Rachel Korberg, Families and Workers Fund: A Once In A Generation Chance To Advance Economic Mobility
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
According to recent reports, the Biden administration’s historic investments in infrastructure and combating climate change are having an impact on the job market. For instance, more than 170,000 clean energy jobs have been created in the past year, and 1.5 million more could be added over the next decade. Economists also estimate that 660,000 jobs will be created by the end of 2025 from federal infrastructure investments.
Harnessing these investments to boost economic mobility is a key focus of my guest today, Rachel Korberg, who is executive director and co-founder of the Families and Workers Fund, a coalition of more than twenty-five philanthropies working together to build a more equitable US economy.
Previously, Rachel served in program leadership roles at the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation. She’s also president of the Board at the Stonewall Community Foundation, one of the largest funders of LGBTQIA+ causes. Thanks so much for joining us today, Rachel.
Rachel Korberg: Well, thank you for having me. I’m a big fan of the podcast.
Van: Well, we couldn’t wait to have you. Perhaps you can start by giving us an overview of your organization, Families and Workers Fund, and what differentiates it from the many other philanthropic funds in this space.
Rachel: Yeah, thanks. So, the Families and Workers Fund is a $70 million pooled fund and a platform for collective action. We are chaired by the Ford Foundation and Schmidt Futures, — which is Eric and Wendy Schmidt’s philanthropic vehicle — and we’re a group of about forty donors, actually, all working together with the idea that this is a really once in a generation opening to advance economic mobility for all. We develop strategic partnerships towards that goal, and we also provide grants. I’ll name that we also have a group of frontline workers and people directly impacted by poverty themselves who really sit on equal footing with our Funder Advisory Board and advise on our strategy and our grants, so it’s really a collective impact approach focused on U.S. economic mobility.
Van: Oh, tell us a little bit more about this approach of collective impact. What should that mean to the listeners?
Rachel: Yeah, you know, it’s a simple idea that we can get a lot further together than if we go by ourselves. And certainly when it comes to massive challenges like the fact that the US has higher rates of poverty than other advanced and wealthy countries, you know, how do we ensure that the one third of working people in this country who are still struggling to make ends meet, despite being employed, have pathways to opportunity and mobility? There’s only so much we can do when we each work within our own organizations or even within our own kind of issue silos or specialized areas of expertise. So, the idea with Families and Workers Fund and with our collective impact approach is we might not all have the exact same view of the world or the exact same approach that we take to our work, but we can all really agree on the North Star we’re trying to get to, which in our case is one million upwardly mobile careers for people who are typically locked out of this. We can do that work together, and it’s a very diverse coalition, intentionally so.
Van: Well, I’d love to dive into that a little bit more later on. Now, let’s talk about the one million upwardly mobile careers. I know you have a particular focus in infrastructure and clean energy. Perhaps you can break down some of the opportunities in those sectors and, generally speaking, what kind of training do people need to do in order to access some of these opportunities?
Rachel: As we all know, there were two major pieces of legislation passed that are really once in a generation opportunities to help with the clean energy transition and upgrade the country’s infrastructure and those are the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act. There are a number of other pieces of legislation that really help advance this as well. At the same time as there’s this public policy action, there’s also growing private sector investment over the last several years. So combined, we’re talking about trillions of dollars going towards clean energy production, climate resilience and infrastructure. Some estimates will put projections of up to fifteen million jobs that could be created in these industries, especially when you add in the infrastructure piece to clean energy. While we’re seeing all this growth, companies are actually already struggling today to hire and retain enough talent just to keep up with today’s demands.
We see a really critical role for philanthropy in doing two things: first, is really investing in models for training that can help deal with some of these hiring challenges, but especially that can help provide pathways to these great upwardly mobile careers for people who are typically locked out of them; and the second really important role we think that philanthropy can play is actually helping employers themselves and also state and local government that have to deploy so much money now in ensuring that they really do it in a way that can help with high road training and that can let them get workforce planning right.
