The Grand Challenge of Changing How We Train America

Nov 17 2020

JFFLabs, an XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling national partner, today announced its selection of the six workforce boards as key pilot partners of the $6M workforce development Future of Work Grand Challenge. Hear from JFFLabs Director Josh Copus on how a national competition is helping to transform the way the U.S. workforce system prepares workers for the future of work.

I am no longer an unwavering advocate for the workforce system. Let me explain.

I’ve been proud to call myself a workforce professional for over a decade now. My first job after college was with the local workforce board in my hometown of Pittsburgh—or the Steel City, as we “Yinzers” call it. I eventually joined the leadership team of NAWB, a national advocacy organization that represents the interests of the workforce system in Washington.

In DC, where I now call home, I’ve watched the limitations of federal policy and dwindling public investments bolster a false narrative that the workforce system is wholly inept and incapable of tackling the training challenges we face today. That’s not true: Our workforce system is not fundamentally broken—but it absolutely must change.

One thing is for certain as we look to the future—changes will happen from the ground up, not from the top down. Legislation and funding support is still needed, but true innovation arises from “on the ground” community-led activity. Not DC mandates.


The need for innovation is even more urgent in this tumultuous time, when our daily lives have been transformed. How and where we work, learn, and live have become unbound, knitted together by a slew of digital tools and virtual environments. Yet the systems and processes we use to serve the workers who turn to the workforce system for training and other supports remain largely unchanged. On the ground, this work has always been hard, and now it’s heartbreaking amidst the chaos of 2020. Case managers find themselves buried in work, and they’re struggling to personalize support for hundreds of clients while digital learning is undergoing radical changes at an ever-accelerating pace.

Pre-pandemic, we thought one day the technology and business communities would recognize the importance of the workforce system and partner with us to co-create solutions that would serve all Americans—particularly people from underserved communities who have not traditionally benefited from new tools and technologies. That’s because we believe the workforce system is not a relic of a bygone error. Workforce professionals haven’t been sitting on the sidelines, unwilling or unable to prepare for the so-called future of work. They’ve been active participants—aggravated allies even—working in their hometowns to help their communities chart their own futures.

Today, at the apex of a convergence of crises, we’ve reached a crossroads. A handful of workforce organizations see that the world is changing and are expanding their view of what’s possible within the American workforce system. They’re making connections with new partners and integrating the latest technologies into their operations, all in an effort to change the way they do business so they can guarantee that workers facing uncertain futures don’t get left behind.


JFF, New Profit, XPRIZE, and MIT Solve have stepped up to address the need to modernize the American workforce system by organizing the Future of Work Grand Challenge, a set of equity-focused competitions whose goal is to source bold ideas that will lead to innovative new ways to help displaced workers rapidly reskill so they can move into high-wage careers.

For the Grand Challenge, JFFLabs, an innovation and market-facing team at JFF, is leading engagement with the American workforce system by focusing on creating pilots of solutions with workers, evaluating them for effectiveness, and scaling them through partnerships with future-focused workforce boards. Our goal is to equip the U.S. workforce system with tech-driven solutions sourced through the Grand Challenge and thereby increase the access that out-of-work Americans have to the support and resources they need as they manage unemployment benefits, enroll in training, and explore new career opportunities. These workforce boards have joined us in this effort:


This focus on the future may seem to be at odds with my fondness for calling Pittsburgh the Steel City—an homage to a bygone era. You’ll find that many Yinzers do the same, even though people who spend time in downtown Pittsburgh are far more likely to see an autonomous vehicle or a food-delivery robot than they are to cross paths with an iron worker carrying a lunch pail. Pittsburgh has gone through a lot of changes since I worked there. But these changes didn’t happen to Pittsburgh; they happened because the people of Pittsburgh embraced change. In that first job with the workforce board, I had the great privilege to observe community leaders come together from all sectors to design a new future for Pittsburgh.

JFF and our partners in the Future of Work Grand Challenge have a similar goal: We want to design a new future for the American workforce system. Just like the Steel City, the workforce system has an opportunity for reinvention that brings forth changes that will create a more equitable, human-centered, tech-driven approach to helping displaced workers. 

Registration for the $5M XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling competition closes on November 20, 2020. Sign up today at

Catch the latest XPRIZE Future Positive podcast episode about labor, race, and equity here