This interview is adapted from a segment in the Brookings Cafeteria podcast called “Coffee Break,” where a scholar new to Brookings introduces their background, research interests, and offers book recommendations. The transcript has been slightly edited from the audio recording.
My name is Annelies Goger and I’m a David M. Rubenstein fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program.
Q: Where did you grow up, and what inspired you to become a scholar?
I grew up in rural, northwest New Jersey, which used to be steel country. But over time, it has become more of a feeder area for the nearby large metro areas and pharmaceutical industry. When I was a child, my mom cleaned houses and waited tables, and my father worked in the construction industry. He later started installing lightning rods on roofs. Neither of my parents have a college education, so I had a working-class upbringing. We lived in an old farmhouse with another family as a way to make ends meet. My mom is also a Dutch immigrant and she came to the US when she was 6.
My grandparents lived under the Nazi occupation in Holland and survived the Hunger Winter of 1944 and 1945. I’ve been thinking a lot about them, recently, because my grandmother just passed away at age 99. My grandfather hid from the German army, which had tried to recruit young Dutch men at the time, and my grandmother hid him in the attic. When they moved here, my mom was 6 and they were trying to leave all those memories of the war behind them. As the oldest child, I was also considered academically gifted in math and science. And so I felt a lot of pressure to succeed and to go to a competitive college.
But on the other hand, we didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have anyone in our family that had been through that process of trying to find financial aid and get into college. So I ended up really teaching myself a lot of that process, although I benefited from having really good schools and some peers that were going through the same process that I was. It was a lot of work to try to figure out how to get into college and how to succeed, including the unwritten rules. I started college as a science and math person, as a pre-med student. Then I started taking sociology classes and realizing a lot about the nature of poverty, the culture of the economy. Once I got into college, I had some mentors that really influence me – Dessima Williams, Shulamit Reinharz, Gordon Fellman, and Laura Goldin.
They inspired me to really start looking into questions around race and gender in society and how the economy affects society, and vice versa. Later on, I went to study city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, where I worked with Karen Chapple researching I.T. training programs – whether community-based models of training were better than government programs or agencies. That was my introduction to workforce development. After UC Berkeley, I worked as a policy evaluator at Social Policy Research Associates, where we researched the Workforce Investment Act and other workforce programs at the time. Later, I went back to school again to study economic geography.
As a policy evaluator, I was studying the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which is for workers displaced from trade, in local areas around the country. I started thinking about globalization and how to address the rapid pace of economic transition. I got really interested in the question of labor market adjustment and change management – not only within the U.S. where you had folks getting displaced, but also on the other side of supply chains, in other countries that the work was going to. For my Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I ended up studying the clothing industry: ethical manufacturing and supply chain governance in Sri Lanka, Europe, and the US.
All that is to say that my interest in economic change and industrial transformation is really rooted in my own history and a deep understanding of the relationship between the economy and society, specifically what it means to build ecosystems to support social mobility and opportunity at a time of rapid change and disruption.
Q: What do you think is the most important issue we’re facing today?
I think that we have two interrelated problems. One is an economic structure problem. So that has to do with economic change and the changing nature of work. The future of work, but also the legacies of trade liberalization and how it has structured the economic geography and our labor markets: a lot of poor-quality jobs that pay low wages. So those structural problems and also growing market concentration in many of our supply chains: the rise of monopolies or oligopolies.
On the other hand, you have weak, fragmented labor market and social safety net institutions. Basically, we have all these programs and funding streams that fund workforce education and training, but they’re really fragmented, uncoordinated, and underfunded. There’s not really an easy pathway either for workers to navigate, when they’re trying to make a career transition, or for firms to try to figure out how to partner with government to identify and attract talent. I’m really focused on that second problem, but I also acknowledge the problems with our economic structure are also very real and people need to be thinking about them.
Q: What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m thinking about how we need a high-level redesign of our education and training systems in the United States. This institutional structure was designed for a very different structure of economy. And so it doesn’t really work for jobseekers or for students and it doesn’t really work for employers very well. Nobody wins in this situation except maybe folks are trying to exploit the market failures. In redesigning that, I’m trying to do research that really highlights some of the directions where I think we need to go.
So, first of all, I think we need to go from a program mindset (of let me find a target population to design a program for) to a system mindset. How do we build something where you can start off in high school, say in the insurance industry in an apprenticeship, but then you can decide after high school to change your mind and get a college degree with that work experience under your belt. It’s not an either-or choice; it’s a both-and option. If I could have had, say, a Google apprenticeship in high school and then go to college after that, I think I would have been much better for me in so many ways, personally, because I would have gotten paid to get this opportunity, see what the workplace was like, and then use that to know what I wanted to do when I went to college with less debt. So I think that that’s a compelling model for us to think about to increase access to opportunity.
Secondly, I think in designing this system, we can build on other models around the world where they’ve already addressed this problem. What they call that in the international world (i.e., the OECD and ILO, International Labor Organization), is a “qualifications framework” from the policy side. That’s really an underlying structure to help organize all of this non-academic, work-based learning stuff. It’s not necessarily heavily structured, though. There’s flexibility and customizability built into an overarching framework. A state can flesh out which entities do what functions for their state. But a qualifications framework gives you a roadmap so that you can basically not have a totally different system in different regions of a state or across states. Then if you as a job seeker or employer wanted to move to a different state, you would not have to start all over. It provides some continuity and ability to scale what works. You want to have a blend of flexibility and structure, instead of the wild west landscape that we have right now.
In my broader research on system re-design, I’m interested in getting inside the firm and figuring out how firms and companies can come to see themselves as learning organizations and how they are deploying technologies – what that all means on the ground. There’s kind of a black box right now as far as understanding what technological diffusion and learning new skills actually looks at the firm, organizational level.
And then, finally, human-centered design. So if you are a worker, say an older worker, you get laid off and you’re trying to get a job. What resources are out there and what are your pain points when you’re trying to make a career transition – not into just a low wage job, but into a new career or something that will sustain you and your family? Or if you’re incarcerated and you’re coming back into society, what is your experience trying to use the employment and training system right now? Frankly, I think it’s just very confusing and overwhelming for everybody. Nobody can really figure out how to participate in the workforce system, whether you’re an employer or a worker. Why is this? How can you make this “user” experience, drawing from some of the methods of human-centered design in tech, easy and simple?
Q: If you could recommend any book to our readers, what would it be?
The other day I was rereading one of my favorite books from economic geography and one of my favorite scholars, Doreen Massey. She wrote a book in 1984 called Spatial Divisions of Labor: Social Structures in the Geography of Production. It was striking to me when I picked this book up that she’s asking a lot of the same questions that we’re still starting with today about how industry is changing with the digital age and how do we adapt as a society, which is fascinating in so many ways. Her central argument is that regions and the organization of production are not just a product of inexorable economic pressures. So it’s not like we have technological determinism and the economy is just going to be what it is and we can’t change it, but rather we need to understand how those economic processes are really shaped by wider social, political and ideological forces. Technological diffusion is not a disembodied “robot” coming for us – it’s real people making decisions for particular reasons.
I think we have a lot we could learn from her. In other words, the economic level of society is formed and shaped through social and ideological processes.
And then she also makes another really good point, which is that how we conceptualize things matters. So when we talk about terms like “industry,” “employers,” “workers,” or “training,” the basic units of analysis that we use have to be updated to be meaningful. I think we have to rethink our basic units of analysis with the current trend of the fissuring of work arrangements. What does it mean to be an “employer” today? Updating those assumptions and conceptual models – I think we have to think carefully about that as we try to design some new systems.