Scaling Access to Economic Opportunity with Dr. Annelies Goger at Brookings Institution

April 26, 2022
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Checkr chats with Dr. Annelies Goger, Fellow at the Brookings Institution, about practical ways to fix the failures of our systems to build pathways to economic stability.

Dr. Annelies Goger is a Fellow at Brookings Metro in the Brookings Institution. She is published broadly in the areas of workforce and economic development, global supply chains, human-centered design of programs and services, and the business role in cultivating talent.

Passionate about closing the opportunity gap and recalibrating our economy and society to work for more people, she is currently working with Brookings Senior Fellow, Dr. Rashawn Ray, on a project to scale access to quality educational opportunities, job readiness, and experiential learning for people transitioning from prison to society using virtual reality technologies.

We caught up with Dr. Goger ahead of her session at TEDxSanQuentin to discuss:

  • Her current projects around understanding and closing the opportunity gap
  • Innovative and alternative paths to meaningful career opportunities, including training and education using tools like virtual reality
  • The importance of context and qualitative data in tackling issues

Let’s get to the interview!

Hi Dr. Goger! Could you tell us about your role as Fellow at Brookings Metro and what influences your work there?

Dr. Annelies Goger: I am an economic geographer by training. I have a PhD in economic geography and a masters in city planning which are both very interdisciplinary fields. I like to work on things where I'm connecting the dots rather than staying in one discipline and trying to advance in a narrow way. I think of myself as an integrative thinker and a systems-focused person.

What influences much of my work at Brookings is my experience as a first generation college student and someone who grew up with a working class background.

There’s a cultural narrative in the US that says: all you need to do is work hard and you can achieve anything. I didn’t see that pan out in my own family. Despite hard work, there are many structural factors that keep people from experiencing economic stability, let alone, real success, both financially, but also, holistically, as people. Success can mean not feeling stressed all the time, not having to worry about paying the mortgage, property taxes, or rent, or not having to work multiple jobs at the same time.

In this time of rising inequality and the growing use of digital tools which threaten to further the distance between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, it’s really important to me to explore the lack of attention on the multitude of structural ways we aren't giving everybody a fair shot to succeed.

We need a system that functions as a system to support people to achieve their career goals.

The project I’m working on now related to reentry looks at the problem from that point of view. It's hard to think of another population in the US with more structural disadvantages in the labor market than those coming out of prison trying to get a job.

That’s partly for institutional and cultural reasons—focusing on punishment and not supporting the reentry process—but it's also due to cultural norms and stigmas we perpetuate every day.

For example, I was listening to the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, where they were still using terms like ‘criminal’, ‘convict’, and others that conjure up an image of a monster who needs to be put away. That kind of language is so normalized in our culture, which is not the case in most other countries, at least not in advanced and wealthy countries like ours. It’s very unique to the US.

I’m passionate about leveling the playing field for people and ensuring that we think at the systems level. I’m focused on how we can set people up to succeed rather than blaming the individual for the failures of the system.

What are the current projects you’re working on?

Dr. Annelies Goger: I have a few projects that I'm currently working on which are all at various stages.

The first is a project to scale access to earn-and-learn opportunities at the state level. I’m working with three states that are on the cutting-edge of systems-building. These states aren’t focused on one-off apprenticeships run by a single employer. They’re focused on building institutions and multiple pathways into a good job.

For example, if an individual is interested in a certain career path, they could take the traditional college route, an apprenticeship route, or a modularized digital credential route. Eventually, individuals could make their way through these various routes, transfer across the various pathways, and even shift between industries without having to start from scratch. No matter how someone is accessing education and learning, there’s an option to continue advancing or even transition to a different career at any point and get credit for what you already know, whether it was learned in a formal classroom, in the military, or on-the-job. We make it easier for people to navigate their economic options in terms of their career.

Many countries already have systems like these in place. However, in the US, people are essentially told that if they don't get on the college path then they’re on their own to figure it out.

We’re not investing enough in creating opportunities for people who are earning in low-wage jobs, people who are not satisfied with their job, people who are displaced from their job or are out of the labor force, either because they had a child or they're incarcerated, and now are trying to get back in.

These are all friction points at which we don't have real institutional infrastructure in place. We have lots of separate funding streams and programs here and there, all of which have separate application processes. Instead, we need a system that functions as a system to support people to achieve their career goals.

The second project is related, but it's more focused on the back-end and the technological infrastructure that we would need to support the kind of system mentioned earlier. I’m thinking a lot about transforming and updating the technologies we have to get information about the labor market. For example, data around who's working where and in what industries, what skills they have, their earnings data, wage trackers, etc. The data systems we use to record that information now are outdated and in many cases the data are manually reported.

I’ve personally done data entry for my dad, who owns a very small business. That experience makes me think about how many errors there must be if we’re asking someone to manually enter data about wages and employees  every quarter.

We are the wealthiest country in the world, we are home to Silicon Valley, and yet—our infrastructure is stuck in a static admin data set world.

