Skip to content

Jane Oates, President of WorkingNation: Eliminating “Buts” In The Hiring Process

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Jane Oates, President of WorkingNation: Eliminating “Buts” In The Hiring Process


What would veteran workforce training leader Jane Oates do to improve the hiring system if she had a magic wand? “I would take away all of the buts, as in ‘I would hire you, but you don’t have experience, but you have a disability, but you’re too old.’” It will not only help achieve equal access to employment, she tells Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan, but right now employers could really use a bigger talent pool. “We cannot be the country we are meant to be with a 61% labor market participation rate.” After many years in government service, capped with being Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training in the Obama administration, she’s currently leading WorkingNation, a non-profit focused on educating the public and policymakers about achievable solutions to prepare workers for the future. Among its current initiatives are boosting the employment prospects of veterans, the disabled and single mothers. Partnerships are key to this work, and she and Van will be appearing on a panel together on August 22, 2022 at ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership conference in Nashville to underscore the role associations can play in bringing employers and workforce development stakeholders together. This episode of WorkforceRx is full of interesting ideas and angles to consider for those concerned about closing the troubling gap between job openings and available workers.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and health care explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.

Employers and policymakers continue to grapple with an unprecedented gap between job openings and available workers, not to mention a perplexing combination of other economic conditions such as high inflation and negative growth. Here today to help us sort out what all of this means for workers and the training they need to succeed in the future economy is Jane Oates, who has had a long career in education and training, including serving as Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training at the U.S. Department of Labor in the Obama administration.

She is currently president of WorkingNation, a non-profit organization nationally focused on educating the public and policymakers about structural unemployment, skills gaps, and achievable solutions to prepare workers in the future. Thanks so much for joining us today, Jane.

Jane Oates: Van, like the rest of America, I can’t say no to you. I’m so glad to be with you.

Van: Likewise, and I’m looking forward to being on the panel with you shortly in Nashville with the American Society of Association Executives.

Jane: That’s going to be a great discussion. I’m looking forward to that, too.

Van: Yes. Maybe we can give our listeners here a preview. Let’s start with having you add to my very brief description of WorkingNation to help our audience better understand your mission as an organization, and what you and your team are focused on day-to-day.

Jane: Well, thanks for that. WorkingNation is now six years old and focuses its attention, as you said, on the challenges that the average American is facing looking for a job, and the average corporation is looking at trying to attract that talent. So, we try to level the playing field. Many of us have really deep knowledge in the changing world of work, and so many others have no network, no access, and actually are building their decisions based on really poor information. So, through video, through journalism, through live events, we try to make sure that we’re getting the most up-to-date, correct information — without being filtered for any purpose — to the American people.

Van: What are your top priorities, currently?

Jane: We focus on everything, from people leaving high school to people coming back out of retirement to re-enter the workforce, and everything in between. But this fall, we are really looking at an old initiative and two new initiatives.

Our old initiative is a focus on veterans. Every November, we dedicate the whole month of November to content around returning veterans who have not been able to make a connection, or the connection they want, in the civilian workforce even if they’ve been home for three, five, seven or ten years. We focus on their families, particularly their spouses, and make sure that we’re telling the stories about the organizations that are really helping them connect. This will be our third year doing that and we’re very excited. Our Chief Content Officer Joan Lynch has a personal connection to that through her family, so she’s very excited and energized every November as we put this forward.

The two new initiatives are first, looking at how do we get that number of employed Americans who self-attest to having a disability back to work? You know, Van, right now only 17% of people who have a diagnosed disability are working. That’s unacceptable. These are people with disabilities who are able and willing to work. They need and they want a job. So, we’re going to try, beginning this October, to really talk about what forward-thinking employers are doing to really tap this talent pool. It’s not a feel-good thing. It’s a business imperative. Let’s get these people to work. We’re very excited about that.

We’ll do a whole month of content on that in October. We partnered in August with an organization called Disability:In which is a technical assistance group and an advocacy group that helps employers figure that out. We were so privileged to be a partner with them at their conference, and did a lot of great interviews on site.

