The Cognizant Foundation was founded in 2018 to inspire, educate and prepare people of all ages to succeed in the workforce of today and tomorrow. The foundation serves historically excluded communities through the delivery of industry-relevant education, technical skills training programs and critical research needed to modernize workforce education, training and employment.
The foundation is a supporting member of Workforce Matters, and its executive director, Kristen Titus, serves on the Steering Committee. Workforce Matters sat down with the foundation team to discuss their recent investments in elevating the visibility of the workforce development sector.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about the Cognizant Foundation’s grantmaking strategy and work to date?
Our grantmaking is centered in a belief that the tech industry can serve as an engine to unlock economic opportunity and expand equity in communities around the world. But that won’t happen unless we rethink the existing pipelines into the sector and the pathways through it—that’s why our work focuses so heavily on supporting historically excluded and underrepresented populations. Alongside this, we must also fundamentally rethink and change how our education and career systems work together.
To do this, we focus our grantmaking on three key areas—pipelines, pathways and systems change. Since our founding, we have committed $60 million to organizations at the forefront of this work. This summer also marked our initial investments outside the United States, with inaugural grants in the United Kingdom. We also recently announced grants in Canada, with additional grants in Australia and Germany forthcoming.
Q: We’ve noticed that you’ve invested a lot in communication strategies for the field—including participating in Twitter chats; sponsoring news outlets and podcast series; and supporting the new Words of the Workforce Field Guide resource, among other things. How do these strategies fit in with your larger grantmaking goals?
An important part of our work is to elevate the issues we work with our grantee partners to solve—that means communication strategies are critical to our efforts. One thing we hear continually from our partners is the notion that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” With this in mind, we recently worked with our grantees to start a Student Spotlight blog series that highlights and tells the stories of historically excluded and underrepresented individuals who have entered the tech industry.
We also know that the education and workforce space is complex. This is why we’re proud to partner with outlets like WorkingNation and Work Shift to support quality journalism that digs deep into issues affecting students, workers, and the systems we aim to change.
Q: Let’s dive into the Words of Workforce Field Guide a little more. Why is it important for those in this space to come together, collaborate and define key issues and terms?
The seismic effects of the pandemic have generated increased media attention on issues of workforce development and economic mobility—but as is so often the case, the more prevalent a given issue becomes in the national narrative, the muddier the terminology used to describe that issue becomes. There is a lack of a strong, clear definition for many words in the lexicon of workforce development. For example, what do people mean when they say there is a “skills gap,” especially across industries? And what are the implications of using this term? What is the precise definition of an essential worker? Are “certificates” and “certifications” the same thing—and if not, what exactly is the difference?
It was great to see a diverse group of organizations come together to identify this as a need and start a conversation about how language shapes the policies and practices that define the world of work. This is, of course, particularly critical in the context of our country’s effort to reckon with the ongoing reality of systemic racism and inequity. If we seek to build a more equitable, just society, critically examining the language we use—and the language we don’t use—must be part of that project.
Q: How has the Cognizant Foundation used communications and language to influence issues of equity and inclusion, and how can philanthropy more broadly be mindful of language in promoting a more just and equitable labor market?
In a recent op-ed for Alliance Magazine and GlobalGiving, our director Hannah Lee said that to respond to and meet the unique needs of those we serve, philanthropy must “listen first and continually check assumptions.” The same is true for the language we use. How those of us in philanthropy talk about issues and individuals can have a big impact, and we must be mindful of how we frame and name. For instance, as we shared in the recent #TalkAboutWork Twitter chat, "underrepresented communities" are underrepresented for a reason—that is why in response to grantee and partner feedback, we now use the term “historically excluded communities.”
Q: The Twitter chat at the end of September on the new guide asked participants to suggest a new term to introduce into the lexicon for workforce development. What was your response to that question and why?
That was a great question, especially since the guide was created to be a living document with additions and updates necessary. Our answer was:
Just as we define “skills gap” and “pathways,” we should also recognize an existing “pathways gap.” People often have the skills needed for a job or the desire to attain them—there just exists a gap where a pathway is not clearly defined for workers to do either.
Discussions about the “skills gap” usually place the onus of the “gap” on an individual—it’s often a deficit label when talking about people. Using a “pathways gap” frame recognizes that there is an issue in connecting people who are already skilled or eager to learn new skills with jobs.
For more information about the Words of the Workforce Guide and for a recap of the Twitter Chat, see https://workingnation.com/talkaboutwork-the-words-of-the-workforce/ For more information about the Cognizant Foundation, see http://www.cognizantfdn.org/.