insurance are essential, but so is a supportive workplace culture that understands people are always juggling many roles inside and outside of work and helps them take the time they need to care for themselves and their families.
NationSwell: How does the work you’re driving today help to build that future?
Maria Flynn: JFF is intentionally working both with traditional system players and disruptors to ensure that everyone has a quality job and the chance to advance economically. We help traditional systems modernize and transform while actively working with entrepreneurs and others, creating change from the outside. A great example is our work to prepare people who have been incarcerated to reenter the community. We work with traditional higher education providers, such as community colleges, to improve prison-based education programs while also investing in tech startups like Honest Jobs, a free online platform that helps people with criminal records find employers that are open to their applications, and advising corporations on how to make their hiring practices more equitable.
NationSwell: What inspires or motivates you — personally and professionally — to do this work?
Maria Flynn: When I was growing up, my dad was a working learner before there was a term for it. He worked several jobs at a time and went to school at night, so he could put my older brothers and me through college and try to make a better life for us. My father spent a large part of his career in the workforce development field, and I followed in his footsteps by joining the U.S. Department of Labor at the age of 22.
I have spent my entire career at the intersection of workforce and education—striving to build systems that promote equitable economic advancement. Our traditional education, training, and employment systems are not equipped to keep pace with accelerating shifts in technology and our economy. Political divides and risk-averse leadership too often hold us back. What keeps me motivated after 30+ years in the field is impatience for systemic change. Government can’t do it alone, and neither can the private sector or philanthropy. We need a holistic approach.
NationSwell: What are some promising signs from the impact you’re driving?
Maria Flynn: We saw a need four years ago to engage the private sector in transformation more directly, and we launched our corporate-facing products and services. Now we’re a galvanizing player in that space, with over 200 Fortune 500 employers engaging with each other and JFF experts to prioritize economic advancement opportunities for their employees while maintaining a strong bottom line. To date, over 100 people have participated in JFF-led Corporate Action Collaboratives focused on topics such as supporting women in the workplace, elevating worker voice, and creating greater psychological safety at work.
Additionally, we have supported dozens of companies directly and seen them implement “Impact Employer” practices such as investing in more equitable career development; supporting regional, cross-sector partnerships to support young, Black and Latinx employees; and emphasizing skills in hiring and advancement strategies. Another promising sign is the success of JFF Ventures, which originated as the acquisition of the Employment Technology Fund, and now we have two social investment funds that help startups that are committed to equity and led by a woman, or by a man of color. And we have seen promising momentum for our new Center for Racial Economic Equity, which is focusing first on accelerating Black economic advancement by ending occupational segregation and addressing the Black-white wealth gap.
NationSwell: What are some of the challenges you’re facing? How can NationSwell’s social impact community of practice help you with those challenges?
Maria Flynn: Given the magnitude of the inequities that we’re trying to overcome and the systems change that’s needed, no one organization can solve these problems alone. That’s why we’re eager to partner with other organizations and harness our collective strengths. And at a time of fierce political divides, we want to rally around some of the solutions that have strong bipartisan support. A strong example is JFF’s Pathways to Prosperity, which has developed statewide networks improving college and career preparation for high school students of all backgrounds from Delaware to Texas and Tennessee. These kinds of partnerships are what we need to take the bigger swings and solve the biggest problems facing our country.
NationSwell: What’s your call to action to anyone who reads this Q+A?
Maria Flynn: First, look inward; ask how you can start building the workforce of the future by embracing some of these future-facing approaches, like skills-based hiring at your organization. Then look externally to find partners for joining forces and addressing some of the bigger problems. Reach out to us with your ideas for cross-sector collaboration. Refer innovative start-ups to our impact investing arm, JFF Ventures. Invest yourself, if you can. Follow Jobs for the Future on social media and join us at our annual summit, Horizons, where you’ll meet more than 1,000 other leaders driving equitable economic advancement for all.
Maria Flynn is president and CEO of Jobs for the Future. Her commitment to JFF’s vision of equitable economic advancement for all and her leadership in workforce policy have made her a national authority on the future of work, the role of technology in the labor market, career pathways for learners and workers underserved by the education and workforce systems, and employer engagement. If you’re interested in learning more, please get in touch.