Launched in 2020 to respond to COVID-19-related needs in the Boston area, the Project on Workforce Summer Fellowship program will be welcoming a third cohort this summer.

Run by the cross-Harvard Project on Workforce, the summer fellowship brings together small teams of master’s students and recent graduates from the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education to tackle reskilling and labor challenges that have worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic. The fellows benefit from the guidance of Project on Workforce staff and faculty members from all three schools. 

Rachel Lipson, the co-founder and director of the Project on Workforce, describes the program as unique, providing the students and recent graduates with hands-on experience with client organizations. “The program is a funnel for people to work in workforce development,” she explains, giving them the chance to engage with “key partners in the field who are doing work at the intersection of labor and education.” Not only that, but the students benefit from the cross-School, cross-disciplinary approach, under the guidance of faculty co-director David Deming, who holds professorships at both the Kennedy School and the School of Education and is the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy; Peter Blair, a faculty member at the School of Education; Bob Schwartz, who served on the faculty of the School of Education; and Joe Fuller, a professor at the Business School.

Lipson is excited about the growth of the program, with client organizations eager to work with the students and graduates. “These days we have more partner interest than we can meet—it’s competitive to work with us,” she says. And the program has evolved over the last two years to grow the knowledge base: 2021 marks the first time the students not only worked on internal deliverables for agencies but also wrote public research briefs released by the Project on Workforce so that other leaders, government agencies, and so on, can learn from the work.

Deming, who also is HKS academic dean, says that making a real-world impact is at the core of the Project’s mission. “Our fellowships create high-value experiential learning opportunities for our students while also making key contributions to critical public policy issues,” Deming says. “I’m very proud of our students and what they have accomplished.”

While the cohort and projects for the 2022 Project on Workforce Summer Fellowship program are being developed, we reflect on a few past participants’ experiences from the first two years in the field.

David Deming headshot.

“Our fellowships create high-value experiential learning opportunities for our students while also making key contributions to critical public policy issues.”

David Deming

City of Boston

Fellows Melanie Shimano EdM 2021, Alexis Farmer MPP 2021, and Ethan Lyle MPP 2022, worked across Harvard Schools and across disciplines to help stakeholders in Boston’s business, nonprofit, and higher education sectors find common ground—helping make sure kids who graduate from high school are prepared for college and career. 

“The biggest thing we found was that everyone is speaking the same language, they just don’t always have an opportunity to do this in the same room,” says Shimano, who previously worked with the city of Baltimore to help expand career pathways for high schoolers in technology. “COVID and the resulting changes in the workforce presented an opportunity for us to showcase this as something different players in the city can come together on. Everyone wants Boston to thrive.”  

The fellows conducted an extensive landscape analysis of all the college and career opportunities for high school students in Boston, encompassing summer opportunities, internships, and Advanced Placement classes, and considered data including participation and retention rates. Using that analysis, the team generated five recommendations for the city around early college and dual enrollment programming, work-based learning opportunities, career guidance for students, unified data and metrics for evaluating the success of college and career readiness programs and initiatives, and centralizing college and career readiness efforts. Because COVID-19 relief funding has made it possible for cities and schools to move new ideas and initiatives forward, the mayor’s office hopes to be able to enact some of these recommendations later this fall.

What has made the teams recommendations resonate in city government, according to Shimano, is that each fellow was able to bring their own perspective and expertise. “Initially, as we were iterating on different ideas, we brought our own perspectives,” she says. “But we soon understood that if we only came at this issue from one angle, we couldn’t reach everyone. The value in having all our perspectives was that we could actually get stuff done.” 

Project on Workforce team, from left: Joseph Fuller, Robert Schwartz, Rachel Lipson, Peter Blair, and David Deming.
Project on Workforce team, from left: Joseph Fuller, Robert Schwartz, Rachel Lipson, Peter Blair, and David Deming. Photo by Jim Harrison

Hybrid and Remote Work in Massachusetts and Rhode Island

COVID-19 has forced employers and employees to consider a future in which work is increasingly remote or hybrid. Fellows Martina Bedatsova MPP 2021, Jonathan Ji EdM 2021, MTS 2022, Andrea Neyra Nazarrett MPP 2021, GSAS 2027, and M. Savio Nicholas MPA 2022 collaborated with Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Michael Kennealy MBA 1997 and Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor to investigate how hybrid and remote work arrangements could affect state economies through their impact on office spaces, housing and migration, and the effect on small businesses—like coffeeshops and convenience stores—that depend on foot traffic. Nicholas, who is especially interested in the future of cities, explains that with increased remote work comes the risk that there will be “less vitality in cities and towns.”

