The New Future of Work: Future of Education

Monday, March 22, 2021
10–11 a.m. PT
Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
Virtual

As labor market demands change in the wake of COVID-19, how will higher education evolve to prepare the next generation of workers? Can technology and remote learning change the economics of education? How can we equalize access to a college degree? And what skills should young people—and workers displaced by the pandemic—prioritize developing to position themselves for success in the economy of the future?

Watch SF Fed President Mary C. Daly in conversation with Dr. Peter Q. Blair (Harvard Graduate School of Education), Sal Kahn (Kahn Academy), and Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez (Utah Valley University), as they explore these questions and more.

This is the third event in a series of discussions on the new future of work.

SF Fed President Mary C. Daly, Dr. Peter Q. Blair (Harvard Graduate School of Education), Sal Kahn (Kahn Academy), and Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez (Utah Valley University) discuss the post-pandemic future of education. March 22, 2021 (video, 1:02:08).

Transcript

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Mary C. Daly:

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. From wherever you’re tuning in, welcome. I’m Mary Daly, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. I’m delighted to welcome you back to our third conversation about the New Future of Work. In our first two meetings, we looked at the benefits and perils of remote work and the future of our cities. Today, we are going to tackle an even bigger issue: education. Specifically, how can we ensure everyone in our nation has the tools to be successful in the post-pandemic economy?

Our future hinges on these answers. What we do will determine how successful we are in delivering a better future to the generations that follow, and the task will not be easy. The pandemic exposed just how unevenly educational opportunity is distributed in this country. The credentialing system in the U.S., four-year colleges, is not hitting the mark for very, very many. Access, time commitment, and cost pose real challenges for a growing share of Americans who need to be job ready to support their families and their communities. At the same time, the business world is changing at a rate that makes skill acquisition a lifelong journey, not something you do in your 20s.

These are not new issues, but they are far easier to see through the lens of the pandemic. The hope is the solutions will be easier to see as well. And so we have an opportunity. In the wake of COVID-19, we can reimagine what a good education looks like and how the system can support lifelong rather than one-and-done learning. With thought and intention, we can make this a reality. But we can’t do it alone. So I’m grateful to have three guests joining me today who are on the front lines of these issues in their day-to-day work.

Our first distinguished guest is Dr. Peter Blair. Peter is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He’s an expert on workforce credentialing and development, among many things. He’s also one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter. He’s thought provoking, courageous, and backs up what he says with research and experience.

Our second guest is Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy. The Khan Academy serves over a hundred million users across 190 countries and has been a vital resource for many years. I know I’ve used it myself. Sal has long been recognized as a visionary and a pioneer in education, named one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People in 2012. For many who rely on his academy and the other tools and services he creates, Sal is simply a lifeline to a better future.

Our final guest is Dr. Astrid Tuminez. Astrid is president of Utah Valley University (UVU), an institution that began as a technical college and now serves nearly 42,000 individuals seeking everything from a six-month certificate to a master’s degree. Astrid is UVU’s first female president. She combines a long and global career in the private sector—notable companies like Microsoft—with a deep passion and commitment for ensuring everyone has an opportunity to pursue their goals and contribute. UVU students are lucky to have her.

Peter, Sal, and Astrid, thank you so much for being here, and let’s get started. Now, when I see the work that each of you do, it’s apparent that you are driven by a passion to contribute. So I’d like to start with that, because I know our audience will be eager to learn more. What personal experience informs the work you are doing? Astrid, I want to start with you.

Astrid S. Tuminez:

Thank you, Mary. It’s a great honor to be here. I was born in a little village in the middle of nowhere in the Philippines. I was the sixth of seven children. When I was two, my mother moved us to the city of Iloilo so that the kids could have a better opportunity for education. I literally grew up in a hut on stilts in the water with a grass roof and bamboo walls. And what changed my life completely was that when I was five years old, Catholic nuns from The Daughters of Charity found my family and gave us an opportunity to attend their school. So I learned to read. I learned to write. But even more important, I think, was the explosion of my imagination. As education became available, I began to imagine the things I could be. I said to myself when I was 10 that I would move to New York City and work for the United Nations. So those are just wild ideas that came to my head as a child. Education changed my life completely.

Mary C. Daly:

Thank you, it’s such an inspiring story every time I hear it. Sal, can you talk a little bit about your early beginnings and also how you became so passionate about the things you do?

Sal Khan:

I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. My mom raised me and my sister. My dad came as a doctor, but then they separated very early. And so, my mom, I saw her make ends meet. I have to give credit to the public school system in Metairie, Louisiana that gave me a lot of opportunities. What really put me on my path towards Khan Academy was, I ended up working in tech, then I went to business school, then I ended up becoming an analyst at a hedge fund—and then before I knew it, my cousin, she was visiting me for my wedding. It just came out of conversation, her mother—my aunt—told me that she was having trouble in math. So I offered to tutor her remotely. She was in New Orleans. I was in Boston at the time. And then word spread in the family that free tutoring was going on. So before I knew it was, I was working with 10, 15 cousins, family, friends every day after work for me. And then I started writing software for them, started making videos for them. And before I knew it, people who are not my cousins were watching. And so that was really the genesis of what brought me in.

But even before that, I’ve always been fascinated by almost any issue on the planet. If you really keep peeling the onion, it does boil down to an issue of education. It does feel like we have a unique opportunity and maybe a unique responsibility right now to leverage some of the tools that we have at our disposal to make it more accessible.

Mary C. Daly:

Yeah, hear, hear on the unique opportunity and responsibility. Peter, what about you?

Peter Q. Blair:

Well, first off, Mary, thank you so much to you and the team at the SF Fed for hosting this, and I feel honored to be in your company, Astrid, Sal, Mary. Just hearing your stories brings a smile to my face because it reminds me of how universal the story is of the importance of education in each of our lives.

Similar to Astrid, I grew up in a small island nation, the Bahamas, and both of my parents were educators. My mom taught everything from preschool to college. One of the things that she did very early in her life was she founded a preschool and that’s where I got educated. I remember the foundational way in which going to that preschool impacted my educational trajectory for the rest of my life.