Van: Is there a discussion of quality of jobs in your philanthropic approach?
Rachel: Definitely. We focus a lot on what makes a job good for the person who’s in it? What makes it a quality job? We find in the data that about 44% of people in the U.S. say that they have a good quality job, so that means there are a lot of folks out there who are still really struggling. When we look at the clean energy and infrastructure jobs, you know, many are all of the things that we would hope to see. There’s, living wage, there’s opportunities for pay increases, strong benefits packages. But there are a subset of these jobs where we might have a little bit more cause to worry along all of those elements.
What’s important for philanthropy is, number one, to help connect people who typically don’t have access to these good quality upwardly mobile careers to them through training, through providing support to employers around retention practices, but then also helping state and local government ensure that taxpayer dollars ultimately do really advance good quality jobs and has those principles and those incentives and how the money is put out there.
Van: Give us an example of what a good practice could be for local and governments to target those funds in the way that you’ve talked about.
Rachel: Absolutely. I would lift up Travis County, Texas, which has done an extraordinary job. They have created a program called Better Builder. It was developed with a local community-based nonprofit and a group of frontline construction workers themselves. This model has a set of standards around what makes a job good in the eyes of frontline construction workers, so it has things around living wage, health and safety, opportunities for training and advancement.
What Travis County has done first is provide some incentives for businesses that can help them get things like speedier approvals for development projects if they choose to adopt these incentives and with the bipartisan infrastructure law now coming, these standards can be integrated into a really significant $10 billion regional transit project. So, it’s a great example of a win really for workers, for government, for communities and for business. It easily could impact $10 billion and tens of thousands of workers and families.
Van: That’s a great example. Can you lift up some examples of retention practices and types of training that you’re focused on?
Rachel: Yeah. There’s a grantee that we are really amazed by, PowerCorps PHL. They’re located in Philly, but we’re helping them scale to about ten cities right now. They focus primarily on young people, primarily on young people of color and especially those who’ve had some involvement with the criminal court system. It is an intensive paid training program with wraparound supportive services that train people for careers in climate resilience and solar panel installation and a range of other kind of clean energy and green jobs. We are incredibly impressed with this program. It has some of the highest placement and retention rates that we’ve seen.
To your question about retention, unfortunately, that’s an area where a lot of training providers stop or where they don’t feel invited by the employer to really play a role. What we’re so amazed by about PowerCorps PHL is they actually really do this deep work with the employers on the front end to first make sure that the training is exactly what the employer needs and that it’s really a great match. But in that process, they also work with the employer on what it will take to have an environment that can support new hires, especially new hires who may not be coming from the same background as many of the other employees or their typical sources of recruiting are.
They’re looking also at the specific manager that person’s going to be working with and training that manager. So, we really think it’s these in-depth pieces of identifying the right employers, working with them, coaching them, supporting them as well…that helps make their placement and retention rates so strong.
Van: You mentioned that you’re working to help them expand into ten cities. What does that scaling process look like? How does your organization help PowerCorps PHL expand its impact?
Rachel: So, PowerCorps PHL was eager to expand at the time that we met them. They have had such an impactful model in Philadelphia that there are a number of other community-based training partnerships and employers in other cities that were interested in trying this model. What’s challenging is when you’re a training provider, you’re typically living on these short funding cycles, right? You got some public workforce money or you got an employer contract, and you don’t have that space to actually take time to think about your scaling strategy, to think about, you know, how could you improve even your placement rates? How could you work in a new place or attract and market to a new type of employer?
We think that’s a great role for philanthropy and that’s very much how we’ve worked to structure and think about our grant. In some cases, PowerCorps PHL will be doing a straight replication. In other cases, they’re going to be partnering deeply with organizations that have that trust, that have those deep community roots, and working with them to implement a similar type of model.
