California Dreaming: Addressing the Training-to-Work “3-Body Problem”​

By Gordon Freedman

California needs a living, breathing laboratory to experiment and pilot, fail, and try again to solve the three-body training, searching, and hiring problem. This will require stepping out of the well-established comfort zones held by institutions, employers, and foundations to look for common solutions to a common problem across all the sectors in the state.

The Steady-State Economy is Gone

Twenty-five to a hundred years ago, the economy existed in what could be described as a labor, training, and employment steady-state. Early in the 20th Century, physicist Albert Einstein, once a steady-state believer in how the universe operated, created his two relativity theories and physics changed forever.

We now face a similar situation in the world of training, job-seeking, and work. We have transitioned out of a steady-state environment where skilled labor was largely represented by unions who saw to the training and advancement of their members and employers who described their employment needs concretely. While this world sped up between the end of World War II and the late 1980s, the ground was still relatively stable. People knew what the jobs were and what was needed to be qualified.

During that period, schools provided the first cut, sorting students into either future blue-collar workers who would not need a college degree and or future middle-managers and professionals who would need a college pedigree. Now, thanks to the information age and the rapidly accelerating digital and algorithmic era, all these worlds are tumbling in a relativistic free fall.

The Relativistic Economy Defies Prediction

The life of learning, training, and work is now relative; someone could be doing data entry at a medical facility one day and decide the next day to pursue a medical degree.

The number of factors effecting types of work and its volatility or stability can no longer be predicted or tracked accurately. Furthermore, the types of mid-skilled work that are in high demand are generally opaque to jobseekers, hidden from view in the blur of the new economy.

The nature of work has changed so radically that even the line between blue-collar and white-collar work is losing definition, as are pay scales. A person doing high-end programming, classically a blue-collar keyboard job, can make more than a mid-level or first-level senior executive.

Unfortunately, there is no mechanism in the era of hyper-social media to explain the multitude of existing jobs or the training required. The popular conception of the types of jobs that exist is likely a holdover from how baby boomers and their parents thought about traditional occupations.

The largest factor effecting job unpredictability is the rate and type of jobs that are being removed due to automation and artificial intelligence (AI), which, in turn, is creating new types of employment. Add to this the labor and economics reality that unions are at the end of a long retreat in the skilled trades, while, unexpectedly, mid-skill jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree are again expanding rapidly.

Overcoming the “Three-Body Problem”

In the relativistic economy, people, training, and jobs are floating variables that are not defined by data standards or tracked uniformly in one ecosystem or technical solution. And there are no owners, stewards, or guides as there were in the past.

Instead, there are fractional participants who represent one aspect of the employment-training, job-seeking triangle. By contrast, in the consumer, social media, and commercial sectors the various participants in those markets are exposed to each other every second by algorithm and shared benefits. The effects are powerful and scalable.

However, in what can be described as the employment-education-jobseeker “three-body problem,” no such mechanisms have emerged. The three-body problem, also from physics, describes the fact that there is no mathematics that can accurately describe the gravitational interaction of the Sun, Earth, and Moon. Physicists from Isaac Newton to Henri Poincaré struggled unsuccessfully with this mathematical problem.

Likewise, the motions and directions in the employment, training, and jobseeker information space are equally complex, and defy the direct application of algorithms with any accuracy. Technical solutions that could describe and further each of these roles is held back on one side by institutionalism and on the other side by technology and data solutions that struggle with making two predictive calculations well, let alone three.

Achieving a unified solution across the training-searching-employment three-body problem is also impeded by the technology at community colleges, universities, HR departments, and workforce development agencies which, through no fault of their own, is fundamentally “yesterday.”

These technologies and data systems are old, brittle, and cannot interact with each other because their lineage is from ledgers to floppies to servers to remote servers. And, most importantly, they were not made to interact or report to end-users (students, jobseekers, faculty, or HR personnel).

Thus, the legacy programs and projects are nowhere close to being integrated cloud solutions, like the ones that power social, commercial, and consumer apps. Those apps were, and are built, tested, and re-tested from the ground up with users in multiple focus groups.

In higher education learning management and student information systems, just as in employer HR systems, the end-users—students, jobseekers and employees—are almost always the last consideration.

So Goes California, So Goes the Nation

In a large state like California, despite a robust economy and its global economic position, many people are still out of work, or employed but locked into dead-end jobs, while the cost of living is rising. This stagnation hits disproportionally harder on those near or not far above the poverty line, disproportionately impacting the large Latino population and the largely urban African American population.

Thus, intelligently addressing the California education/training-to-work pipeline is an economic and social imperative because it affects everyone in the state. Unfortunately, institutional, agency, and policy solutions alone are not the most effective means for change, inclusion, and public understanding.

There may be mechanisms to adjust for this situation, but they are not going to come directly from the institutions, agencies, or practices that have participated, perhaps unknowingly, in the construction of the social inequalities and economic barriers in the first place.

The use of modern information and data technology tools and solutions to identify training opportunities is desperately needed. Such tools can be married in real-time training with aligned employment opportunities to guide people in need of employment or better employment.

Building a California Laboratory for Training and Jobs

California, because of its global prowess in technology and media, has the native means for such technical transformations, but none of the methods or collaboration powers to carry out such work. To work collaboratively across the commercial and public sectors requires leadership and risk and the recognition and drive for shared results. The state has done it before in other areas.

Within the 114 community colleges, 23 California State University (CSU) campuses, 75 workforce investment boards (WIBs), and myriads of foundations each working on some aspect of the equity barriers to appropriate training for available jobs, there is a lot of untapped potential.

To release this potential will require that new organizations, virtual and data-rich ones, self-organize under mutual leadership to unite the traditional education and training institutions with the economic and change-oriented powerhouses in the California economy.

Until this happens, most individuals in the state who are unemployed or under-employed will continue to confront difficult decisions with imperfect information, no useful overall communication or information channels, and no mechanism to receive streamed opportunities about training and jobs in their social media accounts.

Since there is a lack of reliable, education-labor market data and information in a form that can be consumed on a smart phone and learned about through social media, there is no way to hear about opportunities, study linked training materials, become certified or badged and apply for, or be recommended for work, all in one solution.

Certainly, there is a table big enough in the state to gather all the stakeholders, including those searching for work, with California’s higher education institutions and workforce agencies and have them all interact directly with the iconic California brands in the tech, bio, research, manufacturing, agriculture, and media industries.

A human capital laboratory is what is needed in a state that knows how to innovate. This should not be impossible. We are talking about the California Dream after all.


Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc. He also was the executive producer of the documentary about physics professor Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time.