Another layer for me was this idea that I started in community college and from there I had the opportunity to go to some amazing private universities and also to teach at amazing public universities as well, Clemson University. From seeing all of these different facets of higher education and recognizing that the way in which people interacted with me depended on my institutional affiliation, even though I myself was not different, it made me think a lot about who were the people that were missing from these elite and privileged spaces and how could I dedicate my life to helping to make sure that their voices were heard and that in the future that they would have a seat at the table.

That’s really driven a lot of my work, especially the most recent work that I’ve done with Opportunity@Work, where we’re really trying to understand the extent to which workers without college degrees can be recognized for the skills that they have and can be provided with opportunities for making upwardly mobile transitions in the labor market.

Mary C. Daly:

Well, that’s terrific, and I can see through all of your stories that you share this idea that we owe it to people to give them an opportunity, as Sal you said, peeling the onion. It comes back to education. So you all touched on some of this or hinted at it in your stories. But I’d like to ask a very blunt question, if you will. What do you think is a key problem or failure in our current system of education and skills training? Peter, I’m going to lead off with you.

Peter Q. Blair:

Excellent question, Mary. A lot of my own research here at the Graduate School of Education is driven by trying to identify what are some of the market failures in our educational system and how do we find alternative labor market credentials that can overcome that.

One of the biggest market failures in my mind is the way that we see people in terms of their skills. Oftentimes we think about workers who are skilled as being workers who have college degrees. And what that does is it encodes into the labor market the historical discrimination that has precluded African Americans in the U.S. from gaining access to higher education. One of the key messages from the work that I’m doing in partnership with colleagues at Opportunity@Work is to say that college indeed is a pathway. It shouldn’t be the only pathway. We have to find creative ways to recognize the skills that people gained through experience at work, the skills that someone might gain, for example, through running a family or a household. There are tremendous amounts of skills that are embedded in that. And [we have to] find ways to create labor market signals that can be recognized by firms that can help to translate that into higher wages.

Mary C. Daly:

Thanks. You know I’m reminded that when a friend of mine, one of the people she knew was applying for college and she said, “I don’t have any of those work credentials.”

My friend said, “Well you take care of the family because your mom and dad work and you’re home, taking care of them each night. Put those things in.” It was just the idea that experience at home, managing a family or helping out is also experience that’s worthwhile. She did get into college, by the way. So that was terrific. Astrid, can we turn to you? What do you see as one of the main problems in our current educational system?

Astrid S. Tuminez:

Yes, I think one of the main problems is elitism when it comes to higher education. It is extremely exciting to be able to educate the top five, six, or seven percent. I was educated at Harvard and MIT. I also worked at the National University of Singapore. So really instinctively and experientially I understand what an elite education is.

It’s somewhat counterintuitive that I ended up at Utah Valley University. We are open admission, so we admit everybody. And we are a dual mission institution in that we have a community college embedded in a teaching university. Thirty-seven percent of our enrollment is first generation. And last August when we graduated the largest cohort ever in our history, it was amazing to see that out of 6,410 students, 45 percent were first generation.

I think that is so powerful. So the question really, when we talk about affordability and accessibility, is: How do we enlarge that opportunity for students to come in? To, you know, just be told we don’t care about your past—we care about where you are today. We care about your aspirations. We see you as you are, and we want to support you.

Mary C. Daly:

That would be a dream, right, that we could do that more globally. Sal, what about you? Can you give us your diagnosis of where some of the root problems are?

Sal Khan:

Yeah, well, in my mind, one of the biggest—there’s a lot of dimensions here—is that we try to conflate, or we try to correlate seat time with competence. And this really touches on what everyone has been talking about. We know the stats: 70 percent, 7-0 percent, of all kids who show up at community college have to take remediation in math or English.

Remedial math is the community college not saying you need to take 11th or 12th grade math—it’s saying you have to take 6th grade math. Because college algebra, which is essentially 10th grade algebra, is actually considered a weeder course in much of our higher education system.

So what we have is a majority. These are the kids who graduate from high school, who want to go to college. The four-year colleges aren’t much better. Cal State System out here in California, 65 percent of kids have to get remediation in math. Once again, the school saying you’re not even ready to learn 10th grade algebra yet or 9th grade algebra yet.

So we have a system where year in, year out, students, some content is exposed to them: They might get it, they might not. You might get a 90 percent on the exam; I get a 70 percent on the exam. Even though we’ve identified those gaps, even that 10 percent might have been important that you missed. We move on to the next concept that’s probably going to build on those gaps. And especially in, I would argue math and science—but this is also true in pretty much any domain—at some point you’re going to hit a wall. You’re in an algebra class and there’s an equation and it involves dividing decimals from 5th grade, which you never quite understood, or negative numbers from 6th grade, which you never quite understood. And then the algebra is not going to make any sense. It’s very hard at that point to go back and fill in those gaps.

This is a byproduct of tradeoffs that we had to make in the 19th century around how do you scalably educate everyone. Will you just move them all together in a batch? But now we do have tools at our disposal to actually personalize a little bit more and actually allow for mastery. “Hey, you don’t know it yet? I’m not going to put a C in your permanent transcript. I’m going to say you’re just an 80 percent right now. Keep working on the concept.”

And this phenomenon keeps going. Peter was mentioning this notion, this fixation on college. You know, there’s two bizarre things happening there. One is college is for sure not the only way to develop skills. But we also know that many people who are “college graduates” also don’t have skills. So it goes both ways. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll go into a conversation with someone who works in a biotech firm. And I was like, “Oh, so you’re talking about the Krebs cycle from respiration.” And they’re like, “How do you know that?” And I’m like, “It’s 12th grade biology.”

We have such low expectations for competency in our system that people will actually learn the material of high school. I would argue that if you have actually mastered your humanities, your history, your math, your science from high school, you’re actually more educated than most college students who probably can’t tell you what classes they took. So I think this focus on competency and skills and then thinking about it from first principles and also making it much more accessible is where we have to head.

Mary C. Daly:

I want to follow up on that a little bit, because I wrote down some words I think that the audience would like to write down and remember. Mastery and competence over credentialing and just time in place. So whether you’ve attended one year or four years, if you haven’t learned it, it doesn’t matter. And I think that’s how we can make the system more equitable.

