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Mark Argosh, Social Venture Partners Connecticut: What Connecticut Does Right on Job Training

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Mark Argosh, Social Venture Partners Connecticut: What Connecticut Does Right on Job Training


Even if all of the unemployed people in Connecticut took one of the 109,000 open positions in the state, there would still be thousands of jobs left unfilled. What that says to Mark Argosh, chair of the Governor’s Workforce Council, is the state needs to get more people off the sidelines. “We have to be able to increase the labor force participation rate in Connecticut, and what that means is especially focus on underserved populations that face significant barriers,” he tells Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan. That recognition has prompted investment in services such as childcare, transportation and supportive housing. But that’s just one element of a multi-pronged approach that includes building partnerships within industry sectors, consolidating training programs in higher ed and providing a central point of contact in state government on workforce issues. The state is also supporting one of the largest government-funded job training programs in the country and it recently won the largest award in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Good Jobs Challenge. “I think what this represents is an endorsement of the strategies and approach that we're taking to transform workforce development.” Tune in to this episode of WorkforceRx for a deep dive into best practices in workforce development at the state level, and learn how the non-profit Argosh leads, Social Venture Partners Connecticut, employs a “venture philanthropy” model to close opportunity gaps in the state.


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. Today, I’m delighted to welcome Mark Argosh to the podcast. Mark is currently chair of the Connecticut Governor’s Workforce Council and executive director of Social Venture Partners Connecticut, a venture philanthropy that provides grants and consulting support to social impact organizations working to close the opportunity gap in the state.


Mark brings valuable insights on workforce issues informed by more than thirty years of experience as an executive and consultant in the financial sector, and as a leader in the nonprofit space as well.


I was pleased to recently keynote the Connecticut Workforce Summit which was hosted by Social Venture Partners and CBIA, Connecticut’s largest business organization. Thanks so much for joining us today, Mark, and it was terrific to see you recently in Connecticut.


Mark Argosh: Great to see you, Van, and it was great to have you as our keynote. I’m delighted to join you for this podcast.


Van: Terrific. Well, Mark, let’s start by having you fill us in on Connecticut’s workforce picture. Like most states, Connecticut is facing significant shortages of workers in many areas including health care, manufacturing and digital jobs. Tell us more about the situation.


Mark: Well, you’re right, Van. Connecticut is facing a labor shortage like most states right now. Fortunately, we have a state government department called the Office of Workforce Strategy that is working in partnership with businesses, educators and nonprofit leaders to launch new education and job training programs to skill up workers and help to alleviate the shortages in, as you say, some of the high demand areas like healthcare, IT, manufacturing, financial services, construction and energy.


The programs that we have organized typically provide ten to twelve weeks of free training and supportive services with hiring commitments for people who complete these programs. In Connecticut, we’re going to be training over 10,000 people through these programs over the next couple of years. In addition, we’re significantly wrapping up our nursing education programs and targeting the support to people from some of our lower-income school districts.


In IT and digitally, we’re working with individual employers and employers as a group to launch new programs like apprenticeship programs for people with less than bachelor’s degrees to provide people with the ability to learn, develop the skills on the job and ability to earn and learn at the same time.


Van: Well, that sounds like a tall order for your council. Thank you for sharing that. Mark, tell us how many open jobs there are in Connecticut right now.


Mark: We estimate about 109,000 open jobs right now.


Van: And if I remember correctly from a statistic that was shared at the summit, there’s just not enough unemployed people to satisfy all of those vacant jobs. So, even with all the work that you’re doing within the state, Connecticut has to consider where else you can get the workforce that you need.


Mark: Yeah, that’s correct, Van. If everybody that was unemployed were trained and employed for the open positions, that wouldn’t be enough. What we need to be able to do is get more people off the sidelines. We have to be able to increase the labor force participation rate in Connecticut, and what that means is especially focus on equity and on underserved populations that today have lower labor force participation rates.


This could be the reentry population. It could be the so-called opportunity youth, it could be people with disabilities, it certainly could be the BIPOC population or recent immigrants. So, we need to take an expansive view and really be able to make it possible for individuals from all different backgrounds to develop the skills and get the support that they need so they can actually make it into the workforce and get a high-quality job.


