Reporting on the connections between education and work

A Boost for Skills Experiments

A new group of foundations, SkillsFWD, is throwing its weight behind statewide experiments with LERs.

A new group of foundations is throwing its weight behind statewide and regional skills experiments. 

SkillsFWD, as the collaborative is called, today announced six grants of $1.4M each for projects that harness learning and employment records. The goal is to encourage the development of a “more equitable skills-based hiring ecosystem.”

Walmart.org is one of the funders. The retail giant has been investing in a skills-based system for more than a decade, says Julie Gehrki, the company’s vice president of philanthropy. She says SkillFWD is a major step toward making that system a reality.

“We’re excited to see this create new career opportunities for workers and strengthen local communities—two pillars of our Walmart.org strategy,” Gehrki says.

The grants are an initiative of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, with funding from Ascendium Education Group, the Charles Koch Foundation, Strada Education Foundation, Walmart, and others.

The details: The grantees feature a wide range of geographies and participating organizations, stretching across employers, K-12, workforce boards, and postsecondary education providers. Most feature statewide scale. And universities are at the table for several of the projects.

One of the grants will back the nascent effort by a public-private coalition in Colorado to develop skills-based solutions to its serious labor shortage of behavioral health workers. That strategy leans heavily on LERs, anchored by myColorado, the state’s free digital wallet.

Alabama’s Talent Triad also is one of the grantees. That complex, multi-year project taps AI as part of a “population-level” attempt to connect jobseekers and employers based on skills. Many experts think the Talent Triad is perhaps the nation’s most advanced LER experiment.

The other awards will back:

  • Accelerate Montana and its validated skills pilot, which seeks statewide adoption of LERs among employers in the construction trades and tech industries.
  • The Central Ohio Talent Network, led by a workforce board, which taps a college and career readiness platform to power early-career talent and employer matching.
  • Arizona State University’s skills-based project to boost student workers through a scalable, LER-driven job marketplace and by reducing barriers to hiring for employers.
  • Connecticut’s Office of Workforce Strategy’s attempt to expand skills-based hiring, use LERs to bridge the skills gap, and encourage equitable and effective employment practices.

“Walmart believes in leading by example in this space and we’re excited to see these states and institutions taking that same approach,” Gehrki says.

The six grants are the first philanthropic investments in end-to-end LER solutions, says Dawn Karber, director of SkillsFWD and a workforce development veteran. But they build on existing efforts by states to develop necessary data infrastructures.

“That past work has set states up, more than localities, to be prepared for launching this work,” Karber says.

On the ground: ASU’s effort is connected to its broader Work+ initiative, which seeks to fundamentally redesign student employment. The skills-based project is about “helping students tell their story,” says Sukhwant Jhaj, ASU’s vice provost for academic innovation and student achievement and dean of its University College.

The university has partnered with iDatafy’s SmartResume to deliver skills-based, portable LERs to students, so they can communicate their qualifications to campus employers and begin building a lifelong learning record that will carry them into careers.

Jhaj says the experiment is a student-success strategy to advance equitable outcomes. “Hiring based on skills will only grow,” he says.

Montana’s project on verified credentials aims to show the potential of digital validated skills to expand access to workforce opportunities across the state, including rural and urban communities, as well as Montana’s eight sovereign tribal nations.

By focusing on the tech and construction trades, it seeks to enable more efficient and effective hiring on somewhat opposite ends of the spectrum, says Paul Gladen, executive director of Accelerate Montana. Part of the goal is to “elevate the recognition that the currency of the workplace is skills,” he says.

With few large employers and plenty of miles to cover in Montana, the collaboration includes a wide range of partners, including industry associations, chambers of commerce, the state’s two-year colleges, and the University of Montana. The project will help to better align the locations of education and training options with open jobs.

“How do we meet the trainees where they are?” Gladen asks. “Where can we be a shared service?”

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