But what I’m wondering is: How do we do this in a world that starts off so inequitably? Sal, I want to start with you there. We know that people don’t have the same access to even internet services, and we know that schools are unequally funded and unequally high quality across the country. What do you do when you think about that system? How do we start to get some lift?

Sal Khan:

Well, on the first point, the digital divide has always been an issue. I think in our physical schools we’ve done a good job over the last 10 years of closing it. It isn’t perfect. But then obviously COVID has put a big spotlight on what’s going on at home. The bad thing is a lot of kids fell off the radar. Ten to 15 percent of kids really haven’t engaged in their education in this past year. Those are kids that might have been already the kids that were behind. So that’s going to be a struggle for them—even more reason to provide opportunities and incentives to fill in gaps.

But if there’s a silver lining of COVID, it’s that there’s more energy right now behind closing the at-home digital divide than ever. It’s not just an academic issue, it’s an economic issue. And it’s not just about having one device at home. You have to have enough devices and broadband so that if you have two siblings and your parents are working remotely or looking for a job online, that you can still engage in your work.

The way that we address the issue… It’s not like we’re going to be able to level the playing field overnight, but we need to provide as many supports as possible so that people can have the opportunity and incentive to fill in the gaps, to learn at their own time and pace.

What Khan Academy does—last year we had about 12 billion learning minutes. About half of it is in classrooms. And those teachers are—every teacher will tell you, “I have 30 kids, they’re all in 30 different places. Some are ready to move ahead. Some need to fill in some gaps.” We need to give teachers the power to be able to do that. We have to be able to give families the power to use it at their own time and pace.

And that’s where the other half of our usage is: high quality tutoring. That’s another project I’ve been working on. Schoolhouse.world is another not-for-profit that uses volunteerism, but high-quality vetted volunteers to provide tutoring to students. We’re seeing really powerful outcomes there.

The bottom line is the biggest source of inequity is making it this kind of time-gate thing. Because then when you sort kids, which we do right now, you’re sorting them on where they happen to be, usually in middle school. Then that creates all of these inequities. But instead, if we told everyone, “Look, you are here right now. In order to get job X, in order to go to higher education Y, you need to get there. I don’t care if you’re 16. I don’t care if you’re 26. I don’t care if you’re 36. That opportunity is going to be available to you if you can prove competency.”

Mary C. Daly:

I really love that way of thinking about it, that, you know, one of the biggest sources of inequity is this time-gating we do, so you just advance. I actually think it puts disadvantage on people who might take longer to acquire the skills because it just takes them a little longer to work on it, or, because they get delayed for whatever other reason, they’ve got to take care of family, etcetera, and then they find themselves feeling behind just because the age profile is moved up, the cohorts moved up. But in your model, it doesn’t matter if you’re 26 or 16, it’s just the next level of skill acquisition.

I also just want to say here, I think we’re going to have to face as a nation that internet access is probably a public service, a public good. And if we don’t have it, then you really have this basic inequity that we will always face.

Astrid, I want to turn to you next to follow up on some of this. Do you think this shift to remote learning—which the internet does make possible and Khan Academy makes easier but every school had to do as we moved into the pandemic—do you think from your vantage point, it’s made it harder or easier to reach your most vulnerable students? I’m specifically thinking in Utah about rural students who might not have access to the internet but might have been benefitted because they don’t have to drive so far. Can you talk a little bit about this?

Astrid S. Tuminez:

Yes. And if you would allow me, I want to actually answer the larger question of the divide. We’re talking about a digital divide. We’re talking about quantitative literacy divide. We’re talking about English divide. One of the best things that we do here is we have a K-16 alliance where we actually reach into the K-12 system and then also the technical colleges so that we work together on all the goals, including third-grade reading level, quantitative literacy. Because we get these students that are not prepared, our mandate becomes so complicated to just get them remediated.

Then the public sector has a big role to play. When we talk about the digital divide, the new governor in Utah here has already announced that that is a priority. And during COVID, we have discovered that one of the biggest problems for students is just having broadband, for example. So we’ve tried to provide that to them. And then on top of that, we’ve had to train our faculty as well. So today, 40 percent of our faculty are already certified to teach online.

Finally, I hired a vice president for digital transformation because I believe that the backbone of the university itself—if you are stuck in 20th century technologies and the mindset of your people are not prepared to embrace and experiment and fail and learn from the failure and iterate—you’re going to have big problems. So this is a major investment. But I believe that it is making all of these investments, working with the technical colleges, working with the K-12 superintendents and faculty, and then working with the public sector, the government. Because at the end of the day, universities like UVU still get roughly 50 percent of funding from the state. So it’s sort of this collaborative approach. And then using tools like Khan Academy, taking content from other online sources—these tools are readily available, but you run up against the wall of mental and emotional and social resistance. The largest challenge in leadership is actually breaking these things down.

Mary C. Daly:

Sal, do you see that when you’re talking about the Khan Academy or the tutoring—I guess you’re going to follow your cousins, you come full circle, right, with the tutoring model now. But do you see that there’s resistance sometimes to this kind of model?

Sal Khan:

The way I see it, the tools are already out there and we get letters every day from young people of all walks of life around the world, but many in the United States, who the system had somehow signaled to them that they weren’t capable. But they were highly motivated. They started at basic arithmetic and they got pretty far. They got into physics and calculus and went on to become engineers in physics.

We get letters like that literally every day. But what we’re seeing is exactly that. You need that motivational level and the supports and the contacts. Not everyone has that level of fortitude. The tools are now there if you do. So I completely agree: You have to, one, build awareness that a lot of these tools exist, that they’re out there. You have to, obviously… the digital divide, which we talked about. But I think this whole notion of coaching and mentoring is a really big leverage point, because if you have good coaching and mentoring, then people are going to be able to leverage these types of resources.

Mary C. Daly:

Peter, I want to go to you because I want to change gears a bit. We’ve talked so far about how the individual can find tools, or we can give coaching and mentoring. But with your work, you’ve highlighted how businesses, especially large corporations, need to shift their thinking away from traditional credentialing, like a four-year degree to a skills assessment model. So can you talk about that here? Because it seems that both have to be working if we’re going to really make progress.

