Steven Robbins, PhD

Interview with Hope Street Group Network Member Steven Robbins, PhD, Director of Research Innovation at Educational Testing Service (ETS)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInterview conducted on February 18, 2015 by Chimdi Ihezie

Before joining ETS, you taught and held the position of Psychology chair at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). You have also taught at the University of Iowa. What made you enter the teaching profession and what spurred your later shift to education and workforce development issues? And how has being on the other side as an educator informed your workforce perspective and approach?

Psychology was a very popular major when I went to the University of Illinois. I realized I loved science and practice. When I got my PhD it allowed me to help people – I was in an applied program in counseling and clinical psychology. It allowed me to answer the questions I had as a scientist. It was a great career, being a professor of psychology.

Another reason I ended up teaching was my mom taught elementary school for 34 years. It was a nod to having grown up with a teacher in the family. If you were to sum up my interests, it’s what are the individual differences in the strengths that we bring to meet the challenges of everyday living whether its relationships, education, or work. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we do: We live our lives as social people, we strive for education and we strive to make meaning in the world. As a psychologist, I’m interested in what we bring as individuals to the world around us. My interest is in the interface of human and social capital.

What I love about Hope Street Group is this notion of the talent supply chain and our ability to think about people on the continuum of childhood education access to work. So the intersect of health, education and work make perfect sense to me and there’s great alignment.

Hope Street Group believes working across sectors is crucial to making meaningful change, with employment one of those key drivers of economic opportunity. What roles do you envision for government, nonprofit, and private organizations in addressing workforce issues?

One thing that is so important about Hope Street Group is that it’s bringing the voice of employer and business community to bear. I think the government’s role is to provide the policy and mechanisms so that people can have the access to succeed in society whether its healthcare, education, or work readiness. Since ETS is a nonprofit, we are a mission-driven organization committed to providing evidence-based solutions that also bring education and work access and attainment. The business side of the world is absolutely essential because if you don’t cross the perspectives of these different stakeholders you can’t really affect change. Also, much of the research we conduct contributes to addressing these issues.

I think one of the big challenges facing our country is our difficulty engaging employer networks in ways that get them informed of practices that are aligned with policies that are evidence-based. That’s where we look to Hope Street Group—to help connect those dots and perspectives to enable change.

The debate around certain workforce issues is lively; disagreement still remains on whether a skills gap even exists. Do you think this lack of consensus is an issue? What would you ID as the biggest challenges to overcoming the biggest workforce issues?

We don’t have a common language, a narrative, of what it means to be work-ready and successful. To use a manufacturing metaphor, you can’t drive to quality if you don’t have quality standards that everyone is expected to meet. The challenge for today is, what are those standards and benchmarks of success for education and from education to work? What are the transversal or core skills and how do we contextualize those skills within the needs of businesses? At the end of the day, the imperative of businesses is to make money for their shareholders. So how do we bring people to the table as an important asset to a business in a way that is informed and evidence-based so that supply chain providers, in this case families, education systems, and parents are able to meet those expectations. The challenge right now is to articulate a common set of standards and benchmarks to ensure that employers behavior suggest a knowledge and use those benchmarks. And for companies like ETS and for governmental entities like the Department of Education and the Department of Labor, it’s to help appropriately measure and assess those standards and encourage education systems and individuals to drive to them.

The recent announcement of the White House’s Upskill America initiative is just one solution of many being proposed to address the shortcomings of our current workforce system. What are some promising initiatives in your own company and the larger workforce landscape that you are excited about?

At ETS, we provide the technical support for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), who historically help countries promote the well-being of its citizens through the assessment of both student and adult competencies (e.g. Program of International Assessment-PISA and Program of International Assessment of Adult Competencies-PIAAC). So this issue of skill and the tremendous pressure for both industrialized and emerging countries to ensure that we have a skilled workforce is absolutely essential to what ETS does and what it supports, not only within the U.S. but also globally. We just had a report on this issue of skill and we are one of the thought leaders in this area of skills and skills gaps, as well as in helping countries assess the relative performance of their students and adults in the context of the world. I think you’ll find ETS at ground zero of this issue of what it means to identify, measure, and drive development of appropriate skills in education and work success. That’s what we do as a mission-driven organization. It’s why we’re interested in supporting and partnering with Hope Street Group. We’re all about measuring skills.

The other thing I would mention is ETS is a global leader in both English-language proficiency and workplace proficiency. We just launched a state of the art behavioral assessment tied to work readiness in 26 languages. Two thousand of our employees have actually taken this assessment. We are beating our own drum in terms of understanding what it means to be skilled not only in critical/cognitive but also behavioral dimensions. We’re very excited by this expansion in our assessment agenda as well as looking internally to understand for ourselves what it means to be a skilled workforce.

ETS is a world-leading research and development organization. We have 1,300 people in R&D (out of 3500), so when we talk about skills, we have a a highly trained and educated workforce. We see the importance of skills from cognitive, communication, and behavioral or personality perspectives. We are putting increased focus on articulating a standards framework that guide education and work success. We are also the creators and administrators of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), used by many of the top graduate and business schools in the world. And as noted earlier, we are global partners through our work with the OECD.

Interview conducted on February 18, 2015 by Chimdi Ihezie

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