Van: I also remember the volume of opportunity youths in Connecticut. For our audience, opportunity youth are those who are not working but also are not in school, so it’s a bit of a mystery what they’re doing right now, and to re-engage them would be important to fill some of these important roles. I understand the number is around 30,000 or so opportunity youth. I bet that has grown during the pandemic.


Mark: Yeah, I think it may be even closer to 40,000. And again, what fuels that is that we estimate that about one-third of high school graduates in Connecticut do not go on to any form of higher education or the military. So, these individuals are stuck in low-wage jobs or are not working and they’re prime candidates for upskilling. It also raises a big question on how we can better prepare youth while they are in school, to develop career pathways in our K to 12 school systems.


Connecticut has a wonderful vocational and technical high school system, but as has happened throughout the country, in our comprehensive high schools any programs relating to career development tended to fall by the wayside and we’re now in a process of trying to recreate that. There are some pockets of excellence, but it is nowhere close to universal, and that’s one of the causes of this labor force gap.


Van: I was so pleased to have your invitation to speak at the Connecticut Workforce Summit and have the opportunity to highlight some key concepts from my book, which is also called WorkforceRx. I know that there was one theme that resonated quite a lot with your audience, and it was this concept that workforce development is a team sport and not an individual sport. Why do you think that struck a chord with your audience?


Mark: Well, first of all, Van, I want to compliment you on WorkforceRx. We think the book just strikes all the right kind of themes and you could say that we are students of it in Connecticut. We’re actually trying to apply a lot of the lessons learned in your tremendous career there.


But in terms of the team sport aspect, this is something that we’ve actually been working at for a while. Three years ago, Governor Ned Lamont redesigned the State Workforce Board and launched the Governor’s Workforce Council.  It is a cross-sector group of fifty-one senior business, education, nonprofit and government leaders who are charged with developing the state’s workforce strategy and then working on programs and policies to implement it.


In addition to that, over the last two years Connecticut has built a network of ten regional sector partnerships in key industry sectors which have brought another 300 companies, as well as educators and nonprofits, who are working together to really define what are the key workforce and economic needs in different parts of the state and then develop programming to meet these needs.


I think from this work, leaders across the state are recognizing the value of coming together, of working as a team rather than trying to tackle these issues alone either within their sector, or even if you’re talking about companies, tackling it one company at a time — which oftentimes, as you point out in the book — doesn’t work very well. And so, this whole team sport concept is I think going to be a key success driver for Connecticut moving forward.


Van: One of the members of this team is an organization called CareerConneCT, one of the largest government-funded job training programs in the country. It’s somewhat of a glue for many of your organizations. What are the goals for this program?


Mark: As we developed the strategy, suddenly there was money available through the American Recovery Act to fund programs like job training. The state has allocated over $100 million to job training programs in high-demand industries with quality jobs.


Eligible Connecticut residents can sign up in a single portal and select among nineteen different programs that are run by nonprofits and workforce boards and usually have people from higher education as the technical instructors. These programs are wide-ranging: manufacturing, healthcare, IT, financial services, life sciences, construction, clean energy and even truck driving. We’re going to be training over 10,000 people this way. Each of these programs has secured employer hiring and interview commitments.


In designing these programs, we’ve worked backwards by starting with employers and listening to what their specific needs are in terms of open jobs and skills requirements, and then we really make sure the education providers — oftentimes community colleges — have curriculum that aligns with that.  We realize that a lot of the participants have real challenges in terms of being able to participate in these programs, so we’re providing supportive services ranging from mentoring and coaching, to interviewing, to even services like childcare, transportation and supportive housing so that people can actually complete these programs successfully and become employed.


The other aspect of all this, which your question suggested, is that we don’t see CareerConneCT as just a program. We see it as a way to redesign the system. If we look historically at the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act system and the American Job Centers, while they perform some valuable functions, they have not generally provided permanent high-quality employment opportunities to people. The way the programs have been set up, they haven’t really provided the funding to allow that.


Our goal really is to utilize this one-time opportunity with American Recovery Act dollars to design a better system that we can utilize for all job training programs. And the good news is that all the key stakeholders, including the workforce boards in Connecticut, are very excited about this and are very excited about redesigning some of the existing systems to more look like the ideal system that we want to build.