Then finally, we’re beginning our work with a project funded by the ECMC Foundation looking at a particular group: single moms trying to finish their two-year degree. And with all your experience in California — even though California has been a leader in trying to get wraparound services and still does tremendous work on community college campuses — the reality is these moms are spending so much more than two years to get an associate’s degree. Too often they’re spending the national average of six years to get what should be a two-year degree. We need to help them get that degree faster so that they can enter the workforce. So, as you can see, we’ll do everything else, too, but those are three projects that are at top of mind for this fall.

Van: These three projects are very important and go to a concept called the hidden workforce. For those in the audience who are interested, Joe Fuller at Harvard has a whole publication around hidden workforce and where we tap and bring in talent pools that are not normally participating in the workforce. Thank you so much, Jane, for working on these three projects.

I wanted to ask you, what’s your take on the workforce impact of the Inflation Reduction Act and the opportunities that might create for green jobs? What needs to be done to get people ready to take advantage of these opportunities?

Jane: Well, it’s really exciting because the federal government does best when they try to be a catalyst for new ideas and new projects. I think at this particular juncture, people should get ready because the money will start hitting the street probably in six to twelve months. As you know very well, it takes a while for agencies to get the money out to people because they have to design a fair and equitable process, usually through a grant system. I think some of this money will come down more directly to states, but it does take states time to get a process together to make sure people are aware of it, and everybody has an opportunity to participate.

But I think there’s going to be tremendous — you mentioned green — tremendous opportunities, both for individual workers and for entrepreneurs. We know one of the biggest examples is in Southern California with ChargerHelp. We know that a lot of people recognize that as we move to electric vehicles, we’re going to need a more democratic way — little “d” democratic — a fair way to get these chargers in place. Many people who live in multifamily dwellings will not be able to hook it up to their home electricity, so they’ll be looking for charger stations. And I love ChargerHelp. Two women of color started that company, and they’re an early leader in this. I think there’ll be lots of opportunity as the money hits the street both for battery development and for chargers.

There are also opportunities in new ways to do a better job in preparing clean water, but also a better job in detection. We heard, several years ago, the horrible story about Flint, Michigan. We should figure out ways to make sure our home drinking water is safe and not depend on the city or the municipality to tell us it is. There should be an easy way, just like we can check on other things like radon, carbon dioxide and fire prevention. We should be able to do that with drinking water. So, this is a call out to all those entrepreneurs out there to figure out a way that we make sure that we’re drinking water that’s safe.

Van: Jane, you mentioned that the federal government does best when it is a catalyst. I was wondering — on this concept of community entrepreneurs, community enterprises — what can the government do to catalyze the creation of business ownership?

Jane: Well, again, I’ll bring up California. Your former Small Business Administration person is now the national SBA director and she’s doing a wonderful job. But if you think about entrepreneurs who are looking at a small scale, trying to get money to capitalize their business for a loan of under $50,000 — so not big money by Wall Street standards, but a big hurdle and a challenge for someone trying to start a small business — they have such a difficult time getting access to that capital, particularly women, particularly women of color. We need to make sure that the federal government is out there pushing these small loans, whether it’s through community development banks, whether it’s through the federal government directly, whether it’s in sending larger banks to really look at this specialized population.

We all knew anecdotally that this was true before COVID — but certainly when we were looking at the federal money that was coming out to support businesses during COVID — we heard loud and clear that small businesses who needed that money so much more than their larger partners weren’t getting access to this money at all. Big banks were kind of saying, “You don’t do business with us now, and we’re giving it to our clients first.” We need to make sure small entrepreneurs, who have great ideas that they could certainly scale if given the financing, get that early-stage financing.

Van: Is there a role for workforce development paired with the capital? How do you think about the two tools of the government?

Jane: You know, Van, that I’m such a proponent of the public workforce system. To me, the Workforce Investment Boards at the state and local level, the American Job Centers, are the entry point for everybody. And they, by statute, are there for that job seeker customer in every iteration, but also the business customer. I think many of the WIBs are still struggling with how to best serve small and medium-sized businesses. They certainly know how to get to Futuro, as you know, and they know how to get to the big recognizable names. But getting to those small and medium-sized employers has remained difficult for them. It’s really not good for anybody, because we know that small business is really the engine of growth for our country, and they’re the people that are creating new jobs and backfilling existing jobs at a greater degree than some of the bigger employers.

