Adjacent Skills

The NSF invests in innovation and workforce clusters, with a focus on skills for today and tomorrow.

As the NSF invests big in high-tech business clusters and workforces outside of superstar cities, it’s looking to build up adjacent skills so locals don’t have to wait for new jobs. Also, a New York-based nonprofit uses AI tools as a jumping off point to help students build real-life networks.

First Lady Jill Biden announcing NSF investments at Forsyth Technical Community College in N.C. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)

A Research Powerhouse Turns to Workforce

The U.S. National Science Foundation is known for launching the careers of Nobel Prize Winners and science rockstars. Now it’s turning its considerable attention and resources to helping develop the businesses, engineers, and technicians who bring breakthroughs into daily life.

“NSF has been at this job, but now what we’re doing is putting more of a focus,” says Sethuraman Panchanathan, a computer scientist and director of the NSF.

This economic development work is housed in the newly created Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP), and funded in large part through the CHIPS and Science Act. That new directorate is authorized to spend $20B through 2027. Though much of that money has yet to be appropriated, the directorate has already rolled out 10 major projects across the United States.

Those projects are part of a larger push by the federal government—much of it led by the NSF and the U.S. Department of Commerce—to once again make the United States a juggernaut in creating and producing critical technologies, and to ensure that it’s not just the Silicon Valleys that reap the corresponding economic benefits.

“Yes, economic security. Yes, national security. Yes, prosperity for everyone across our nation,” Panchanathan said at a recent event hosted by the think-tank New America.

The Details: The signature investment of the TIP directorate is 10 regional innovation engines, funded at up to $15M for the first two years and placed strategically across the country. 

The partnerships are all about taking burgeoning regional expertise and developing the muscle to take cutting-edge technologies from the lab to the market. The awardees are focused on things like energy storage in Upstate New York, clean energy in Louisiana, and water security in the Southwest. Noticeably and intentionally absent are superstar cities on the country’s coasts.

If successful—and if the CHIPS and Science Act is fully funded—the regions could receive up to $160M over the next decade. About 10–15% of the federal investment is tagged for workforce development, NSF officials say, and over time that could potentially grow to 30%.

“This is the single largest investment that we’re making as a federal enterprise in place-based innovation, driven by science and engineering research, going back over more than a century,” says Erwin Gianchandani, the NSF’s assistant director for technology, innovation and partnerships and head of the new directorate. “You have to go all the way back to the Land Grants Act to really see something that’s comparable.”

Adjacent Skills

Many of the regional engines are run out of research universities. But teaching-focused four-years, community colleges, employers, and community-based organizations are expected to have equal footing. “We care less about who is leading an engine, like an R1 university, and more about who is coming together to make up that engine,” Gianchandani says.

The engine in the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina, for example, is led by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine but has more than 80 partners focused on developing a viable artificial kidney and other kinds of regenerative medicine. Corporate partners include Axiom Space, Epredia, and Oracle.

A major focus of the work in North Carolina and elsewhere is on building the technician workforce.

“The success of those companies is going to be possible only if they have the skilled technical workforce alongside the research workforce,” says Panchanathan.

Critical Timing: Getting the timing right is a major challenge. Building the infrastructure for advanced technologies can take years, time that lower-income workers can’t spare to wait for better jobs. That tension has already come to the fore in Detroit, where nonprofits and community colleges are training up locals for electric vehicle jobs that have yet to fully arrive.

And it’s become a major challenge in the semiconductor industry. In Phoenix, where Intel and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) are building state-of-the-art fabrication plants, Maricopa Community Colleges has hit pause on a popular Quick Start program that was heralded as a national model for training technicians for the industry. 

Hiring for most of those roles just isn’t happening yet.

It’s a challenge Gianchandani and his team acknowledge. Joda Thongnopnua, special advisor for the TIP directorate and former chief of staff to the mayor of Chattanooga, has been intimately involved in building out the innovation engine program. 

In the workforce development piece, he says, there’s a heavy focus on helping locals build adjacent skills as the next-generation technology jobs are still developing.

For example, he points to Osceola County, Fla. The region has developed an infrastructure and talent advantage around advanced chip packaging, an emerging subfield of semiconductor tech. Jobs are expected to grow in both number and complexity as the field develops—but there are already good adjacent jobs available.