Van: That is very exciting. Now, let me ask you one more question before I ask for what advice you would give to other states. You mentioned the state’s investment of $100 billion of federal dollars into CareerConneCT.  Recently, you had some terrific news which is that Connecticut won the largest award in the U.S. from the Department of Commerce in the Good Jobs Challenge. Give us some specifics on what you plan to do with all those funds.


Mark: Thank you, Van. We are very excited that Connecticut received the largest grant award in the country from the Commerce Department. I think when it was announced, some people didn’t believe it because they thought, “Well, this must be going to Los Angeles or New York or Chicago or some larger place.” I think what this represents is an endorsement of the strategies and approach that we’re taking to transform workforce development.


Now, one of the specifics of the Good Jobs Challenge is to implement a principle that’s core in your book, which is really to aggregate demand…to bring together employers to be able to work together, identify their needs and then work with their partners in education and nonprofits and government to be able to design and implement job training programs and other programs that address their needs.


In Connecticut, we’ve already organized ten regional sector partnerships in manufacturing, healthcare, IT and life sciences. Each of these regional sector partnerships is led by a set of companies in a geographic area in their particular industry. They’re building out initiatives like apprenticeship and internship programs, job training programs, education and career pathways in schools, as well as figuring out how they could actually work together to solve some of the social needs like child care, transportation, workforce and housing.


We’re very excited about building out these regional sector partnerships because we see this, Van, as the infrastructure to support this team-oriented approach to workforce development. In other words, these regional sector partnerships don’t depend on who’s in office politically or even what programs operate because these are intended to be really bottom-up consortiums, bringing together the key work for stakeholders.


Van: This leads me into the question that I would imagine people in other states have, which is how do we learn from the best practices that Connecticut is putting in place? You’ve talked some about sector partnerships and the team approach there to aggregate jobs and employers. Inferred by some of your comments is also that the state is flowing funding to back up these efforts in workforce development. What are some other best practices you would recommend for states that are aspiring to make good progress?


Mark: First of all, let me say that we are a student of other states’ best practices. We shamelessly copy when we see a good idea. One of the nice things about Connecticut is that it’s small enough that you can really build these cross-sector relationships, so we are able to implement some of these good ideas at scale. Now, obviously, one of the key enabling factors in Connecticut was the governor’s determination to take a more coordinated approach in government to workforce development. Many states are extremely fragmented. Workforce programming sits in a lot of different agencies, and there’s no way to coordinate that.


While we are no different than that — we have programs spread out in different agencies — we now have an Office of Workforce Strategy which has the statutory role of being the coordinator for developing workforce strategies and programs and working across agencies to be able to do that. That’s extremely important because what that means for various stakeholders — whether you’re a college president or a CEO of a company or a nonprofit or a workforce board — now there’s someplace you can go. There’s a central focus.


An important part of this, of course, is that the goal of the Office of Workforce Strategy is not doing all this alone. Their whole approach is they will remain a small office, but they get their power from working with the different stakeholders, with companies, with educators, etc. So, I would say getting organized in the way that we’re doing it at the state level is really a key best practice.


I think on the regional sector partnership idea, I realize that a number of states have versions of this and it does take a lot of care and feeding to support these efforts. That’s why we’re so happy about the Good Jobs Challenge. I think building these out so they’re really effective is really important because in the absence of that — and this is a point you make in your book — educational institutions have a really hard time figuring out what curriculum to offer and in what quantities because they’re not getting clear signals from the marketplace and from employers, and the regional sector partnerships is a way of curing that.


Another best practice is providing end-to-end support in terms of the job training programs that we’re doing. We have to recognize that if we’re going to be expanding our labor force to create true pools of workers, not puddles, we need to be able to draw a lot more people into the workforce, and a lot of people today have significant barriers. So, as a state, we’ve been focusing hard on that. We have a DEI Council within our Governor’s Workforce Council that is focusing on the challenges faced by specific populations. That’s something that I know a number of states are trying to tackle, but I think that’s truly important.


Then, I think the education system has a really critical role to play and needs to get better organized in terms of doing that. I think in that conference you attended, you saw a really good organization, ReadyCT, which is the education side of our state business association and they’re doing a really important thing which is building out career pathway programs in high schools.  If we’re going to deal with this problem of lost youth, we’re going to have to look a bit more like Switzerland or Germany in terms of reaching youth earlier and providing them opportunities for work-based learning to learn about the world of work, and for internships to get job experience. I think that could be a big game changer.