Van: That makes a lot of sense. Rachel, talk to us a little bit about what needs to be done to create the pathways that lead into these good jobs.
Rachel: There are many types of jobs in these areas: solar installers; there can be full scale electricians and those who are doing more of just the pure installation or the sales; a ton of different types of jobs in construction and specialized trades; and then also there’s a bunch of interesting new careers in energy efficiency and building retrofits. And a lot of these jobs are actually with small and midsize businesses.
You know, we talk a lot about “green jobs” like it’s one thing, but it actually looks like dozens of different occupations, which is part of the fun and the challenge of this work is that a lot of different types of training are needed. In a lot of cases, these are jobs that may have existed already for a long time, but now need to be done in a new way that’s embracing a different set of climate principles.
Van: Well, I’m cheering you on as you focus on these clean energy and infrastructure jobs. I don’t know if you know, but I got my start in workforce development in the energy sector, so I know a lot of these occupations that you’ve outlined and there can be really good jobs. I also like the fact that there’s adjacency between construction and the clean energy and infrastructure jobs.
So, I noted that the Families and Workers Fund is supported by forty different philanthropies with twenty-five actively engaged in strategy. My goodness…is that an unusual model, and how do you make that all work at a practical level?
Rachel: It is an unusual model and I appreciate you lifting that up. You know, for us, the fact that it’s unusual is part of why it’s worth doing. We really want to make sure that we get out of our specialized areas of expertise and that we work together to achieve greater results at scale. The way that we make it work is we all really agree on some shared high level outcome targets. We’ve talked about the one million upwardly mobile jobs. We’re also looking at using our philanthropic dollars in ways that are catalytic and one of the quantitative ways we look at that is leveraging $10 billion in external funding — public or private sector funding. We have a few other kind of key outcome targets like that. And that’s something that all of us can get behind, you know, all forty of these different philanthropies.
And sure, one piece of it is going to resonate more for one foundation and another for another donor. But by going about it together, we actually have a much stronger brain trust. We have funders that are Fortune 500 companies and can really bring a very strong perspective; we have funders that have more of a social and racial justice approach, and that’s really important; and we have funders that are best in class in technology and can bring that expertise. So, by taking this more collective approach, I think we’re really just able to get a lot more done and consider our strategies and our investments from each of these different, very important lenses and types of expertise.
Van: Well, I appreciate your collective impact model. In workforce development, I always say that it’s a team sport and not an individual sport. So, go Rachel!
Rachel: It absolutely is!
Van: Rachel, maybe you could give us some ideas. What do you look for when you are seeking grantees?
Rachel: So, when we’re looking for organizations that are really doing impactful, meaningful work around training and placement, there’s at least three key things that we look for. The first is we’re looking for a very inclusive and thoughtful recruitment strategy. We want to make sure that people who maybe never thought of themselves as a solar installer or never thought of themselves as someone working in climate resilience, that the training provider has ways of getting to them and is trusted and is credible. That’s really important. This is especially important in our shared goals around racial and gender equity in these industries where it’s often quite low.
The second is we look for very impactful and robust supportive services. We know that someone who’s working an hourly paid job, they don’t get to just stop and take six weeks or six months to do unpaid training. I mean, that’s just not possible for most of us and certainly not someone who’s been in an hourly paid job for a long time. So, supportive services are key.
Oftentimes this focuses on transportation or childcare…the things that can just get in your way and make it harder to succeed in a training program or succeed in a job later on. Some of the most impactful training programs we’ve seen that really have outsized impacts and very high completion and placement rates, they’ll go above and beyond. It’s not just a transportation or childcare voucher, but perhaps it is having a therapist on site that you offer to training program participants who are interested. Perhaps it’s on the spot help with public benefits applications or other sorts of resources people may need. So, that’s really important.
Then the third is this real focus on retention. The relationship with the training provider should not end at the point of placement and ultimately the program’s not going to be as impactful if there isn’t also those retention supports to employers.