The region’s community college, Valencia College, just launched a new optics technician program that takes advantage of that dynamic. Optics technicians are critical to the semiconductor manufacturing process, and they are already highly in-demand in the region in the defense and medical technology industries.

More broadly, Thongnopnua says, electronics soldering is a skill that is in high demand today and will only become more so as the hiring of semiconductor maintenance technicians ramps up.

“The timing of this and the phasing of it is critical,” he says. So too is input from community colleges, state workforce boards, local governments, and community organizations that know their region and its people.

The Kicker: “They're going to provide the level of information necessary for a really coordinated workforce plan that doesn’t just say, ‘Hey, there’s a bunch of high tech jobs coming someday,’” says Thongnopnua.

Social Capital in the AI Age

Connections have always mattered for landing jobs. But they may only be getting more important, thanks to generative AI.

The now widely available technology has made it possible for applicants to write a cover letter or tailor a resume in mere seconds—and has correspondingly made it much harder for applicant-tracking systems and hiring managers to discern who is most interested in and qualified for a job. They can’t tell Andre from Adam, unless of course the person two offices over knows Adam.

Indeed, experts like Julia Freeland Fisher of the Christensen Institute worry that AI will boost the value of social capital at the same time that it may cause it to be in shorter supply. As our lives and our companions become that much more online, she says, there’s a risk that students see their real-life networks shrink.

Organizations such as Basta, a New York-based nonprofit profiled by reporter Colleen Connolly this week in Work Shift, are pushing against that. It’s one of a relatively recent crop of nonprofits that are focused on helping first-generation students succeed by building social capital. Basta embraces AI tools as a way to help students explore careers, but then places a big emphasis on helping them develop the real-life connections they need to land jobs and grow their careers.

Read the full story over at Work Shift.

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Open Tabs

Wealth Gap
The wealth of the median Black family grew by 61% between 2019 and 2022, rising twice as fast as the wealth of the median white family, The Washington Post reported, citing Federal Reserve data. But white families started off so much richer that the wealth gap with Black families still grew by roughly $50K. The gap in 2022 was $285K versus $45K. Most of the rise in Black wealth has been due to rising home values.

Downturns and AI
Artificial intelligence could worsen the next economic downturn by causing large-scale disruptions in labor markets, in financial markets, and in supply chains, Gita Gopinath, the International Monetary Fund’s first deputy managing director, said recently. AI also is likely to threaten a wide range of jobs, including higher-skilled cognitive roles. Gopinath said bigger investments in education and training are essential to project workers from AI labor market disruptions.

Good Jobs
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently launched a commission on opportunities after high school, which will focus on how all students can thrive and find rewarding jobs in an ever-changing global economy. The commission is a nonpartisan, multiyear effort with 26 members hailing from K-12 and higher education, business, medicine, arts, and philanthropy. It will seek to bridge siloed disciplines and sectors.

WIOA Funding
The Senate HELP Committee held a hearing this week on the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Senator Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican and the committee’s ranking member, cited low labor force participation rates while calling for improvements to the law. Several expert witnesses called for increased funding for the fragmented federal job training system, reports Community College Daily.

Federal Aid
California wants students without a high school diploma to be able to access federal financial aid. The proposal from Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic governor, and Sonya Christian, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, relates to the developing master plan for career education. The state is seeking approval from the feds before new regulations go into effect, reports Adam Echelman for CalMatters.

Career Clusters
In response to major shifts in the labor market, Advance CTE has updated its National Career Clusters Framework. The group is seeking feedback on the draft framework, which seeks to provide learners with more personalized paths to living-wage jobs. It also adds stronger career exploration and advising models for educators, while developing language on career readiness that the group hopes can act as a bridge between industry and education.

Job Moves
Sue Ellspermann announced that she will retire as president of Ivy Tech Community College in June 2025. Ellspermann has led Indiana’s two-year college system since 2016, after serving as the state’s lieutenant governor.

Harrison Keller is the sole finalist for the presidency at the University of North Texas. Keller is CEO of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and previously served in several roles at the University of Texas at Austin.

The New Jersey Council of County Colleges hosted me at an event this week, so not much reporting from me here. But I’ll be back next week. —PF