Another really important institution is higher ed — community colleges and such — and we’re really excited in Connecticut that our community college system is becoming one because that will make coordination a lot easier. Now, we have nowhere near the challenge you had, Van, when you were running California’s system with what 100…how many did you have…116 colleges or something like that?


Van: You got it.


Mark: We have twelve, but we heard before we started this work that there were 112 different programs to train CNAs. There were eighty different programs to train entry-level manufacturing workers. If you’re an employer and you’re looking at that — and these employers cut across some of our geographic areas — they can’t make heads or tails of that.


The CNA program in the community colleges is going from 112 to one. With a lot of industry input, I think there’s a lot that the college systems can do — whether it’s state colleges or private colleges — to get engaged and to really be able to provide their students with the counseling, support, and then the programming and hopefully the internships and work experience so that we have much higher graduation rates and employment rates in terms of people leaving the community college system.


So, I think the challenge in workforce is you do need to take an integrated view. You really need to engage the various stakeholders. And you also need to think about where people are coming from, where are they in their lives, and therefore what are the needs you need to organize around. You need to build deep partnerships with the different institutional players — whether those be colleges, school districts, workforce boards, or nonprofits — and really incentivize and stimulate those partnerships.


One issue I do worry about is the future funding for all this. I think we’re in a moment in time, post-COVID, where we obviously have some dollars to work with to hopefully demonstrate what’s possible and start to build a better system, but we’re going to have to reform how funding works in the workforce arena. An example is we really need Congress to move on making more students Pell Grant eligible for vocational training programs. That could be a real game changer for many students.


We are big fans of two and four-year and more advanced degrees, but a lot of students would like to be able to take advantage of shorter-term vocational training programs that provide stackable credentials and provide work experience right off the bat, and they ought to be able to have that education financed.


Van: You provided an excellent inventory of best practices, so I hope all the listeners from different states are heeding your wise advice. Let me just probe on one of the points that you made which was that the governor created an office dedicated to this cause. Some people would wonder, did all the state funding flow through this office, or did this office operate through influence versus direct control of the funds? Because as you know, institutions react to the funding flow, the rules of the money.


Mark: Exactly. Van, that’s an excellent question. Like most things in life, nothing is perfect, but part of why the approach has worked here is that the governor took an existing structure that every state has to have, which is a State Workforce Board, and he changed it. He basically made it much more important by attracting senior leaders to it and asking it to come up with a comprehensive workforce strategy and set of programs, and then created the Office of Workforce Strategy as the staff in a sense for the Governor’s Workforce Council. So, he utilized some legal structures, essentially, to really be able to empower this office.


Now, not every dollar, to answer your question, flows through this office. We still have other branches of government through which money flows. But I would say that new money — certainly, for example, the ARPA dollars — are flowing through this office. This does not mean this office is running these programs. We had an RFP process and selected nineteen program operators, half of them being nonprofits and half of them being workforce boards. And we had the higher education institutions, like the community colleges, work jointly with those entities.


Part of what you can do with an office like this is you can incentivize collaboration and people coming together. They certainly have a bully pulpit. There’s certainly also an expectation — and it’s even in statute that the Office of Workforce Strategy takes the lead — but they don’t have 100% control. They are doing a lot of influencing and a lot of working but what happens is that as you build relationships with leaders of business and leaders in education, people naturally look to you — in this case to my colleague Kelli Vallieres — to lead. Because they’re happy with the direction, they would rather work that way. And by the way, prior to that, they did not find it easy to work with government. So, this really provided a different model.


Another thing I’ll just say, by the way, is that Kelli comes from a business background. She is a manufacturing entrepreneur and built one of the best workforce training programs in the country in advanced manufacturing, which in some ways is a prototype for CareerConneCT. She also has a PhD in education. So, she’s got all the right skill sets to bring a very different viewpoint to this job in terms of what we’re trying to build because the old system obviously hasn’t worked.


