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Finding And Preparing A Diverse Research Talent Pipeline: Part 1

Higher education has to shift priorities to focus on a more learn-and-work ecosystem, requiring a two-step process to foster a more diverse and talented pipeline for the workplace.

The Non-Degree Credentials Research Network held its spring conference on March 27-28, 2023 to consider priorities and challenges in seven areas: 1) global developments; 2) federal industrial policy’s implications on academic research; 3) noncredit higher education, 4) work-based learning; 5) non-degree credentials, socioeconomic mobility and labor market; and 6) innovations in research and data infrastructure. The seventh focused on preparing a diverse research talent pipeline. The following conversation, abridged and edited from the transcript of the panel discussion, is the first of a two-part series.


Holly Zanville: Several years ago, the NCRN surveyed its membership to ask which universities are working in this space and if an undergraduate student or working professional asked where could prepare for careers in learn-and work-ecosystem jobs, what would be the recommended universities and pathways? We learned that university programs are primarily discipline-focused (e.g., economics, sociology, political science, education), and the disciplines are not focused on the broader learn-and-work ecosystem. The prevailing view seemed to be that it is the job of the think tanks and governmental agencies to prepare folks in a two-step process: acquire foundational preparation in traditional academic disciplines, then work in various types of organizations for more specialized training.  This would be a two-step process.

With this background as context for the discussion, panelists provided self-introductions.

Mark D’Amico — professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina, at Charlotte. My remarks come from the perspective of a higher education faculty member. My area of research is largely focused on community colleges. I’ve done a lot recently on non-credit community college education, as well as associate in applied science transfer (transfer from those more workforce- oriented degrees)  I've worked in higher education about 28 years. I spent the first half of that working in administrative roles in universities and the community college institution and state system levels. I bring some of that practical background to scholarly work.

Kathleen deLaski  — I’m just stepping down as founder and CEO of the Education Design Lab. A new project I’m taking on is facilitating design sprints for the future of learning and work at the intersection of this learn-and-work ecosystem at Harvard University. We’re working with students across the Schools of Business,  Policy School and Education. I'm going to be teaching at George Mason University in social impact design in the learning ecosystem space at the undergraduate level in the honors college in the fall. I was a journalist for 15 years, so I bring a storytelling lens. I was also in government for a little while as a political appointee. So I have a politics spin on things. But I was in early consumer product development when AOL America Online was a startup back in the nineties, and we were trying to figure out how to bring this thing called the Internet to consumers. The Education Design Lab which I founded is focused on helping colleges figure out how to design education toward the future of work. So all of these experiences prepared me to help colleges be entrepreneurs, and face this new age.

Michael Fung— Executive Director at the Institute for the Future Education in a university system in Mexico. We are a large 26-campus university, and by default a national one, because we are located in almost all parts of Mexico. We serve 90,000 students. Prior to joining Institute, I led the SkillsFuture movement, where I was a policymaker building a comprehensive workforce skills development and lifelong learning system in Singapore, and matching thedemand and supply sideof skills. This is very much a part of what we were trying to do in Mexico, in Latam, and around the world. The way research comes into play is to understand where the market is going in terms of where the skills needs are, but also understanding the behaviors of learners in the workforce, companies, and institutions, and making sure that we are addressing all the important elements that lead to effective learning outcomes. In my current role, I work with institutional leaders and policymakers to bring about transformation in higher education and lifelong learning so that we have systems that are responsive to the changing needs of industry and society.

Holly: Do you think the talent development pipeline for researchers is primarily a two-step scenario—earn an academic degree followed by work in an intermediary or government job? Is this the likely path in 2023 and beyond to prepare people well? Are you seeing universities move to cross-disciplinary programs to prepare people for researcher and policy analyst jobs in the learn-and-work ecosystem?

Mark: It is probably not the pathway but it's one pathway. I believe that preparation to work in this space is seldom just one step. It's not just a degree. It's not just a position. This makes me think about something I worked on years ago—borrowing from the idea of career capital (see DeFillippi and Arthur), and how individuals build careers these days that are really boundaryless careers. This accumulation of capital is a focus about why to pursue a career, how which involves knowledge and skill acquisition, but also whom you know —the networks you work in. So when thinking about boundaryless careers, it's hard to say. You can't be in a boundaryless career and expect to get everything you need within the boundaries of one organization or program.

To the second question, is a graduate level degree adequate? As someone who teaches, has created graduate programs, and have been a department chair over many graduate programs, I am immediately going to say no—a degree alone is not solely adequate; however, it is incredibly important.

Then how do we prepare for these types of careers? First I don't think we should focus on a graduate program as even necessarily the primary experience though it is one of the very important experiences. Rather let's think about the graduate experience as one of the key ways to accumulate capital. What else is part of the mix? Inherent in this question is the 2-step process is sequencing. I don't think there's one sequence, so there could be the “after the degree.” This might be a postdoc, a first role in the workplace, or one trained in the field.

But it can also be “during the degree,” not a linear sequence. Many of the people who come to us now have significant work experience. Granted, I'm at an R2 university and in an education program. We're preparing people for a variety of roles in research and practice, and many of our learners are already in full-time positions. They're also advancing in their positions over time. That's critically important to their development to work in this space. But also they're seeking out internships and fellowships. They're engaging in research independently or with faculty. So the during piece is also important to layer when accumulating capital.

