Joining forces to create a more equitable future of work

Issues and Impact | News | 4 mins.
Written By: Tony Cohn | Posted On: 09/01/2020

By Dr. Angela Jackson and Tony Cohn


Since the coronavirus shutdowns began earlier this year, a record-high 44.2 million Americans have filed for unemployment. The United States is in the midst of a jobs crisis not seen since the Great Depression.

Americans from all sectors have lost their jobs, but certain populations, including people without a four-year college degree, are particularly vulnerable to economic shocks. According to a recent paper from Opportunity@Work, some 71 million Americans without four-year degrees, many from low-income households and communities of color, have the skills needed to succeed in middle- and high-wage jobs. But the economic system has been failing them for decades. Now the economic consequences of the pandemic are threatening to devastate them.

As Derek Thompson shared in The Atlantic, “this wave of the pandemic will almost certainly disproportionately punish the poor … by specifically targeting industries where workers are most vulnerable and have the least protection,” including from workforce automation. Early data show that 86% of initial layoffs stemming from COVID 19 have hit workers making less than $40,000. ” In the last three recessions, 88% of job loss took place in highly automatable occupations, positions that disproportionately affect those without a postsecondary degree. Black and Latinx communities, where individuals are less likely than their white peers to have more than a high school education, will be hit particularly hard.

Our respective organizations, the Morgridge Family Foundation (MFF) and New Profit, had been working separately on innovative plans and funder coalitions to address these pressing workforce needs. MFF had partnered with MIT Solve to elevate tech-driven solutions for people to obtain higher skilled, higher wage work. New Profit had called upon the XPRIZE organization to identify ideas that could be prototyped and validated with industry partners. Both models were novel but were aimed at similar objectives.

When we learned of each other’s work, we saw an opportunity to join forces and multiply our impact by aligning already powerful networks of thought leaders and funders. The result has been the Future of Work Grand Challenge, powered by the XPRIZE Foundation and MIT Solve. The Challenge will identify and accelerate solutions that prepare millions of workers without a four-year degree and those who did not earn a living wage last year for immediate and long-term success in the American economy.

The Grand Challenge has two distinct parts. One is to find disruptive ideas and technologies that can reduce the time it takes to train and place workers. The other is to scale proven solutions for building long-term pathways to jobs, including career navigation and placement support.

Both parts of the challenge will work in partnership with workforce boards to seek and validate solutions from a diverse array of entrepreneurs. Jobs For The Future (JFF) will equip five innovation-oriented workforce boards to use the solutions of MIT Solve and XPRIZE’s training technologies to reach an anticipated wave of one million displaced workers. Ultimately, workforce playbooks will be created and implemented across 538 workforce boards nationwide.

Equity is a focus of all aspects of our work. Forty percent of our funding will go to innovators of color. Our workers advisory board includes 40 diverse workers who have lost jobs due to the pandemic and did not make a living wage last year. Innovators will test their solutions at workforce boards, which is where many millions of Americans who typically make lower wages look for work.

Given the obvious need, cross-sector support has poured in from philanthropic and corporate organizations, including Walmart.org, the Strada Education Network, Annie E. Casey, Lumina Impact Ventures, Accenture, Fossil Foundation, CSU Global, IBM, and Gary Community Investments. This unprecedented collaboration is grounded in responsive problem solving. The pandemic has highlighted the pressing need for far-reaching workforce development initiatives. It has also underscored what can happen when funders listen and then work together toward a common goal.

The Future of Work Grand Challenge represents an unprecedented collaborative investment in the resilience of our neighbors, communities, and country. The coalition is focused on building long-term, sustainable solutions that place all workers into better paying, stable careers. Too often in the past, funders have focused on narrow, programmatic giving. Now is the time for funders to catalyze more systemic innovations that advance equity in workforce development and drive dollars toward underinvested talent. We can use our philanthropic capital to take risks that government entities—like workforce boards—cannot take on their own.

Economic security will provide the support that vulnerable Americans need to thrive. As we begin the long road to recovery, policymakers, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, and innovators can all help Americans from underinvested communities achieve workforce success.


Tony Cohn is Director of Strategy at Morgridge Family Foundation and Dr. Angela Jackson is a Principal of New Profit, a venture philanthropy organization.