As the future of work rapidly changes, the intersection of technology and workforce dynamics presents unprecedented opportunities and daunting challenges. As automation, artificial intelligence, and other technological advancements redefine the nature of work, it’s imperative to ensure that these transformations are not just beneficial but also equitable. This pressing issue is one of the core investment focus areas of AmFam Institute, because our venture capital firm is committed to closing equity gaps by investing in innovative startups.

We believe economic opportunity is not a privilege but a right, essential for breaking the cycle of poverty and building generational wealth. By investing in startups that enable generational wealth-building, facilitate access to high-income, high-growth career pathways, and advocate for justice reform to reduce the footprint of the criminal justice system, the Institute is actively working towards dismantling systemic barriers and creating pathways to financial freedom.

In this Q&A with Chaarvi Badani, Senior Associate at the AmFam Institute, we delve into the intricate nexus of technology, workforce development, and equity. Through her insights, we can gain a deeper understanding of how technology continues to shape workforce dynamics, the implications it holds for equity, and the innovative strategies being pursued to ensure that economic opportunities are accessible to all, regardless of background or circumstance. Read on to explore the transformative potential of workforce development initiatives in creating a more inclusive, prosperous, and resilient future for individuals and communities alike.

Institute Team (IT): You highlighted the impact of technology on job availability and the importance of skilled workforce development. How do you see technology continuing to shape workforce dynamics and what implications does this hold for equity in the workforce?

Chaarvi Badani (CB): Technology will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping workforce dynamics—we’re already witnessing the rise of automation, AI, and other technological advancements that have significantly altered “work”. We expect this trend to be both an opportunity and a challenge.  

One of the key implications of technology on workforce dynamics is the increasing demand for specialized skills. As automation and AI become more prevalent, there will be a greater need for employees who can understand, operate, and innovate with these technologies. We are seeing increased demand for entry-level jobs with digital skills like marketing, sales, and cybersecurity. For startups, integrating the latest technologies into their product can improve efficiency and speed to upskilling.

However, these latest technologies are tools that aid the mission of upskilling and training, but cannot replace strong curriculum, and robust learning. We are not interested in AI being the main tool, but rather products using the capabilities of AI and ML to improve their output. Additionally, we cannot stress enough the fact that all technologies created by humans will imbibe and amplify human prejudices and biases. All companies using any type of technology should continually test it with an unbiased lens and work to improve its potential discriminations. 

Ultimately, while technology presents opportunities for economic growth and innovation, it’s essential to ensure that the benefits are shared equitably across society. By investing in workforce development startups that prioritize inclusivity and accessibility, we can build a more resilient and equitable workforce for the future.

IT: Could you share any success stories or notable outcomes from initiatives or startups the Institute has supported in the realm of workforce development recently? What factors contributed to their success?

CB: Our portfolio company EnGen was recently featured in a Forbes article that highlighted their success with the Colorado Office of New Americans (ONA) to launch an ambitious new initiative designed to unlock the potential of the state’s nearly 520,000 workers from immigrant and refugee backgrounds.

A factor that contributes to EnGen’s success is the fact that they bring together various stakeholders who have an interest in upskilling and hiring but with different motivations. For example, companies want to hire talent (and sometimes do good), but not always pay for training of the talent. Governments want to train people and see them hired in jobs, but are not nimble to offer relevant training and support to the job-seekers. Another factor of EnGen’s success is hosting events to bring awareness to the program for companies and government leaders, through webinars and in-person events in Colorado. An example of this was the EnGen New American Inclusion Summit in Colorado. The sold-out event convened local employers, adult educators, government leaders and service providers in conversation about ways in which stakeholders can better connect with—and support—workers from immigrant backgrounds.

IT: The Institute’s investment thesis includes a focus on reducing the footprint of the criminal justice system. How do you see workforce development intersecting with this goal?

CB: The intersectionality of these is extremely important to us. We agree that no issue exists in a silo, and the compounding of generations of lack of access and opportunity makes it harder to overcome. Reducing the footprint of the criminal justice system, or Justice Tech as we call it, is a lens we use across all our investment areas. For workforce development particularly, it is about ensuring that startups are building tools with all communities in mind and ensuring accessibility features. For justice-impacted job-seekers, that can mean matching them with jobs that align not just with their skills, but also with compatibility of each job with their criminal record. Additionally, we are focused not just on training and upskilling, but also wrap-around services that job-seekers need, including interviewing support, resume building, transportation, and mentorship. Such support is amplified for justice-impacted individuals. 