Peter Q. Blair:

Yeah, thanks for that question, Mary. Just before I jump into that, I wanted to pull on some of the threads that both Astrid and Sal put on the table. Sal, I completely agree with you that we have to think about learning in the same way that we think about helping somebody to become better at gaming. When you’re playing Super Mario Brothers, if you fail on the first level, you keep working at the first level until you get to the second level. You don’t say, well, I failed at the first level, I’m going to go to the second level or I’m going to quit the game. So I’m 100 percent on board with you in terms of that.

Something else that I wanted to touch on is with the COVID pandemic, we also realized the really important role that adults in the home play in the educational process. If I’m a faculty member and I have a child that’s at home, that child now gets to have a Harvard professor help him or her with their homework on a more regular basis. And so in many ways, what’s happening is providing the technology itself is not enough. And we do need those additional supports that you mentioned as well.

Pivoting now, Mary, to thinking about what is the role that corporations can play in terms of thinking more deeply about how we can hire based on skills versus degrees. A lot of my thinking on this really came out of George Floyd’s very brutal murder. That hit me on a personal level as someone who studies race, and as a black person in America, a black man in America, who myself has had encounters with the police.

I began to think, what is it that I can do in this moment that could touch on both my competencies as a scholar and also my personal experience as a black man in America. And along with a colleague, Shad Ahmed, we wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal where we made the following argument: which is to say that companies in their efforts to address systemic racism, giving money is an important first step. But there’s something deeper that they can do institutionally, which is to change their hiring practices.

In the US, fewer than 40 percent of workers have college degrees. Yet more than two-thirds of new jobs created in America require college degrees. And in many cases, it’s not obvious why you would need a college degree to do certain things, like being a bartender in Washington, D.C. But some of these jobs have these requirements. Moreover, these requirements are not race neutral. They encode the historical injustices and exclusion of black people from the educational system.

Our proposal is very simple: When somebody goes to a job, they’re acquiring skills, and if we can find a way to measure the skills that a worker acquires through their experience on the job, for people who don’t have college degrees, we can come up with an alternative credential. We could recognize that they’re skilled through alternative routes, or they’re “stars” in the terminology that we used, based on the experience that they’ve acquired through their work. Finding a credible way to quantify that and to signal that to employers would allow employers to recognize that someone who is a child care worker—to bring up the example that you mentioned earlier, Mary—has tremendous skills in terms of listening, in terms of negotiation, in terms of problem solving. And the skills developed in that sector can actually be very valuable for higher wage work.

We’ve been pushing the narrative along that dimension to ask CEOs to think very deeply about the ways in which they measure skills and to directly measure the skills that are required for the job, rather than using the college degree as a replacement. I should mention that we’re really proud to see that several companies, including IBM, Merck, American Express, and many others have launched the 110 Initiative, which has committed to over the next 10 years, hiring one million black Americans. This shows us the power of research, it shows us the power of corporate citizenship, and thinking very deeply about how you can bring these two worlds together as a way of trying to address systemic racism in the United States.

Mary C. Daly:

Thank you for that and I think these initiatives are really important. As an economist I think about how does college get to be such an important credentialing system when some of the jobs that are being done don’t require college—which really becomes a screening system. You get thousands and thousands of applications and you can say, “Well, if you get a college degree, these are the subset I’ll look at.” But this has become something that’s as burdensome as it is helpful. And we really do need to think about how to change that.

Now, I have a question for you all. I’ll start with Astrid on this, but I have a question for you all that is: How do we avoid ending up with a two-tiered system?

When I go out and talk about the value of college, for instance, it’s when my inbox fills up with the following: “Not everyone is college ready. Not everyone should go to college.”

Those are usually the sentiments, frankly, of people who have gone to college who then think that other groups don’t really have what it takes to get to college. It’s always made me highly worried about a two-tiered system that we’ll end up with: Credentials are good enough for some folks and then the other folks will go to college and that will make the inequality in the divide bigger, not smaller. So Astrid, I’d like to start with you on that. How do you think about doing these things that are skill-based and credentialing-based—not four-year degrees—but not end up with the elitism that you started off our conversation with?

Astrid S. Tuminez:

Let me go back to the fact that we are open admission, and by the nature of it, it is a much more complex mandate. We say to everyone, come as you are. Utah Valley University has a place for you. We will get high school students who were told that they are not college material. And we basically have to work with them, not just on the competencies and skills, but really the feelings of belonging and pride and self-confidence.

I had a presidential intern last year who was blind in one eye. She was bullied throughout high school and she was told not to apply to college and she came to UVU, became a straight-A student here and is now working on her master’s at Queen’s University in Belfast. She would not have been counted, again, as college material.

We also have to make sure that some of our measurements… we measure completion in six years or eight years. And some of our students take ten years, twelve years to complete because they’re eking out a living, working at the checkout counter at the grocery store. And if it takes them ten or twelve years to complete with a student like that, who is now in a joint PhD/JD program on a full scholarship. She had a drug addiction and overcame it.

The way that we exclude, these are really problematic. Then for us as open admission, we also have to ensure that our offerings, the menu of choices, meet the incoming audience, meet the customer base. So if your aptitude and level of preparedness or your money is only up to a six-month certification today, six month certificate in IT proficiency, we say that’s wonderful, that’s perfect. You can leave, you can come back, do your associate’s degree. You can leave and come back, do your bachelor’s degree. And the beauty of having a community college embedded here is that a student with an associate degree does not have to navigate an entirely new administrative system when she is ready for that bachelor’s degree and then can move on to a master’s degree.

Those are some of the things that we’re doing. It’s complex, it’s difficult, but it is worth doing because we are looking at the 90 to 95 percent that’s out there that has human potential and has aspirations for their lives.

Mary C. Daly:

So when I think about the all the things you’ve said, I raise up two points in particular: that education has to be divisible, right? It’s not so binary as you get into school and you get a degree in four years. You might take it in episodic bursts. But having a place where you can go, where you can get all of those resources and services is incredibly important.

The other thing I hear in the way you talk about it is for you, you’re not looking at these people as some can go to college and some can’t. You just see them on their life journey: Right now they want a certificate, but eventually they’ll want an associate’s or maybe a four-year degree or a master’s degree. So that’s less about what the people are capable of and much more about what’s right for them at the time, given all their other responsibilities. That’s super helpful.