Then what about before for a program like mine? We require three years of professional work experience before we even consider a candidate for our program. I know that's not the same in a lot of Ph.D. programs. When we hire a new faculty member, we will often get faculty applicants who are incredibly well prepared in terms of scholarship but we don't feel that they're necessarily a good fit for preparing our student population who are advanced practitioners. I know that a lot of programs are admitting folks who might go straight through but that is not our program philosophy. My emphasis is really, how do we value what they did before? We think it's important to leverage what they've done before. Have they come from a career that's in this space? How can they layer upon that graduate and scholarly training to help round out those experiences, to prepare them to play in this space a little bit more deeply?

Holly: What you’ve laid out is a hybrid in many ways—graduate level degrees plus significant work experience prior to entering the university plus concomitant development of research and application of skills in projects and internships along with coursework. This is not the model of many universities but a model that could be promulgated to recognize the importance of the during and before you identified.

Holly:  We’ve heard that word went out to students at Harvard University that they could participate in a Cross-Sector Futures Group, where they might learn about the future of work. There were some 200 applicants but with space limitations, only 60 could join the group. Kathleen deLaski is involved in this effort and will fill us in more about this approach to help learners in traditional academic disciplines expand their learning opportunities.

Kathleen: The intent of this effort was born in recognition by key professors at Harvard doing research in this area, like Joe Fuller at the Business school, David Deming at the Kennedy School (Government Policy), and Bob Schwartz at the Graduate School of Education. The collaborative work they’re doing around workforce issues started a couple of years ago. They started a study group a couple of years ago for students, and it started snowballing in terms of the interest level of people wanting to participate.

My new role is as a Lecturer in the project. I will help with some sessions that have come up around design questions across the learn-and-work ecosystem—around what they want to work on. For example, the business students may have an idea, like a startup they want to do. The students in education want to think about how to develop approaches around how to reform, making approaches more uniform training options  to meet the demands of the workforce in particular occupational pockets and regions. Some are working on equity issues—how do people of color mobilize in their careers when they're already in a job (social and economic mobility)? These are the kinds of questions we’re addressing.

This comes back to the central question for today, how and where should researchers train? I think we’re seeing that cross disciplinary work is critical, to be able to have a voice in this. We live in such an information-heavy world, where many kinds of research are not actually getting read by anybody. So the idea that if you want to be relevant in today's research world, you have to know how to deal with outlets like Twitter Tik Tok, LinkedIn —social media, and you need to be able to speak effectively in various venues.

You need to start with your outcome when you're trying to make a point or have a research project that's going to be meaningful. We have learned at the Education Design Lab where we have a lot of researchers and what we call education and work designers who are piloting new ideas with colleges, employers, cities, and states that they need basically four skill sets.

The first are the skills you can only typically get in the higher form of education training, for example, working on your Ph.D. But there are other skills you need —besides the disciplined training and “how to” to  conduct a randomized trial, a research project. A second skill is storytelling which I mentioned earlier. A third skill is entrepreneurship and project management, to understand how to put people together, how to put ideas together, how to take ideas and bring them to action. A fourth is understanding and empathy of people and ideas, and how to lead with who your user is. That is a human-centered design focus.

I think the students at Harvard and the ones I’m going to be teaching at George Mason may not know all this. That's why they're signing up, that’s what they're looking for. How do I get started in this really exciting world of school and work design, learn-and-work ecosystem?  It is an exciting field because it's changing so quickly and dramatically, and it has the possibility to have more of an impact on equity than probably anything you know any of their friends and colleagues are doing. So, in addition to the research skills  they probably can only get in the Ph.D.., there are these other skill sets. A good question for us is what to tell them—what is necessary for the traditional skill sets, and what are the new things that are necessary or sufficient.

Holly: Where are Mexico and other nations finding researchers, what disciplines are they coming from, and what can we learn from one another? 

Michael Fung: When I reflect about the issues we’re talking about, it’s the same set of issues that I was working on in Singapore, the same set of issues the European Union is now starting to think about, the same set of issues that perhaps the federal government in the U.S. is now starting to focus on. I think that some U.S. States have had more traction in the past, and of course, the private sector and entrepreneurs that have been doing a lot of work in those spaces. These issues are fairly common across different countries and jurisdictions.

When I was in Singapore, we were working on both the supply and demand side of the picture, and very quickly knew that we needed to develop research capabilities to better understand the space. So we invested in that. As part of my work in the government, we established a Workforce Development Academic Research Fund. We gave part of that fund to researchers at the local universities and also had an open competitive call for international collaborators. They would be working on a range of workforce development-related research topics. We set up an Institute for Adult Learning that spearheaded quite a bit of the commissioned research work as well. So it was a supportive government-led perspective in Singapore.

At the Institute that I'm at now, it's everything but government-supported, as those of you who are familiar with Mexico’s investments in education and research will know. We are a private university, so we are investing our own resources in the Institute. There are about 120 people at the Institute—half of them work on research, some are research professors, some are post-docs, some PhD students. The other half are working on a range of impact projects—translating what we know about this space into specific projects, with institutions, companies, governments, and so on.

Where we see traction in the Mexican context is at the state level. In the state of Nuevo Leon, we are working with the secretaries of economic development, labor, and education to align the agenda, With the skills development impetus coming from the industry associations. For example, there is strong demand from the energy sector and automotive sector for upskilling.

Our researchers come from many disciplines. We have academics from engineering, education, business, public policy and government, because these are multi-disciplinary issues and efforts. As we think about the work for skills development, it cuts across various disciplines. So I do not think that we can have a single program in a single school — it would be too limited. Our Institute sits outside of all the schools, and report to the university leadership directly. One suggestion that I will make is to rotate, if it is possible, government people into the academic institutions, and back out. That is what we did at SkillsFuture. I think it really helped our researchers understand policy imperatives, and policymakers to understand implementation challenges on the ground.

Stay tuned for part 2, coming soon.

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