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Ron Painter, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards: Helping American Workers Be Their Best

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Ron Painter, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards: Helping American Workers Be Their Best


As the unprecedented misalignment in the U.S. labor market between employers and workers continues, it’s a good time to take a look at the extensive federal infrastructure in place to support people seeking jobs and skills. Millions of Americans access 2,400 American Job Centers located throughout the country and its territories every year, which are powered by a network of 500 Workforce Development Boards. On today’s episode of WorkforceRx, Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan sits down with Ron Painter, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards, to explore the vital role they play in advancing economic opportunity. “Workforce Boards bring together the players you need in that region -- housing, transportation, economic development, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations -- that's a unique mix wherever you are. There's a whole lot that makes that equation work.” Check out this informative discussion to learn how communities are leveraging this network to bring about economic opportunity, why local Boards need more flexibility, and to understand why Painter is optimistic about meeting the unprecedented challenges facing employers and 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.


Regular listeners to this podcast have heard about a variety of interesting workforce training programs happening at the state and local level, and many guests have made suggestions for innovative approaches that they’d like to see unfold.  Well, many of these programs and ideas will require the participation of state and local Workforce Investment Boards to become a reality.


To get an overview of how these boards do their work, and the challenges and opportunities facing them, we turn today to Ron Painter, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards. NAWB represents over 500 business-led Workforce Investment Boards across the country, and also serves associated organizations in the workforce industry.


Ron brings decades of experience in workforce development to his role, including creating and leading a Workforce Investment Board in the Pittsburgh area before assuming his current position in Washington.


Thanks so much for joining us today, Ron.


Ron Painter: You’re welcome, Van. Great to see you. I wish we were in person.


Van: I know! It’d be such a joy to see you in person, Ron.


Ron: It’s just so weird, still, to like see people live.


Van: Ron, maybe you can start by adding to my very brief description of what the NAWB does.


Ron: I’m happy to. Like you would assume from a national association, we’re very involved with advocacy. In fact, today the U.S. House Democrats released their version of WIOA, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act 2.0. So, we’re looking at how do we update that. But outside of what you would traditionally think of as working on Capitol Hill, working with the White House, working with the administration, we also do a lot of work with other national associations. We do work with private companies for whom workforce development is a critical issue, but it’s not THE issue that they’re working on. Our part of that is not only helping them understand what current policy is, but also taking input as to what kind of policy they think we need to look at on Capitol Hill.


We do things for our members — we call them Town Halls — where we are presenting topics and experts on those topics that impact the industry. We’ve also started to do something we’re calling Coffee and Conversations, in which somebody puts a topic on the table and we join collectively with our members to talk through it. Maybe it’s an issue that somebody is having locally, so other people are offering suggestions.


We also do something called The Forum, which is our annual workforce conference that is held here in Washington D.C. We’re looking forward to welcoming about 1,200 people live for the first time in like three years to D.C. to talk about all things workforce policy.


Van: Well, I’m sure the hotels, the taxis and Uber drivers will be thrilled that you’re actually bringing people together in person.


Ron: (laughs)


Van: You know, I just jumped to the assumption that all of our listeners are aware of the public workforce system which is funded by the federal government, but maybe you can just give a brief overview of how that system is funded and for whom it works…just a little bit of a primer for those who are newer to this workforce world.


Ron: Sure. I’d probably treat as what you see and what you don’t.  Hopefully, there are a number of your listeners who are familiar with Workforce Boards. Many of them probably know the retail outlet for Workforce Boards, which are the American Job Centers. There are 2,400 American Job Centers across the U.S. and the territories. They will touch probably ten million people in the course of a year. And when I say touch, that means all the way from somebody jumping online to see what kind of positions are available in my region, to somebody coming in or being dealt with virtually to talk about what are my skills? What are the skills in demand in the regional market? If I want to upgrade my skills, what’s the next credential that I should learn? Where can I go get that credential? You know, those kinds of issues.


But more broadly, adult education and literacy is a part of WIOA. Migrant and seasonal farmworkers is a part of WIOA. Community senior employment, dislocated worker funding, Job Corps, Youth Build, Native American programs, vocational rehabs and the employment service…all of those are a part of WIOA. Beyond that, when we think about the workforce development system, we’ve got to include community colleges and other learning providers that are in our community because the Boards work across that spectrum.