Peter, if I pull on that for you, do you worry about the evolution of skills versus colleges is creating a two-tiered system? And if you do, what is your remedy for that?

Peter Q. Blair:

I want to really reemphasize that college is an important pathway. It shouldn’t be the only pathway. And I really like the point that Astrid made that you pulled out, which is that we really need to meet folks where they are in their life’s journey, whether you’re somebody that can complete a year of an associate’s degree today, and maybe in eight years after you’ve had your kids and you’ve gotten settled into a job you can complete your bachelor’s degree.

I think fundamentally what the pandemic has done is it’s really shifted the way that we think about work, and it’s also shifted the way that we think about education. I have a nephew. His name is Moses. Moses works in a grocery store. And during the pandemic, Moses made sure that families had food, essential workers had food, that even our family had food. And in that moment, we were able to celebrate and value him for the skills that he brought to the table. He does not have a college degree. And I hope that we can take these lessons from the pandemic: That the value that someone creates for themselves and for society can exist based on their skills in a way that’s independent of a college degree. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have access to getting one, but it fundamentally becomes about how do we see people.

Today the gatekeeper credential could be a bachelor’s degree, but even the value of a bachelor’s degree is quickly eroding and now for many jobs, you need a master’s degree. I worry that if we think about this as just who has access to college versus who doesn’t have access to college, that we risk a situation in which there’s this continual rat race towards the next credential, and the next credential, and the next credential. Fundamentally, we have to do what Astrid is saying, which is we have to really see people based on their skills, their gifts, and their competencies, and give them an opportunity to get the credentials that they need, but also to do work that could be meaningful for them. I really want to push on this idea that we have to reimagine how we see people, and we have to think about both educational institutions as well as workplaces as thinking about how can they add value to the individual student or the individual worker, as opposed to just looking at them as creating value for the institution itself.

Mary C. Daly:

I really like that point. It reminds me, interestingly enough, though, that when I came to the San Francisco Fed, I did not go to Harvard or one of the Ivy Leagues and I had gone to Syracuse University. The person who hired me at the time said, “Well, it’s super hard to hire you because if I hire somebody from Harvard and they’re not great, then they’re just not great. But if I hire you it’s because I went to a lower quality school and got a lower quality person.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s a lot of forthcomingness.” But the truth of that is there, right. That we really blind ourselves a bit to what people are capable of and look past their skills oftentimes and look for these reasons to be OK with them. I think it takes the risk out of decision making, but it also completely limits us seeing the talent that we have right before us. So that’s a very good idea that we need to lift above this kind of mindset about credentials matter. We will end up in an incredible race for credentialing after that.

Sal, you’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I see you as one of the people trying to reimagine what education in the U.S. is. When you think about your work and all of the programs you’ve helped start and contribute to, do you worry at all about having two-tiered or multiple-tiered systems in terms of inequity, or do you see it differently as sort of these pathways, as Peter put it to you, to having people be valued for who they are? And can you talk a little bit about that?

Sal Kahn:

I think the status quo is driving a ton of inequity because you have this arms race that Peter is talking about. At the end of the day, people with more resources, more institutional knowledge in their family, they’re going to win that arms race. Whatever the game is, they’re going to play it better. And in the whole process, you have all of these people who are not in the workforce, who are getting into debt, who aren’t making money. The cost of a college education a lot of places is you can buy a house outright, not even a down payment on a house. And then there’s a whole crisis around college debt.

I think the real issue is we’ve always associated college as aspirational and anything that’s an equivalence or something other is somehow a little bit less than. I think we’re about to get into a phase where you’re going to see—once again, it’s not a replacement, I think there will always be a place for college to Peter’s point and Astrid’s point—but I think you’re going to start creating alternative pathways that are sometimes more aspirational than college.

I’ll give an example. Google just announced a Google Certification program. This is a big deal. I think like 50 years from now, we’re going to look back and say, OK, this is when things started to get a little bit interesting, because this sort of certification and people can take the courses on Coursera, a MOOC, it’s free or pretty close to free. If you get through, I think the first one they have is around IT. If you get through that, Google puts you in the same pool as people from some of the top universities in the world. Then they’re going to have a certification in project management. They’re going to have one in design and user interface. They’re going to have one in engineering.

As soon as everyone starts getting the signal that actually it doesn’t matter where you go to college or if you go to college, you need to do this thing, then you’re going to see a lot of people with PhDs and master’s saying, “Oh, wait, I need to go do that six month course on Coursera because my master’s or PhD is actually not getting me the job that I want.”

We all know about the coding boot camps—that’s already happening where if you can code, you have a portfolio, we’ll hire you. If you have a CS degree from even a fancy university, but you don’t have a portfolio and you don’t have mastery, we’re not going to hire you. So there’s already these signals that are being put out into the marketplace. And I think if you go five or 10 years in the future, you’re going to see college grads want to do the six-month programs that are much cheaper.

The other thing I always point out—I point out to every employer—we have all of these hurdles, calculus and trigonometry—and I love calculus, I’ve made hundreds of videos about it—but how many of us really use calculus in our jobs? How many of us really use, frankly, high school mathematics? If you’ve mastered middle school mathematics… I can’t tell you how many people we’ve interviewed who we give them the classic problem where six people go to dinner, and they all order six different things and the tip is 15 percent. How much should each person pay? Most people that we’re interviewing cannot do that. That is a middle school problem, but that is the level of mathematics that you actually need. The level of writing you actually need in most of our jobs, you need to write a cogent, coherent email, put some presentations together. The actual job-specific skills you can probably learn in three to six months.

We have to make the K through 12 system actually give people those core ideas. You know, it’s interesting if you look at the standards from one hundred years ago, what was expected for a middle school student, most of our college students would have trouble with that today. That’s why it was actually very reasonable, you know, a hundred years ago if you had a high school diploma it was considered, like, you’re very employable. I think it’s this issue of mastery. Then we have to create these alternative signals, we just don’t blindly view four-year colleges as the only pathway.

Mary C. Daly:

That’s terrific. I actually didn’t know that fact you just raised, that if you go back, the credentialing or the skill acquisition of high school was higher than it is today. It’s a puzzle as to why we let all of that go.