If we have eleven million unfilled jobs in the country and still six or seven million unemployed people, that’s not the sign of a system that’s working. So, part of the courage is having to admit we need to try something different. We need to look at other proven strategies that are working, and that’s what having this office with the support of the governor makes possible.


Van: You bring up a good point about her background and it reminds me of my own background which is from the private sector, then public sector, and then nonprofit. It is helpful to be grounded in what businesses need and then being able to code switch to, how do you interpret this for education? Or how do you interpret this for other parties? That’s a helpful tip in terms of staffing.


Mark: That really is the best practice. Following again in your footsteps, Van, in terms of the great work you’ve done in California, I think part of the problem when we talk about workforce being a team sport and getting these different stakeholders to work together is a lot of these stakeholders don’t have a lot of experience with the other stakeholders.  So, we have to bridge those gaps through people, through relationships, through people becoming more familiar with what other stakeholders need. I think the Office of Workforce Strategy plays that role.


My organization, Social Venture Partners, plays that role. We are very much working to try to be that bridge to bring different stakeholders together around, as you said, closing the opportunity gap. Whether it’s workforce development or the other main area we’re in, which is early childhood education — which obviously is a workforce issue also — both of those problem areas are not going to get solved without multiple stakeholders collaborating. These are not areas that the government can solve by itself, nor can the private sector or the education community.


Van: I’m glad you had a chance to share a little bit about your day job which is with Social Venture Partners. Let’s close out by having you give our audience a little bit of background on what venture philanthropy is because that’s a newer term for some of our listeners. Explain what you mean by that, and what it looks like on the ground.


Mark: Van, thank you for that question. Social Venture Partners, as you said, is a venture philanthropy which means that we work with nonprofit organizations in a similar way to which venture capitalists work with businesses that they support. My organization makes investments in nonprofits in the form of grants. We help them with other fundraising, and most importantly, consulting or capacity-building work where we actually assign teams of volunteers and staff to work with the nonprofits to develop their organizations.


The type of work we end up doing is wide-ranging. It includes strategy, organization and leadership development, building-out measurement systems, developing boards, program design, and really being a connector…connecting these organizations to other partners in their community, and even at the state level, to grow their programs.


We typically work with these organizations over multiple years. We recently looked at a set of organizations that we’ve worked with over the last three or four years, and their revenues grew in five-fold, which is really extraordinary even during the epidemic.


Just to connect the dots a little bit here, you might wonder how the work we do with nonprofits relates to the government work that we’re doing. Well, it turns out that some of the organizations that the state is relying on to run various job training programs are organizations that we help to scale and to expand their training capacity over time. So, doing the nitty-gritty work of working with organizations and building and strengthening them is what our organization does.


We also provide teams to government. We have teams that are working with the Office of Workforce Strategy in Connecticut and the Office of Early Childhood on strategy, on program design and development, and in some cases even supplying staff on a pro bono basis to support those offices because what we discovered is government has this need also to build their capacity to lead these programs.


We’ve done some work in the past with the community college system on this, and you were really helpful in terms of helping us borrow one of your great ideas from California of having workforce ambassadors in the community college system.


A new area for us that your current organization is working on, is engaging more deeply with employers. We believe that a big part of the change that has to happen is companies need to rethink their hiring practices. They really need to adopt skills-based hiring which involves significant culture change, change in practices and processes. That’s an area that we look to work more intensively on with individual companies across the state. I’m very excited that one of the partnerships in IT is already leading to an apprenticeship program for high school graduates to become computer coders and other IT folks. That program will pay $55,000 for a twelve-month apprenticeship, that then leads to a full-time job. Over time, I believe, we’ll probably see hundreds of people in this one single program. So, I think there is a lot of work to be done in collaboration with businesses.


Van: Well, Mark, this podcast has been chock-full of best practices, including the important role that your organization plays. It’s a really innovative public-private type of partnership. Thank you for being such a good asset to the state of Connecticut.


Mark: Well, Van, thank you for your leadership. You have inspired the work that we’re doing in Connecticut in many different ways. It was so great to be able to have you in person, spreading a lot of the great ideas that your organization is leading, and we hope to partner together in the future.


Van: Well, you give me too much credit. My hat is off to Connecticut and all the momentum that you have. So, there you have it, listeners. Thank you very much, Mark, for being with us today.


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