Van: In my prior life, when I talked to small businesses, they said they’re just busy staying afloat in their day job and don’t have the capacity to spend time in meetings that have to do with anything that is ancillary to staying alive and bringing in revenues. Does that beg for a different solution with regards to serving the workforce needs of small businesses?

Jane: I think that this is going to look like a shameless plug for our panel in Tennessee, but I think associations play a critical role. Because you’re exactly right, that small business owner has no time to go sit on a workforce board, and probably they shouldn’t. They don’t have the capacity, personally or professionally, but they also don’t have the reach to really take up a seat on that board in many instances.

So, the association, by sitting on the board or by bringing forward their talent needs to the workforce boards, would be ideal. We’ve seen some associations do this tremendously well. I mean, I have to point out the local manufacturing associations do a tremendous job, not only of voicing it to the public workforce board, but talking to local media. I think more of the associations need to become more active because we’ve seen them do amazing things.

Yes, advocacy. Yes, publication of the talent needs. Yes, the fact that in manufacturing, for example, it’s not dark, dirty, and dangerous, or with some of the healthcare associations, it’s not just nurses and doctors…that healthcare needs so many more talented people. But we also see them bring the small employers together to kind of do amazing things like apprenticeships. As a single small employer, they can’t stand up an apprenticeship on their own, but with the collective, they can certainly do that.

Van: I saw this in play in the Fresno area, which is a community in the rural area of California. Mike Betts, who headed up the Betts Company in manufacturing, gathered about seventy-five small manufacturers who are all struggling with their workforce. Because he pulled them together collectively, they were able to better work with the community college and to get all the career education pathways lined up properly because, for example, the local airports were shutting down. They didn’t have pilots that were being created for the local economy. So together, they were able to solve that, but as you can imagine no individual small company would even consider taking on a challenge that big.

Jane: That’s right. Like I said — a shameless plug for our association convening — but I think associations are underappreciated, and some of them are not as creative as others. So, I hope they get to learn a lot from each other in Tennessee when we’re there.

Van: Yes, there are certainly established playbooks that they can pick up. Jane, you’ve seen the world from many varied roles. I wonder if you could share some of the best practices that you’ve gleaned from each of those roles, and what has been successfully taken to scale? Because scale, I think, often eludes workforce development.

Jane: I think that’s right. I think that the best lesson I’ve learned is really, there’s nobody who can do it alone…that partnerships are the cornerstone of success. If I were to go back and think about that, the most important thing we could do as a country collectively, and you and I as individuals, is to really talk about what are the components of a really thriving partnership.

I started as a teacher. In the old days, a partnership meant that you donate money, or that you bought T-shirts for the sports day in the spring, or that you sponsored a parent-teacher event. That’s really lovely, but it doesn’t change the way either of us as partners operates. In my mind, an effective partnership really improves our functioning equally, although one of us may get a little more than the other at a certain time. For instance, an employer may get a little more in terms of talent pool return, or an education partner may get better outcomes because they’re placing their students.

I think we really need to talk much more openly about what an effective partnership is and how you create one. I think more honesty upfront about ‘what is in this for me’ would help, because in every partnership, there is something in it for each partner or they wouldn’t partner. If we could just be a little bit more transparent about why we’re approaching each other, I think we’d get better results.

Also, you know I’m a big data person, as are you. We should always be looking to evaluate and assess our partnerships, and be willing to close down the ones that are no longer effective and have no hard feelings about that. From the beginning, we should say to each other, “If this stops being a good deal for either of us, we can walk away and still be friends.”

Van: I always say, “What is it that we can do together that we can’t do alone?” I think that’s the core of finding the win, win, win. You’re absolutely right, every organization has to bring something to the table. They can’t just be having their hands out. So, we all need to do what we do best, and then come together so we can do more.

Jane: So true.

Van: A good philosophy. Jane, if you could redo your job as Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training, what would you do differently? Because all of us who have stepped into these appointed roles come with one level of understanding and now that you’ve seen more, what would you do differently? What advice would you give?