One of the other things that’s also critical to Workforce Boards is childcare development funding, which has been going up. But if we’re a Workforce Board in Texas, childcare development funding comes through the Texas Workforce Commission and local Workforce Board. So, there’s a variety of funding that the Boards are utilizing across the country. In fact, for a substantial number of the Boards, WIOA is less than 50% of the money that they work with. So, it’s a big field. It’s kind of everything when you’re talking about skilling and re-skilling the American labor force: the Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, and apprenticeships and work-based learning.


Van: Thanks for the reminder of the big tent represented by this workforce system. One of our prior podcast guests, Ryan Craig, referenced a front page of the Washington Post which was all about the ten million open jobs, and the 8.4 million unemployed who are looking for jobs. Basically, you have employers looking for workers and then workers looking for employers and I just wonder, what’s your observation? What are you hearing out there? Why do we have such a big mismatch at this moment in time?


Ron: Man, I think it’s something that I know you’ve encountered in your career: an opportunity is really only an opportunity if I can take advantage of it. Let’s just pick manufacturing, and I live forty miles from that manufacturing facility. If I don’t have the transportation to get there, then it’s not really an opportunity, is it? I was on a panel of business people a week or so ago and they were talking about some of the issues they have with regard to this number. One was, they can provide skill development as long as that individual has the ability to consistently show up, the ability to take directions and the ability to learn. But what they couldn’t contend with as a business was childcare, transportation, and affordable housing. So, when I look at that ten million number, I think this is why we so strongly believe in local business-led workforce boards because that ten million is dependent on the circumstances of that region.


Bringing together the players that you need to in that region — housing, transportation, economic development, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations — that’s sort of a unique mix wherever you are. So, when you look at that ten million and you look at seven or eight million long-term unemployed, that’s not just a “one goes into the other number.” There’s a whole lot that makes that equation work, that makes that market work.


I love being with Peter Cappelli from the University of Pennsylvania. He reminds us that this is a market. In the U.S. labor market, there’s over 100 million transactions a year, so it’s an amazingly dynamic market, but I think at the core of it when you get to that local area is that combination of where’s the worker, what is the work and where is the work?


Van: It sounds like the workforce system has many levers and many moving parts and resources as well. So, when does the workforce system work best?


Ron: That’s a great question. I think it works best when it has the flexibility and the freedom to be what it needs to be in terms of its action and its investments. As I mentioned before, one of the things that the legislation counts on is that Workforce Boards go through this process of analyzing the local labor market, strategizing around how to meet employer needs, and how to meet the needs of workers for skill development. They convene those players locally and in the region that can impact that, and then the Board reports out about what progress they are making.


When the Board has the freedom to do those things and it has a little bit of money in WIOA to invest in training — but there’s a lot more money outside the system — then it can leverage that money to make something work on behalf of maybe a critical employer in the region. I’m thinking of places like Hampton Roads, Virginia with the shipyard there, and Eastern Connecticut with Electric Boat when they can bring those regional Workforce Boards and resources together to really satisfy critical workforce needs. That’s when the system really, really, really works.


Also, when they have good labor market data and people on the Board who are engaged in understanding what’s going on in the market and can bring that to the table, I think that’s part of when it really works. And of course, having a willing partner in terms of business and some of the other entities in the community.


Van: What does an exemplary Workforce Board look like? And maybe you could give us some real examples of what they achieve when they have that flexibility and some of that money and leverage and labor market data and partners.


Ron: You mentioned data. When you think about data, the San Diego Partnership comes to mind immediately. It’s a really sophisticated example of where they have made a concerted effort and decision that they’re going to focus on evidence-based practices and they have built the data systems to help create that evidence that leads their investments. So, Peter Callstrom and his crew do an amazing job.


I think about Western Michigan, which is what I would call a midsized budget Board. Jacob Maas and his crew realized when they were gathering businesses together that they were very interested in work-based learning — in this case apprenticeships — but the employers looked at how daunting it was, in their opinion, to get an apprenticeship plan approved. The Workforce Board stepped in and wrote and filed the apprenticeship plan.  They work with the companies on recruiting and they work with them on reporting. So, that’s an example around apprenticeship and work-based learning. A Workforce Board plays that critical role of tying that all together.