I’m a labor economist by training and so I tend to think in these terms… if you think about a school, going to school, going to college, you’re really acquiring what labor economists call general human capital. It’s not really specific to the job. You’re just getting some basic ideas. We’ve put a premium in our society on this general human capital. But what you’re saying with Google and others is they really want specific human capital. Can you specifically do the job that needs to be done? And for that, you often don’t need all of these other things that you would get in a college education. And it just allows education to our skills-training to be more equitably distributed.

If I think about that though, I have a question I want to follow up on. We’ve so far been talking about skill acquisition that’s K through 12, college. I know it can go beyond that and Astrid you’ve already noted that. But let’s talk a little bit about lifelong learning because it feels like the world is changing so rapidly that if you acquire a skill now, you’re most likely going to have to, even if you have a PhD, go to the Khan Academy or Coursera and find yourself getting additional skills going forward. How do you think about lifelong learning? Let me start with you, Astrid.

Astrid S. Tuminez:

The way that we think about lifelong learning here at Utah Valley University is, first, what is the gamut of human potential? If you think about Brazil looking for soccer players, they look in the slums, they look in the middle class suburbs, and then they look in the mansions. They look for talent everywhere. So what is the gamut of human potential? At UVU we just define that as everybody. We have a center for autism. We just got a $1.9 million dollar grant from the Department of Education to continue our training and support for students on the autism spectrum and also training their families. So that gamut of human potential has to be broader.

Then I guess you have to look at how you do more inclusion. For example, if you look at the population of Utah where we see the Latino population growing, we have really, really focused on that. So we’ve now become the largest educator of Latinos. Our graduation completion rates in the last ten years have gone up more than 350 percent in both categories. It is a certain level of detail and an intentionality.

Mary C. Daly:

Peter, what about you, when you think about lifelong learning? Do you see it as Astrid did, it’s access and it’s encouraging people over time—or is more needed?

Peter Q. Blair:

I think that lifelong learning is really important because for the moment, we think about college effectively ending when you’re 25. If you don’t get your bachelor’s degree within that time window, it’s really difficult for you to get that. And that’s a problem because what about the generations of folks who’ve already missed that window? How do we make sure that we reach out to them? Moreover, as the future of work is going to require more skills and more rapidly depreciating skills, we have to think about ways in terms of how we can reskill even workers who have college credentials.

I want to hearken back a little bit to this idea of credentialing and credentialing being provided by the private sector. I think that this is incredibly important, what Google is doing and what so many other companies are doing in terms of creating these credentials. I want to say that I think about education a bit more broadly in terms of, as Dr. King said, “Education is really about preparation for citizenship.”

We saw this very starkly on January 6 when the Capitol of the United States was besieged. A big part of our educational process has to be about training folks to participate in a representative democracy, and thinking about how do we also create a social partnership that allows for us to recognize our interdependency during times like the pandemic.

My vision really is for us to think about how corporations can work in concert with traditional educational institutions. And in addition to that, we have to think about how even within the corporations themselves, they can be reskilling workers who are also there. I do worry that with the rapid depreciation of certain types of skills, that a worker who gets even a very nice certificate from a company today, in three years when those skills have depreciated, unless we have a very robust plan for reskilling that worker, that worker is going to be easily displaced by the high school student who’s coming out with the newer, shinier certificates. I just want to put that in there to trouble the waters just a little bit so that we can zoom out and think about what is an ecological view of the role of companies, of institutions, of higher education, and also the broader society in terms of really saying, “What does the educational product look like?”

Astrid S. Tuminez:

Mary, if I could add quickly to the idea of lifelong learning. One of the big things that we’ve been doing here is our adult learner initiative. So there are thousands and thousands of people in Utah with some college, no degree. We’ve called or emailed or texted about 6,000 of them and we got about 3,000 of them to reenroll, and about 560 now have completed their degrees. So lifelong learning—in and out—come back and finish your degree.

Another thing that we’ve done in partnership with the governor’s office during COVID is the Reskill and Upskill program. For $1.6 million, we’ve been able to educate 915 people, both in academic [and] non-academic programs. We actually had about 3,000 applicants. These are people who lost their jobs. We prioritized those who lost their jobs during COVID. So there is a hunger out there for reskilling and upskilling. And alongside regular academic programs, we’re offering AWS certification, Microsoft certification. These are real numbers, real people getting something from the university and being able to say to themselves, “I can go out now with a refurbished resume and get something better, or at least get reemployed.” This is all very non-linear, almost unusual, really, in a college and university setting.

Mary C. Daly:

It’s going to be so incredibly important, both what Astrid and Peter said. It’s a dynamic economy and people get displaced from their sector or their job all the time, and then they have to reskill if they’re going to be competitive or be able to replace the lost income. That’s the concept of lifelong learning: It’s not just you go over time and get more education; it’s that you have to retrain. I think I did find myself on the Khan Academy website learning about some things that I needed to do for my research I was doing, because it was just a good and easy way to think about getting that information. Not for a certificate, but just to be better at what I was trying to accomplish.

Sal, thinking about that, how do you think about the work you’ve been doing as it fits into this lifelong learning? And where do you think more is needed?

Sal Khan:

Yeah, I’m just agreeing with Astrid and Peter. You know, we see what’s happening here… And I tend to run optimistic, but we have some of the largest pools of labor about to get disrupted: the largest employer of 18 to 55 year old men in the U.S., and actually much of the world, is driving some type of a vehicle. We know what’s going to happen there in the next ten years. Right after that is retail: cashiers. We know what’s happening there. There’s already automated stores being created. You’re going to have major disruption to the labor pool. A lot of people point to the industrial revolution, say, “Yeah, you know, horse and buggy drivers went away, but all these new jobs got created and et cetera, et cetera.”

But there is something fundamentally different about this inflection point that we’re in because with artificial intelligence and computers’ ability to information process, it’s going deeper into what we humans have historically viewed as uniquely our domain. That genie is already out of the bottle. So what we need to do is really aggressive ways. And I think it’s all hands on deck. It’s not one path, one solution that’s going to solve it, but it’s multiple layers of support.