Jane: The one thing I wouldn’t do differently is I had the best political team and the best career team, so I’d keep all the same people. But this is really reflective of my time with WorkingNation… the one thing that I would do differently across the board, is making sure that every grant that I put out — and you remember, in those days my budget was $16 billion — I would say that everybody was allowed to use money to self-promote, to story tell. Because I think then, in the Great Recession, the problem was convincing people that they could switch careers, that they could look at other sectors because so many of the sectors that were impacted during the Great Recession really did shrink dramatically. You look at the auto industry, you look at how the Midwest was hit hard. So, people did have to think about not only changing jobs but changing sectors and changing careers.

I think it would have been very helpful at that time to do what WorkingNation does now, and put workers on video saying, “This is how I made the transition.” And if that worker looked like me, I might think I can do that, too. ‘Looking like me’ could be gender, or it could be color, it could be age, it could be experience. Telling those stories through the mouth of the real participant really convinces people. Obviously, our team at WorkingNation does it at a high-quality level, but I think today, it could be done with your iPhone. It’s about reaching audiences. Today, it’s not necessarily as much about convincing you to change careers, or change sectors. Today, it’s more about motivating you to come off the sidelines.

You and I are both nerds. We worry all the time about the labor market participation rate. We cannot be the country that we are meant to be with a 61% labor market participation rate. 39% of the people cannot be sitting on the sidelines. It just doesn’t work. Now more than ever, we need to show real people who look like you — regardless of your age — that finding a great job in this very different, very changing, very scary economy is possible. I think it would motivate people and convince people that they could come back in and take another try.

Van: Those are very telling statistics. As you’re interviewing the workers, do you see a difference in the stories that they’re telling now versus the pre-pandemic economy?

Jane: Certainly during the pandemic, it was a lot about women and child care. We heard all those terms like ‘she session’ and things like that. Women are still underrepresented, but the last few months have shown that they’re coming back. I think now with schools reopening and a little more security about the safety of schools and not having to shut down, I think women will — in the next few months probably — get to their pre-pandemic levels.

But what’s holding people back now? I think that some people at the beginning of the pandemic when they were able to retire, did, and now they’ve had some time at fifty-eight, sixty-two, sixty-five, sixty-seven, or whatever, to decide, “Wait a minute, I’m not sure I’m ready to not work. I’m not sure that I don’t still need work as part of my purpose in life.” So, we need to show them that there’s ways to come back at the same level and job title where they were, whether they were in upper management or mid-management.

I love the stories of people who were in the C-suite in corporate America who have now decided, post-COVID, to go into leadership in non-profits. We need their skills, and I don’t care whether they’re seventy-five. We need their business acumen to run some of these non-profits that are really struggling. Our CEO always says non-profits are businesses. Services come in and out and they have to run like a business. They have to have a bigger heart than many for-profit businesses, but they have to run like a business or they won’t still exist.

So, I’m really hopeful that as we are now clearing the pandemic — we now have more jobs, actually, than we did pre-pandemic even though the leisure and hospitality sector is still down 900,000 jobs — we need to get people back in and looking at what they could do differently. Whether they’re young workers, whether they’re men or women, whether they’re returning citizens, whether they’re people who chose to retire prematurely, we need them back in.

Van: Well, bringing all these different populations back into the workforce is a good transition to this topic of short-term Pell grants. I was wondering if you could explain for our listeners why this financial aid tool is helpful to adults, especially as they’re making transitions, and didn’t the U.S. House of Representatives pass a definition that defines what type of programs of studies could qualify?

Jane: I think some of the members of Congress have a bias against non-traditional, for-profit learning programs, many of which are offered online. They prefer only long-term programs, things that are a semester or a year or longer. I mean, look, who cares whether Google is delivering something or the local community college if that something gets you a good, family-sustaining-wage job? I don’t think people around their kitchen table talk about the tax status of providers. Yet, it has completely taken over the Congress…who’s in favor of for-profits, and who’s not in favor of them. I think it’s a problem. I mentioned Google, but Microsoft and Cisco have been doing this forever and we can look at what IBM is doing. But we should also look at the schools. Do we care if Cengage is for-profit or not? I’m conflicted by this.