So those three things: an inclusive and credible recruitment process, these robust supportive services, and retention supports for the employers…those are kind of the three key pieces that we look for as a funder in the workforce and training space.
Van: And all three resonate as best practices. I know that you’re making a special effort to bring the voice of frontline workers into the decisions that are being made by this collective, and I would love for you to share with us what you’re doing with the Essential Leaders Council.
Rachel: Absolutely. This has been such a big part of your work too, Van, and has been very inspiring to me. We can’t actually do this work without it really being guided and led by the people who the work is about, by the people who are closest to the pain. So, from the earliest days, we were informally consulting with a lot of our grantees and with others with lived experience working in frontline jobs or trying to apply for public benefits and struggling to get them, facing economic hardship. What we decided to do was actually really formalize that in our governance structure and basically put it on equal footing with our Funder Advisory Board.
Right now, this is a small group of workers who are in hourly wage jobs or gig workers in different sectors. They meet typically on a monthly basis. They’re from all over the country. These meetings are fully Spanish and English bilingual, and they advise on our strategy. They’ve shaped millions of dollars in our grant making. We worked with the Aspen Institute on this definition of good quality jobs that was very broadly endorsed by about 250 business and policy and other leaders and companies. The frontline workers on our Essential Leaders Council reviewed that fully before we brought it back to the group of experts and really weighed in on it and ground tested it. So, they’ve been hugely influential.
Actually, I’m excited to share that just a couple of weeks ago we got back from an in-person meeting where we fully integrated our Funder Advisory Board and our Essential Leaders Council. We brought the two groups together of these very senior leaders in philanthropy on the advisory board and frontline workers on the Essential Leaders Council and they really got together and strategized about how we do this work, how we achieve these impacts and work together collectively. So, it’s really exciting. For me, it really represents how I think philanthropy should be done. We’re learning. It’s the early days. We’ve only been at this for a couple of years, but it’s been incredible and it’s one of the things I’m most happy that we’ve had the opportunity to do.
Van: How powerful to give voice to those that will be affected by your funds. So, kudos to you. And I can’t help myself, I need to ask…do you recall a moment in time when their voice at the table shifted the thinking of the collective?
Rachel: A moment definitely comes to mind. A couple of years ago, we actually brought a number of the members of our Essential Leaders Council to a meeting with the presidents and CEOs of our member philanthropies to speak with them directly and we really gave them the space and the floor to share what they wanted to share.
I will never forget…one of them was talking about his experiences in disaster restoration, and shared a really painful story of wage theft. For your listeners who don’t know what that is, that’s essentially when a company is meant to pay you and doesn’t for some reason. Sometimes it can be very direct, like they just truly do not pay you. In other cases, it might be more insidious, like there’s a special fee that’s added to your paycheck that wasn’t discussed in a transparent way up front, or something like that.
And so here we are, you know, in this room with a number of leaders who are overseeing — between all of them — tens and tens of billions of dollars. One of them said, “What’s wage theft?” This person who had experienced it and lived it very directly explained what it was and they had a really robust conversation about it. Afterwards, we heard from that leader that this was a really powerful and profound moment for him and that he hadn’t known about this issue before.
That really stuck with me, because, you know, often when we’re focused on economic mobility and training, we’re always thinking about what that upward track is. But the important point that this worker was making was, we’ve also got to ensure that the floor isn’t too low. We can’t overlook those jobs that millions of people are in where they are still facing really basic struggles, and kind of don’t turn away from that. We’ve also been able to do some grant making in some areas where these are real challenges and I don’t know that that would have been the focus of our collective group if it weren’t for the guidance and the shared stories of this group of frontline and hourly workers.
Van: Well, that’s a very vivid example of what can happen when you bring their voices to the decision-making process. It’s wonderful work that you’re doing. Rachel, I so appreciate you coming on to the podcast today.
Rachel: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to connect with you.
Van: Absolutely. We’ll do it again. 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.