There are also startups that are built on fair-chance hiring. A great example of that is Honest Jobs. Harley Blakeman, the founder, is open about his journey through the justice system and how it impacted his career search. He builds with unique insights into the audiences he is serving, and is intentional about the features and tools that are at Honest Jobs. 

IT: Upskilling for professional progression was discussed as a vital aspect of workforce development. Can you elaborate on any recent trends or strategies you’ve observed in upskilling programs, particularly in light of industry evolution and changing skill demands?

CB: In upskilling today, there are increasing questions of: What jobs do we want people to be trained for? How do we ensure that people find careers, and not just a job? What types of jobs will exist two, five, ten years from now? Do existing colleges and curriculum train for these scenarios in mind? 

There is a gap between what diplomas and degrees offer, and what employers are looking for. Upskilling for professional progression becomes more important with these contexts for both new job-seekers as well as those already in jobs. 

This shows up not just in adult education, but also how we interact with children in schools and bring exposure to such technologies to underserved and under-representated communities early-on. For example, our portfolio company KAI XR increases students’ access to AR/VR tools at an early age that can help shape careers in the future. So much of the focus of the workforce is on job readiness, but it should include time to play, experiment, learn, and create, and especially at an early age. This builds skills that all employers value—creativity, risk-taking, problem-solving, and empathy. 

IT: Looking ahead, you mentioned plans for a subsequent installment focusing on green jobs. What specific challenges or opportunities do you foresee in this area and how are startups addressing them?

CB: Green Jobs and skills trades are of interest to the Institute right now. Investments in green infrastructure and strong job growth show positive signals for the green jobs market. There is good pay in these jobs. As per Brookings, mean hourly wages in each major category of green jobs are above the national average by at least $2/hr. Additionally, many cleantech occupations tend to have lower educational qualifications, and roughly 50% of the workers attain no more than a high school diploma yet higher wages than similar educated peers. This supports our larger middle skills pathways focus and thesis. 

But on the flipside, only one in five clean energy production and energy efficiency workers are women, and fewer than one in ten are black workers. So, what is needed in green jobs is equity and inclusion in outreach, training and employment, to avoid a potential situation like the tech industry. Additionally, how are we training workers in entry-level jobs, with lower education qualifications to move up the ladder? These questions and focus go hand-in-hand with our climate justice thesis in resilient communities. 

We believe companies that are operating in this industry are creating a market—there is a need to bring together diverse stakeholders to the table and align on what and how these jobs look like, what careers look like, how we streamline training and hiring processes, and how we upskill existing workers from shrinking industries to transfer their skills to better paying jobs.

While such programs and initiatives are extremely important, I do believe that green jobs upskilling-only startups will take a while to scale as they are creating in an opaque market. Concurrently, clean energy companies that add on a component of training and upskilling as it pertains to their projects are currently seeing traction with government funding as they are able to place people into jobs through their own operations, as we recently saw in this PBS highlight of our portfolio company BlocPower.

IT: What do you hope readers take away from your continued exploration of workforce development, and what role do you see the Institute playing in shaping the future of equitable workforce opportunities?

CB: I hope readers take away a deeper understanding of the importance of workforce development in today’s rapidly changing economy, as well as the critical role that collaboration, innovation, and inclusivity play in shaping the future of work. Specifically, I hope to highlight the significance of upskilling initiatives in providing individuals with the tools and opportunities they need to succeed in the workforce, regardless of their background or circumstances.

The Institute is in a unique and pivotal role to shape the future of equitable workforce opportunities. Impact investors have the unique ability to channel capital towards initiatives that not only generate financial returns but also create positive social and environmental impact, and by investing in impactful future of work startups, we can support the growth of inclusive economies, empower underserved communities, and foster innovation in education and training. By continuing to make thoughtful investments in workforce development, we can play a small part in creating a future where all individuals have access to meaningful employment, lifelong learning opportunities, and pathways to economic prosperity.

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