The team interviewed 25 stakeholders in Massachusetts and Rhode Island—from government officials, company employees, real estate experts, community leaders, and small business owners—and analyzed the threats and opportunities that come with hybrid work, ultimately recommending several policy options for each state to consider, including revitalizing downtown areas with new types of public spaces, increasing housing supply and affordability, scaling reskilling programs, and providing incentives to potential employees. The team also recommended that the states consider developing an “innovation corridor” between Boston and Providence that would attract employees and companies to the region.

U.S. Departments of Labor and Education

The federal government is at the center of the policy response to employment transitions stemming from COVID-19. Summer fellow teams working alongside federal agencies focused on how government could respond more proactively, rather than reactively, to the changing nature of work.

Cathy Chukwulebe MBA 2021 and Rodrigo Medeiros EdM 2021 supported the Department of Labor’s Chief Innovation Officer, Chike Aguh EdM 2010, MPA 2013, in understanding how localities could think about sectoral risks stemming from rising automation. Chukwulebe and Medeiros created a framework for a product prototype that could help local officials understand what jobs in their region may be disrupted by technological change. The goal is to be able to take action before employment loss, rather than waiting for displacement to occur. “In the manufacturing sector, I’ve seen the impact of automation on labor,” Chukwulebe explains. “How do we prepare for that? How do we prepare workers for new skill requirements or new job roles that occur when companies invest in new technologies? We should shift the conversation away from ‘Will automation happen?’ to ‘How can we incentivize companies to upskill and reskill employees while investing in new tech to minimize the impact on good jobs?’”

The economic disruption wrought by the pandemic also created a need for a renewed focus on how educational credentials translate in the labor market. Ashley Etemadi EdM 2021, Ashley Hong MPP 2023, and Ari Hilliard EdM 2021 proposed new ideas for how the U.S. Department of Education should guide states in assessing industry-recognized credentials in career-focused education. Collaborating with Senior Advisor Amy Loyd EDLD 2013 and the Office of Career and Technical Education, the fellows conducted case studies of three states to understand how they currently incorporate and define labor market value in assessing program quality. Hong explains that the way that states handle credentialing is a challenge because of a lack of consistent standards and comparable data. “That makes it difficult to serve students in an equitable way across states,” Hong says. “How can we best serve students across the country while also being responsive to each state’s local economic needs?”

Rachel Lipson headshot.

“The program is funnel for people to work in workforce development.”

Rachel Lipson

Jobs for the Future

For Pierce Henderson EdM 2021 and Nakul Nagaraj MPP 2021, the summer fellowship offered an opportunity to combine expertise in labor, public policy, and learning design to support workers whose employment had been disrupted by the pandemic. 

An interdisciplinary team from the Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Ed School, had built an online platform called Skillbase in the spring of 2020 to help boost job opportunities during the pandemic by teaching foundational skills like English language proficiency or basic technology skills. Since one in three job postings now requires these foundational skills, Henderson and Nagaraj devoted their summer to exploring ways to expand the platform’s impact and make that impact sustainable post-pandemic.

And the key to that, they found, was partnerships with organizations like Jobs for the Future who had the capacity and connections to help deliver the resources offered by Skillbase to job seekers and job coaches at state agencies. Indeed, with the support of 78 partners, Skillbase has already provided 11,000 different users with access to high-quality, free resources. 

“There can be a strong network effect when nonprofits band together and use their different channels, institutional capacities, and functions to support projects,” says Henderson. “A lot of the work we did was related to strategy and thinking through what this new business opportunity is that going to look like—what it really means to push innovation forward.”

For Henderson, who has a background in design and designing for learning, pushing innovation forward didn’t mean sacrificing the learning end of the platform for efficiency or profitability. “As someone who’s thought through the science of how people learn and the ways you can create an environment for that, I viewed the platform through a different kind of lens—I carried that with me,” he says. “I think it helped me form better questions and pinpoint certain parts of the site that could be opportunities for further development.”

Read the reports from all six 2021 Project on Workforce Summer Fellowship teams.

Learn about the 2022 Project on Workforce Summer Fellowship here.

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