I think we can get to a much better place. We are the wealthiest country in the world, we are home to Silicon Valley, and yet—our infrastructure is stuck in a static admin data set world. We need to move that needle by making the data easy to report and automated, to the extent possible.

I’m also working with stakeholders across a variety of organizations, looking at digital credentials, learning records, and other technologies being deployed in education and career pathways.

Back in the day, if you wanted to apply for a job, you would reply to a help wanted ad or you might have gone online to Now, you might go on LinkedIn and the platform algorithmically matches you with jobs similar to ones you’ve been searching for or you’re presented with job ads that match the keywords in your profile. Similarly, the new wave for employers to find employees is to use hiring software that leverages artificial intelligence to filter out candidates.

Big data platforms, labor market tools, education tools, digital credentials, badges, learning management systems, and virtual reality tools—all these new technologies are revolutionizing how people learn and earn.

My project is focused on how to ensure that the decision makers in labor agencies,  the education system, and policy understand these changes. More importantly, I work with them to understand issues of ethics and equity that arise from using these new technologies. Issues that we have yet to set up a regulatory framework for.

For example, I’m working to make sure that we're not reinforcing digital divides, and ensuring we’re giving people control and ownership over their own data. When someone signs up for LinkedIn, who knows how their user data is being used? That's just one example of many, there are many platforms that are using people's data. We don't have the frameworks in place to effectively govern the use of big data, and we need to start working on that. This project is an effort to be a part of that conversation specifically for education and employment data.

The third project I’m working on is about using virtual reality (VR) technology to scale access to reentry support and education. I’ll be talking more in-depth about this project at TEDxSanQuentin.

The reason we like the idea of using virtual reality for reentry is because of its scalability.  It’s relatively inexpensive to get the equipment and it doesn't require an internet connection.

We are not reaching our potential as a country because we're sidelining so many people by not setting them up to succeed. That’s the opportunity gap.

We could easily build a library that you add to over time with programs that have evidence of being successful to support success after release, such as the [Prison to Employment Connection](,invited%20to%20an%20Employer%20Day.) at San Quentin State Prison.

We are working on bringing those programs into the virtual reality environment and making that curriculum available to anyone with access to the equipment, whether in the prison library or by providing access to someone who has recently been released with reentry-focused organizations.

The VR programming allows individuals to experience job readiness training in an interactive gaming environment. Programs could range from doing a mock job interview to experiencing a mentorship meeting with someone who has a conviction record working in a particular industry to talk about how they got there and what tips they might have.

Or, it could be a full on course that gets you a GED, a college degree, or allows you to complete coursework toward your apprenticeship. That way, when you come out, you're ready to add work experience.

There is enormous potential for short-term job readiness training but also programming for longer-term education and services. Given how few resources we invest in both reentry services and education, there’s a huge opportunity to scale.

This project is in its early stages while we try to secure partnership support. We have piloted some content from Marcus Bullock, who runs Flikshop, an app that lets you send photos to prisons and jails as postcards. He has a training program on entrepreneurship, the Flikshop School of Business, where he uses his own personal experience starting a business with a conviction record to inform how he teaches that class. We would like to pull that coursework into the VR environment and then pilot it in particular regions to make sure that it works for the end users before we bring it to scale.

Personally, I’m interested in the user experience piece of this. I’m eager to gather qualitative data from the people using it and hear from them how they’re interacting with the technology, what it means to them, and learn more about their concerns and obstacles. That way, we can start prioritizing what to add to the VR library to respond to those needs.

My colleague and partner on the project, Dr. Rashawn Ray, manages the VR lab and the team doing the technical work. His previous work with VR focuses on interactive training for police officers on de-escalation and reducing racial bias.

Data has the power to compel policy reform and impact change—could you speak about the role of data in telling stories that address major societal problems?

Dr. Annelies Goger: The challenge is not within the data itself. Your data are always shaped by the questions you ask, the assumptions you make, and the concepts you choose to measure.

Context is key. You can tell a story with data about whether or not an individual got a job after release from prison. For example, you could look at the 650,000 people released every year and find out which individuals got a job and which are unemployed. That's one cut of the story—but it removes the context.

Underneath the surface of that big swath of people—there are a lot of different stories going on.

Qualitative data is really useful for pulling apart some nuances of context and shedding light on what lies underneath the data. If you're trying to address a particular challenge or highlight a particular issue, it forces you to consider whether the data you have is even the most relevant to share.

You also have to think about the research questions. If you’re asking someone recently released from prison, “Did you get a job?” Your question implies that getting a job is an individual responsibility and that it is an indicator of success. There’s a certain cultural intonation to what we choose to spotlight and how we frame success. If we asked other questions, we might get a very different story or narrative about success or failure, and we might get a better sense of what combination of factors shape success—rather than just looking at one element.

Your data are always shaped by the questions you ask, the assumptions you make, and the concepts you choose to measure.