In other situations, we don’t talk about limiting people’s options. I don’t think we should limit options when it comes to education in terms of duration. We should always be looking at the quality of credentials and if any provider is not getting people into good jobs by earning their certificate, their credential of any kind — quite frankly, I would go so far as a degree — that should be a factor.

But you and I both know, Van, that a lot of non-profit degree- granting institutions would not meet that standard. They don’t see their job as getting people jobs. I think everybody who’s offering education and training should absolutely see their primary responsibility as the quality of their product and the way they deliver that product, but if they don’t start seeing that product as being linked to that person getting a job, we’re going to have limited enrollment in post-secondary education.

Van: That’s right. People are walking away from higher education with their feet, given the higher education enrollment declines in the last few years.

Let’s talk about work experience because that’s so important. I mean, if you’re looking at a candidate who comes straight out of school with no work experience, versus one that comes with work experience, undoubtedly the one with work experience is going to be so much more interesting. Why aren’t co-op courses, where the work experience is embedded into your education journey, more available here in the United States? In Canada, that’s part of the design of the education pathway.

Jane: It is such a great question. We have powerhouses of co-ops such as Northeastern University in Massachusetts and Drexel University in Philadelphia, but the bottom line is those programs have never scaled. Part of it is figuring out how to create a revenue model where the university or college can survive. Their model is that it’s going to take you five or six years to finish your bachelor’s degree because you’re going to have two or three co-ops. What do you do for the tuition in between? So, it’s been, I think, a challenge for other colleges to pick up. I do not think it’s an unsurmountable challenge.

In the meantime, every college has other things that they could do short of a co-op that would give their students a work-based learning experience. Mandating that students have that experience is one idea. Paid internships is another. I am so delighted that the federal government is now paying their interns. It was embarrassing to me during my time, especially in the U.S. Senate, that we did not pay interns. That sends a clear message. Rich people can have their kids intern and support them. Middle-class people can struggle and make tough decisions to support their young college-age students, or their students coming out of high school in an unpaid internship. But poor people have no choice. And for a lot of middle-class people, it was a draconian choice. They were not taking vacations or not putting protein on the table so they could support their college-age student in an internship. That is ridiculous. Everybody deserves to get paid for work. So, I’m delighted that governments are starting to do that.

I think it means that there will be a wider lens for people to look at internships, but colleges have work study at their disposal as well. Community colleges have a very small bucket of work study, but four-year institutions have a sizable work study budget. The reality is that it’s supplementing their income. It’s allowing them to get help that’s free. Instead of putting those students to work in the cafeteria or the library, they should do more with getting people real work experience, because that means a lot on a resume. You were working at a corporation, you were working at a small business, you were working at a nonprofit that was not your college, because I think people think too often when they see that you worked at your college during your experience, that you really didn’t do real work, that you didn’t have the same rigor of an external third-party employer. So, I wish they would do more.

Finally, I think corporations need to go to colleges and suggest a match. “With our own money, we could do ten unpaid internships this year. If you match it with work-study money, we could do twenty.”

Van: I hope that the listeners have been paying attention so that we can create an echo chamber for all of these great ideas that you have put forth, these great best practices. Let’s end here, Jane, by giving you a magic wand. What is the big hairy goal that you would set for our nation if you could?

Jane: Well, Van, I would take away all the “buts” in our system…the b-u-t-s. For instance, I would hire you, but you don’t have experience. I would hire you, but you have a disability. I would hire you, but you’re too young. I would hire you, but you’re too old. I would hire you, but you have had some involvement with the legal system.

I think if we could just look at people for their skills…if we could say, “You have the skills I need. You weren’t what I had in mind. I wasn’t picturing a 65-year-old white woman. I wasn’t picturing somebody who had a blip in their juvenile record, but you have the skills that I need and I really am going to give you a shot.” I think if we could get an equal-access hiring system and philosophy, we would be so much better off.

Van: I love that. Jane, thank you so much for spending time with us today. You are always inspiring us to do more. I love this challenge of skills-based hiring and getting rid of the buts, the b-u-t-s. Thank you for joining us today, Jane.

Jane: Anytime with you, Van, is a good time for me. You are such an amazing leader. Thank you for all that you do.

Van: Likewise. I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.