So I think you have to absolutely provide the credentials, the certificate programs, the badging that allows you to move. Then you have to have the probably primarily online support so that, you’re driving a truck, but you know that job might not be there next year. When you’re at the truck stop you can get on one of these online tools and start reskilling wherever you are. We have people who, when they were deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq and they were bored, they were learning their math. Like literally someplace in some part of Kandahar or something like that. And similarly, you learn at a truck stop so that you can continually reskill. But then we know that’s not going to be sufficient for everyone. So you’re going to need more and more supports.

I think actually the in-person programs, the places where they’re going to be really valuable, is providing that community, that mentoring, that support. The two-year and the four-year universities that really index on that human element to help them—help students do well on these external benchmarks—super important.

And to Peter’s point, I couldn’t agree more about the kind of the civic awareness and all of these things—you could almost call them intangibles. What I always emphasize is in the university system everything is studied very deeply except their own return on investment. I have a lot of love for a lot of university systems, the work Astrid is doing, et cetera, et cetera. But when you’re—and I know Astrid isn’t charging $50,000 a year—but when you are charging $50,000 a year… It’s amazing in EdTech when we—and they’re asking the right questions—when we go to a school district and they’re like, “Hey, you’re asking for 45 minutes of our student’s time, we know you’re free, Sal, but show us research studies that show that that 45 minutes has a return.” We have fifty research studies that we say, look, this is going to grow the students by twenty percent.

We really don’t have the equivalence that when one university charges $50,000 versus another university is free, that that $50,000 is actually driving a return on investment. There’ll be some hand waving about, “Oh well we’re teaching kids how to think.” It’s this holistic thing and it’s very hand waving, but there should be some outcomes about it. Do the kids—are they more likely to vote? Do they understand democracy ten years later?

These things you see on late night talk shows where they go interview people about how many branches of government are there and name one Supreme Court… If you actually do that to random people, you will get responses like that. People don’t know.

If you couple that with a large number of 18 to 55-year-old men being laid off and angry in 10 or 15 years, January 6 will look kind of like a warm-up. That’s definitely not a scenario that we want to get into. I do think lifelong learning is the solution here.

Mary C. Daly:

I completely agree. One thing it reminds me of, Peter, Astrid, and Sal—what all of you have said is that is when you look back to the liberalization of trade policy… I know this doesn’t sound like it’s going to be related, but it is. Look at globalization. We told people, “Look, it’s going to be better. The pie is going to get better. Everything is going to be wonderful. Don’t worry.” But that wasn’t actually true, because if you were part of the transition dynamics, if you were part of the group that got left behind and you didn’t get any vehicles for retraining yourself, then you were left behind for a long period of time. And we see some of the ills of that around us. I see this lifelong learning piece as also a commitment and a mindset that we have to continue to train our people to live up to their potential and all the economic changes that we face, not just in a few of those.

Peter, before I go to my last question here, I want to go back to you, because Sal’s been talking about—and Astrid comes from a big community public college—do we get a rate of return from our colleges. How do you think about getting a rate of return from elite colleges and universities in the country, which you’re a part of? How do you think about that as you balance out all these other things we’ve been discussing?

Peter Q. Blair:

Sal is asking exactly the right questions and these questions of inequality are something that deeply animate me in terms of my own research. I’ll share a personal story with you. When I first came to the U.S. after finishing up my studies at the College of the Bahamas, the cost of the cheapest meal plan at Duke was the cost of my tuition at the community college. And so for the first week that I was at Duke, I could not bring myself to order anything except things off of the one dollar menu at McDonald’s because I felt like I was eating somebody’s tuition and then my tuition itself could have paid for 13 to 20 people.

That is a cross that I’ve borne for a really long time as I’ve sat in institutions where I’m tremendously privileged and very grateful to be in these institutions. But I also note the people who are not there and the immense cost that it takes to educate someone at a place like a Duke or Harvard. And I do believe that we have a great social responsibility to think about who has access to these schools.

That’s one of the reasons why with a colleague at Wharton, I’ve been studying why is it that elite places like Harvard and others have not expanded the size of their undergraduate classes for the past two to three decades? That’s a question of research for me. Also thinking about the extent to which our institutions are funded using federal dollars at the same time that we’re able to get a lot of donations from philanthropists.

All of these are really important, tough questions to ask. I believe that COVID-19 has put a big spotlight on this. When resources came out for the CARES Act and many institutions got these resources, folks started asking the hard questions: Why does elite institution X deserve to get ten million dollars from CARES when you have an HBCU that’s struggling to keep the doors open? We have to, as institutions, be very proactive in terms of articulating the value of our institutions, but also recognizing what are some of the areas in which we might be able to be our brother’s or sister’s keepers.

I think there are a couple clear things that elite institutions can do in this ecosystem. One is we should think about ways to partner with community colleges, to partner with historically black colleges and universities, to create more access points to higher education in a way that’s going to be very collaborative. The collaboration between Fisk and Vanderbilt in terms of creating pathways for minorities into physics and astrophysics is a great example of how we can work together. As Astrid mentioned earlier, I think that there’s a role for both elite institutions, community colleges, and other institutions to play, but we have to really begin to work together and to think about ways that we can more equitably distribute the resources that are coming from both philanthropy but also that are coming from the government.

Mary C. Daly:

Thank you. I’ll put in my one rate of return marker that I’ve often wondered about is, if you’re going to admit students to the university, but your graduation rates are very low for those students and now they’ve got debt, that seems to me to be an easy metric we could hold universities to. To say you’re responsible for them if you let them in, you better work really hard to ensure that they matriculate. Otherwise, it’s not necessarily the right rate of return for them.

We are coming up to the end of our time and I’d like to ask one final question. I call it my magic wand question because it has a magic wand in it. But if you were in charge for a day and you had a magic wand, meaning you could do everything quickly, what is the one thing you would do to put our education and skill-building system on the right path? Sal I’m going to begin with you.

Sal Khan:

Well, I’ll finish right where I started. I would move to a very strong competency-based system where you have a whole portfolio of skills that are there. You know in real time what the demand is for these things from the job market, but also maybe how useful they could be in life—once again, not everything is about getting a job—and even some prediction about the shelf life of those skills, not just what you would make on the first job.

