Moving from intention to integration: What SXSW did (and didn’t) talk about

By Taylor Toledo

I had the privilege of spending a few days at SXSW EDU this past week, and I was thrilled to see crowds who were hungry, engaged, and delighted in connecting with people and with solutions for their organizations and regions. Teachers, administrators, entrepreneurs, students, policymakers, and agency folks like me feverishly took notes and raised their hands once, twice, and sometimes three times to engage the panelists and speakers.

The energy was contagious, and it felt like we were all there to put pen to paper and get work done for the future of work and education.

A great example of this energy was in a session called The Grand Challenge of Reskilling America, where heavy hitters like New Profit, JFF, and XPRIZE Foundation shared how they were solving the problem of rebuilding an economy that works for everyone. Between these three organizations and other partners, they were raising $6 million in funding for innovation to rapidly reskill Americans and get them into well-paying, family-sustaining jobs in the next few years. A few thoughts and tactics stood out to me:

  • The project centered on workers’ voices. In developing the data for this project and the structure for the initiative, they had conversations with the actual end-user to learn how the marketplace did and didn’t work for them and what they’d need to be successful.
  • They closed the gap between the end-user and the innovator. An essential attribute of their work is putting the person building the solutions right next to the person the solution is for to make sure it works. And if it doesn’t, they’d build the iteration with them.
  • If DEI isn’t at the center of the table, it will fall off. We see this happen with initiatives outside of workforce development. When diversity and belonging are the tenets of a project, that work is more likely to reflect the community it’s for.

Other sessions I attended discussed engaging family and community for better student outcomes, creating ecosystems of solution providers, and revolutionizing apprenticeships for the new world of work. Again, they were informative, and some provided salient ideas that educators and businesses can implement at all levels.

Yet what I didn’t hear was maybe louder than what I did: We don’t have much time to continue planning. So we have to act now.

As we all know, COVID-19 and its consequences shook the dust off of age-old problems for higher education, K-12, and workforce development. Lack of administrative diversity, rising costs, food and housing insecurity, inaccessibility, and the dire need for middle-skills learning and working always existed, but now they are competing for the #1 problem in 2022.

And what we can’t do is continue to intend to solve the problems. While good intentions are foundational, the impact will tell the story. Right now, the story I watch unfold for higher education and workforce development is a lack of integration.

If I could wave a magic wand and translate intention to impact in the next 45 days, here’s how I’d tackle what we face right now and what lies ahead for education and workforce development:

  • Build partnerships within your community that actualize the future students want to be a part of. We must engage the workforce development board, nonprofits, the PTA, the student body, the faculty, and the employers in solving your region’s problems. We need all parts of the ecosystem to align to build a model for student success.
  • Study the industries just outside of your bubble. A session I attended on direct-to-consumer thinking for higher education hit the nail: Analogous sectors offer great insight into what could happen to education if we tried to do something different.
  • Build your marketing and communications with group dynamics in mind. Today’s learner could be a 16-year-old interested in a pre-apprenticeship, a high school graduate looking to transfer, or a 36-year-old, stay-at-home parent wanting to upskill. What unites these groups is their decision-making system — the people they are influenced by and who will ultimately benefit from their re-enrollment in school. Design your outreach with these units in mind.
  • Start earlier than you think you should. The rate of change is so fast that 11-year-olds now consider what it looks like to be a tech entrepreneur. And the jobs that will be required for our economies to thrive will continue to iterate as we see global systems shift, technology push ahead, and policy influence how we tackle “the new normal.” To keep up, start now. Start where you are.

I plan to go back to SXSW EDU next year (that is, if 3fold is up for it – Hi, Jamie!) and I hope to see fewer sessions on what we plan to do and more panels on case studies — what worked, what didn’t, and what we’re doing to build and iterate to give everyone a shot at a sustainable, fulfilled life.

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