Robin Boggs headshot

Robin Boggs
Managing Director, US Corporate Citizenship at Accenture


Tessa Forshaw
Next Level Lab, Harvard University

Across the country, workforce development programs support people to reskill, retrain, upskill, and learn workplace skills for the first time—everywhere from office buildings, community colleges, military bases, churches, schools, and libraries to private homes. In many ways, this picture has never been truer than it is today: those who are most vulnerable in society are looking for support to find good jobs.

These students are trusting us. They trust that participating in the programs we fund will be worth it. They trust that they will learn new skills and apply them to gainful economic employment in the future.

As a sector, we have focused on and believed in access to workforce development programming. As a result, many funding efforts, including Accenture’s Skills to Succeed, have improved access to programs by funding opportunities for expansion, new content, new organizations, and scale.

But focusing only on access to higher education or workforce development programs might not be having the impact we envisioned; although unemployment is reasonably low, inequality is increasing, and social mobility is declining.

As we improve access and ask more students to take a chance on enrolling in a program, we owe it to them to also be focused on the quality of the learning experiences. The economics literature tells us that high-quality learning experiences paired with increased access to them are how we improve social mobility and inequality.

One reason access has been prioritized is because it is easy to measure and quantify. For example, we can quite easily count how many people enrolled in the program or obtained certification at the end. Learning, on the other hand, is hard to measure. It’s not a binary construct and can be quite subjective.

Fortunately,  there are decades of learning science, cognitive science, neuroscience, and social science research that we can rely upon to help build a mental model of what good learning experiences look like. From this research, we know that learning is a cognitive process, and there are pedagogical and instructional techniques that do and do not facilitate that process.

Interestingly, K-12, early child care, and higher education learning contexts are subjected to professional development requirements and national standards for high-quality learning experiences  in a way that workforce development is not. Our nearly $300 billion sector isn’t required by law to show that educators have the skills or support to deliver high-quality learning experiences, but we should encourage it.

As funders of workforce development programs, we should skill ourselves with knowledge about what good learning looks like. By doing so, we can identify and amplify those programs that leverage research-based instructional design and pedagogy and offer others the professional development required to support them to do so.

In a step towards identifying what quality learning experiences look like in workforce development contexts, Accenture Corporate Citizenship invested in the Next Level Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

As part of their efforts, the Next Level Lab recently launched an online Distinguished Speaker Series to provide an opportunity for the community to learn about emerging and urgent workforce development issues from scholars engaged in work related to cognitive science, neuroscience, the learning sciences, and innovative learning design and technology.

The series kicked off this past week with a presentation from Ruth Kanfer of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who summarized findings and insights from a person-centered, decades-long program of research focused on how, why, and when people learn related to work.

On March 2nd, 2022, the next event will feature a presentation from Bror Saxberg, the founder of LearningForge, LLC. In this session, Bror will discuss practical applications from the research in understanding expertise, learning, and design for motivation.

In the upcoming weeks, the series will hear from: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Professor of Education, Psychology, and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California; Sae Schatz, Director of the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative Office of the Secretary of Defense; Pattie Maes, Professor of Media Technology at MIT; and Rovy Branon, the Vice Provost of the University of Washington.

Background Research + Further Reading