I think of places like Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. It’s a rural board, but Sharon Johnson and her crew have been convening the community to talk about, “What does equity mean here in the Shenandoah Valley? What can we do about it?” So to me, that’s an example of taking on that broader community engagement around an issue of critical importance.


We’re beginning work with Manhattan Strategies and others here on the supply chain. It’s remarkable work with the ports and the Workforce Boards. It’s a critical industry, a critical need in our country right now to try and figure out how to get more capacity in the supply chain. How do we get critical workers there? So, you have Seattle, Long Beach, Charleston and Philadelphia involved.


You would appreciate this: when we’re ticking through the list of ports, all of a sudden the Cincinnatis and the Pittsburghs and the Milwaukees — the inland ports — started to send emails to us and said, “Hey, wait a minute. Don’t forget about us. We move an enormous amount of goods across the country.” So, I think that’s an example with a sector partnership. Here’s an industry that’s critical in our region that offers good quality work, good quality wages and so the Board has been an integral part of bringing them together.


I think Workforce Boards need to support economic development but also proffer opinions about economic development and investments.  I think about the really strong partnership when you get to the Dallas-Fort Worth area around avionics and logistics. And then certainly the efforts in Southern Virginia and Northern North Carolina down around the Danville, Virginia area.  I would say to you what makes a great Board is identifying your critical industries and the Board digging in and saying, “What can we do about this?”  WIOA is not going to solve everything. It’s bringing together the people who can create that solution.


Van: Ron, you mentioned sector strategy and of course I live and breathe it these days on health care, right?


Ron: Oh my gosh, yeah.


Van: Sector strategy is focusing on an industry and their workforce development. I don’t know if you knew this, but even before my days with the California Community Colleges, I was first exposed to sector strategy through my involvement with the San Mateo Workforce Board.


Ron: Oh! Okay.


Van: Yes, that’s where I first learned about how Genentech was trying to solve their technician problem. They were having such high attrition rates and they really thought about how they would create the workforce pipeline, and that was my first exposure to sector strategy. It began under the tutelage of one of the committee members on that board to learn about sector strategy. So actually, I have to give credit to the workforce system for getting me started there.


Ron: (laughs) Yeah. I was going to say, I think I’m the only member of my family, Van, not in healthcare. So, I am the recipient of many opinions about the healthcare industry. (laughs). But as you know — because you’ve had exposure in your career to other industries — every one of those sectors has their own rhythm. They have their own nuances to how they function and what’s their critical pathway. What are those skills along the way? How do you put that together? If you just want to casually observe, you could probably do that. But I think the strength of the sector strategies is when you have critical sectors in your region…it’s that deep understanding of not only the workforce of that industry, but also the pressures that are on that industry. For instance, what’s happening to them in terms of global competition? I was just sitting in a roundtable with small businesses and access to capital becomes a critical industry.


I think the other part of what makes a good Board is a great director. They’ve got to be curious and they really do have to have an appetite to hear and to think about what are these pressures on the various sectors in their region.


Van: It’s amazing to think that our country has invested in this infrastructure that is in everybody’s backyard as a resource that’s available to really all of our organizations and communities. And yet we also have critiques of our system.  You know, I was in the room when President Obama signed the first Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act…that was quite a thrill. I can’t believe it’s already a 2.0 version!


Ron: I know, right? Didn’t we just get done arguing WIOA?


Van: I know. I hope some of the same regional elements will carry on, but what’s a wish for you in version 2.0, as an upgrade?


Ron: One of the elements about the U.S. system that gets really tricky is the fact that it involves all three layers of government. I think it’s rightly so, because all three sectors have an important part of the workforce development system in the U.S. It’s a constant negotiation among those three layers, but we really believe where the rubber hits the road is at the local level where all of this has to be put together and it has to work. Again, we can say things here in D.C. like transportation, affordable housing, and quality jobs. We can talk about different funding streams such as Carl Perkins and WIOA. We haven’t even talked about TANF, which is a big part of the system or the SNAP employment and training program, or private philanthropy dollars that go into the system.


Where that connects is where somebody gets a skill, somebody goes to work and the employer hires them. So, really front and center for us in WIOA 2.0 is the ability for locals to make those decisions. There’s a whole list of workforce development activities that are allowed under the legislation. We think that local Boards need to have the authority to understand what’s going on in their market and make an investment in workforce development where they believe those are necessary. We accept the responsibility and accountability that comes with that. I think that’s really, really important for us in 2.0. We’re on the cusp of really dynamic changes in how we work and where we work, and I think the system has to have the flexibility to address those changes to be efficient, effective, and equitable for businesses and job seekers where they are. So, that’s the big wish.