And then there’s completely accessible—I’m talking free or close to free pathways—where you can have MOOCs, Khan Academy, where you have all the material you can learn at your own time and pace. But there’s also free tutoring, mentoring, support, things like Schoolhouse.world. And if you need more support than that, you can go to your—ideally the K-12 system is already plugged into the skills dashboard—but for sure, the community college and the accessible four-year colleges are also really focused on that. And then I think you have a nice streamlined and it goes through your whole life to our previous conversation—so it’s not that there’s a stigma if you’re 35 or 45 years old and you’re trying to get some of those skills that are like, hey, what went wrong in your life earlier?

Mary C. Daly:

That’s a good question to ask and to change: What went wrong in your life earlier? Nothing, really. Peter, what would you do with your magic wand?

Peter Q. Blair:

All right. I’m going to fake imagine that I have a magic wand. I think something that’s really important is to recognize first that education and skill formation happens both in traditional centers of learning, but it also happens in workplaces. And that recognition is going to be really important because it’s going to shape the way in which we create the incentives for companies to invest in the skills of workers.

Right now, if I as a company invest in a piece of technology or a computer, that computer depreciates. I can write that off against my taxes. But if the skills of my workers depreciate, I can’t write that off against my taxes. This naturally is going to create an incentive for firms to invest in technology rather than to invest in labor. So structurally we’ve created the wrong incentives from government policy in terms of investing in labor.

The second piece that I would add to is that we have to think more expansively about lifelong learning and in particular, we have to be intentional about embedding what are those key moments where somebody is going to take a chance to reskill? I like the examples that Sal gave, which is to say the truck driver stops during their truck driving—they can pick up Khan Academy and they can reskill.

I think we also have to layer that on with an obligation from companies and also from colleges to really embed natural break points for folks to come back and to reskill. As a faculty member, every seven years I get one year of sabbatical to go and to catch up on the literature and to refresh my skills. What would it look like for somebody who was working at a medium- or low-wage job to have something that looks like a paid sabbatical, where they can go to community college or they can go to a state school, or they can come to Harvard and they can reskill, or they can go to Khan Academy and sit for three months and learn what are some of the new skills that they need to have. So that would be what I would do with my magic wand.

Mary C. Daly:

OK, Astrid, you’ve got the magic wand last.

Astrid S. Tuminez:

If I had a magic wand, I would make higher education as affordable as possible and there are many roads towards that end. You can make it completely free or have more Pell grants or charge people after they’ve completed their credential and already have a degree. I would also focus on exceptional accountability, that return on investment that Sal talked about.

We were delighted that in August 2020, UVU was ranked by Business Insider as the third highest in return on investment on that education. We have a magic tool already at hand for the American Dream, defined by Professor Raj Chetty as the probability that a person born in the lowest quintile of the economic ladder could reach that top quintile. Education is really the way to do it. It leads to better health, all these better outcomes great for the economy. We have to scale it. The next hundred million dollars shouldn’t go to Harvard. Sorry, Peter. It should go to places like UVU because a hundred million dollars, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out, makes zero difference to you guys. It will change the trajectory of hundreds of thousands of students in an institution like UVU.

Mary C. Daly:

So I wish I had three magic wands, because if they were real, we would have so much more that we were doing. Our time of course, always comes to an end. I’m sorry to see it end this time. Astrid, Peter, and Sal, thank you so much for joining me and discussing openly what we need to do to ensure that every American has the educational opportunity they deserve.

As many of you know, I dropped out of high school at age 15 and I didn’t rejoin the educational system until I was 18. And I did so then only because one person encouraged me, saw more in me than so many others had. And as we’ve heard today, we need to work on the infrastructure of education. We need to build a more inclusive system that allows people to stretch and grow no matter what their circumstances, and then to continue to do that throughout their lives. But that will only be a start. To really change the face of opportunity in America we need to change our mindset and believe that all fruit sellers from the Bahamas, any young girl who grew up in poverty, and every child of immigrants can be a Harvard professor, run a major university, or invent a free educational resource for all.

We are literally a nation filled with talent. The job ahead, as we’ve heard today, is to recognize that and do our part to lift that talent up. In the end, we need stories like Peter’s, Astrid’s, Sal’s, and mine to be typical, available to everyone and supported by all of us. And that, of course, includes everyone listening.

A big thanks again to all our guests and everyone who joined us today. We look forward to our next conversation on the New Future of Work, when we’ll tackle what a hybrid model of work really means and how we can promote diverse and inclusive cultures within it. Stay safe, be well, and we’ll see you next time.

About our speakers

Mary C. Daly is president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and helps set American monetary policy as a Federal Open Market Committee participant. Since taking office in 2018, she has committed to making the SF Fed a more community-engaged bank that is transparent and responsive to the people it serves.

Dr. Peter Q. Blair is on the faculty in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University where he co-directs the Project on Workforce. He serves as a Faculty Research Fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and the Principal Investigator of the BE-Lab. His research group focuses on the link between the future of work and the future of education, labor market discrimination, occupational licensing, and residential segregation. Dr. Blair received his doctorate in Applied Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, his master’s degree in Theoretical Physics from Harvard University, and his bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Duke University. He is the youngest of his parents’ seven sons, and got his start understanding markets by selling fruit and vegetables in the Bahamas in the Nassau Straw Market with his brothers.

Sal Khan is the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, a nonprofit with the mission of providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. He is also the founder of Khan Lab School, a nonprofit laboratory school in Mountain View, California. Sal’s interest in education began while he was an undergraduate at MIT. He developed math software for children with ADHD and tutored fourth- and seventh-grade public school students in Boston. He holds three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Khan Academy offers free lessons in math, science, history, grammar, and many more subjects for students from kindergarten through college. Today Khan Academy supports more than 200 school districts in the U.S., and more than 100 million registered users access Khan Academy in over 40 languages from more than 190 countries.

Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez is the seventh president of Utah Valley University (UVU). She was born in a farming village in the Philippine province of Iloilo. When she was two years old, her parents moved their family to the slums of Iloilo City, seeking better educational opportunities for their children. Dr. Tuminez’s pursuit of education took her to Brigham Young University in the United States, where she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and Russian literature. She later earned a master’s degree in Soviet studies from Harvard University and a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before UVU, Dr. Tuminez was an executive at Microsoft; served as vice dean of research at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore; and worked in philanthropy and venture capital in New York City. She has three children with her husband, Jeffrey S. Tolk. In her spare time, she enjoys running, dancing, and traveling.

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