For instance, “Did you heal from your childhood trauma?” Or, “How have you been supporting your family? What makes your connections with your family or friends stronger? What is important for your mental health? Is your physical health stable? Do you have access to housing and what else do you need to succeed?”

Those topics are also critical to someone’s success. It’s about what you are and aren’t counting as part of the experience.

I love qualitative data because it goes beneath the surface of what you can extract from a multiple-choice survey with four options. Can you really reflect reality into four buckets? There’s much more richness that you’re losing by oversimplifying with aggregate data.

In the 2020 paper, “

What are the opportunities you see for better integration of reskilling and upskilling as well as any current programs or infrastructure helping to address that need?

Dr. Annelies Goger: As I mentioned earlier, we need to give people multiple pathways into a good job. Some people learn with their hands and learn by doing. They don't want to sit and read a book. Instead of sitting at a desk all day, they want to be out in the world solving everyday challenges.

However, we don't have many opportunities to prepare people for that kind of work. Instead, we tell people to go to college because that's the only way to get a good job. While that’s not true, many people believe that.

Something more hands-on could include cyber security or health care or any kind of engineering. Those types of fields usually require some experience within a particular setting and a particular workplace.

In the US, we used to have a vocational education system until we essentially starved it to almost nothing. We need to rebuild that and make sure that it's modern and updated to our current standards.

Apprenticeships make essential learning more accessible to a lot of people for whom going away to college for four years is simply not a possibility. Many people have kids to take care of and bills to pay—they often can’t survive solely on a part-time job, let alone afford to be a full-time student.

Many people also appreciate the kind of hands-on learning you can get from an apprenticeship. The ability to get out into the world, learn something new, and have a mentor who is going to structure the work as you learn over the course of several years to get you to the point where you’re a professional in that field.

In addition, there's a whole set of new industries and career paths we're chronically under-supporting. Industries that are fast-growing and require quite advanced skills, such as registered nurses—there’s a chronic need for them and we’re simply not producing enough.

The question for me is, how do we generate more pathways into nursing that someone can take even if they have kids at home and childcare responsibilities? How can we build more entryways into nursing for people who can’t take the time away for nursing school? That’s where I see the earn-and-learn model being relevant.

Employers have to help expand the pond and put more effort into figuring out how to appeal to and make career pathways accessible for a wider range of candidates.

You're not going to earn as much as you would working as a full-time employee. Still, that’s a much more sustainable option for many people compared to not working and paying tuition, which presents you with two costs. With an apprenticeship, you're getting the experience you need to move into a full-time job while getting paid. As opposed to seeing money going out the window while you attend college or university, and coming out saddled with debt.

For people who are incarcerated, earn-and-learn may be a better option because they are often coming out with limited formal education, limited work experience, or at least with a break in work experience. Unless you win the lottery, you need a way to survive.

Many states are starting to pilot these programs, but frankly, it is a long-term effort to build a full system rather than just programs.

The point is that there's a lot of talent out there. We are leaving talent on the sidelines. If you, as an employer, exclude people categorically because they have a criminal record, you’re choosing to fish in a tiny pond. For example, MIT and other computer science programs are not graduating enough software engineers to meet the demand. Employers have to help expand the pond and put more effort into figuring out how to appeal to and make career pathways accessible for a wider range of candidates.

Employers pay huge premiums to poach talent from other organizations rather than seeing the investment in apprentices as a way to access more diverse talent. In fact, evidence suggests that when you have more diverse teams you can achieve considerably higher revenue.

My argument about talent investment is not about charity— we are not innovating in the U.S. because we aren't getting our talent on the field. We are not reaching our potential as a country because we're sidelining so many people by  not setting them up to succeed. That’s the opportunity gap.

What can the audience expect from your session at TEDxSanQuentin?

Dr. Annelies Goger: Most of the speakers at TEDxSanQuentin will be speaking about their own personal experiences being incarcerated. Having not been incarcerated myself, I’m going to share my own perspective and personal experience, sharing why I do this work.

Overall, my goal is to paint a picture using data to help the audience understand how the system today works to move people from prison to employment, and discuss some key obstacles that get in the way as well as some potential solutions we can focus on to overcome those obstacles.

My session will be a bit of table setting, or setting the stage, so that when people are sharing their personal experiences, there's a broader framework to put that in.

Thank you so much for joining us. I can’t wait to see your session at TEDxSanQuentin on April 28.

Dr. Annelies Goger: Thank you.

Find more information about Dr. Goger here, and see her most recent work at Brookings Metro here.

You can watch Dr. Annelies Goger's session and all other TEDxSanQuentin sessions here, or by clicking below.


Three Ways to Set People Up for Success After Prison

Watch Dr. Annelies Goger's session at TEDxSanQuentin where she shares three key obstacles to successful reentry and a solution for each.

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“I’m focused on how we can set people up to succeed rather than blaming the individual for the failures of the system.”
Dr. Annelies Goger
Fellow, Brookings Institution

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