Van: I totally get what you’re talking about. It’s like these cultural barriers for all these different agencies and organizations to work together. That’s why it was so important to introduce concepts like braiding resources. We will honor everybody’s requirements and funding streams and metrics, but we need to braid together these resources and these efforts. It’s not as if any of us exist in a silo.


The other truth that is hard for people to accept is that for the magnitude of some of these workforce issues, there’s no one organization that can solve them all alone. When you talk about adult education or language or digital literacy or skill sets relevant to even one sector, it’s more than any one community college or one corporation can bite off. Amongst the harder things to do when I was on the employer side was to say “public and public must dance together before public and private start dancing.” Right?


Ron: Absolutely!


Van: Because that’s about the scariest thing you can do to the employer is to have public entities fight amongst themselves in front of an employer! So, you’ve got to get that in control first.


Ron: One of my favorite panels at our annual forum is to bring the assistant secretaries from the Department of Labor, Transportation, Education, Health, and Human Services and Commerce to talk about these issues of not only what’s facing us in terms of workforce development, but what’s the conversation like between them? We just saw for the infrastructure bill that the Department of Transportation and the Department of Labor signed an MOU. That stuff’s really hard to do, but to your point, it’s really critical that there is an understanding of how we are going to address these needs.


Van: That’s very promising. Ron, as you know, all of the major systems are being disrupted these days. Not only in the supply chain and higher education but, boy, even with healthcare with the cut over to telehealth. So, what’s the most disruptive force to your system right now that might be a good thing?


Ron: Andrew Yang, as we were entering the pandemic, made the prophecy that we were going to learn more in ten months than we were going to learn in ten years, and I think that’s so true. I think what’s really disruptive for our industry are two concepts.


First of all, we see more and more Workforce Boards do what I think is really, really critical and that is put the customer, the business and the job seeker in the center of the table and say, “here’s the problem in our community, here’s the challenge in our community, here’s the need in our community” and then start to look at how we solve this and who can be a part of that solution. I think that’s really important.


Second, is we’ve learned a lot about how to do things via technology. I think the next question will be how do we get better at doing that? As we’ve all experienced the last few years, it’s hard to communicate virtually on a constant basis. You and I can do that easier in this conversation because you and I know each other and we’ve been together and so we can kind of envision how we are responding. But when you’re a case manager trying to help so many people put together their lives, sometimes, that’s really hard to do virtually. So, I think this is also about the learning curve around what technology is effective and how do we get people comfortable with it? How do we train people in a different way to interact with others?


I’m guessing in your world, doctors and nurses and practitioners had to learn a few new tricks about how to do that telehealth thing because the patient is not right there.


Van: Well, Ron, when the pandemic hit and everybody was sheltered in place, the telehealth rate of adoption was maybe in the low teens and there was a lot of skepticism and pessimism about whether it was relevant. And then what happened…we went to about 80% adoption for telehealth and telemedicine and the consumers decided they liked it. So, when I talked about it with my board, they said “Many things may revert, but this one will not.”


Ron: Does that put more pressure on the industry? I mean, let’s say I’m healthy enough or you’ve gotten me to the point where whatever the malady that were working on is manageable through telehealth. Does that put more pressure on the actual institution of a hospital or a clinic? Are the skills ramping up because that person who’s got to come into the hospital is sicker?


Van: Right. It does change skill sets of the workers. For example, there’s a lot more tech troubleshooting involved before someone gets into an appointment.  They call it virtual rooming. That’s newer, and the interpersonal skills required with that, as well as the technical skills, are new and part of the norm of how you train workers.


But it also opened up opportunities. You asked if people will be sicker moving into the hospital. The answer is yes, and more care will be provided in the home, even post-op care, because they know that recovery is better in the home environment versus the strangeness of the hospital environment. So, for a set of cases, you will be recovering in the home. That’s largely because now you have the ability and the data, as well as the infrastructure, to work with centralized doctors and you can dispatch different kinds of workers to support care within the home. It’s fascinating because it opens up a bunch of opportunities as well as presents a workforce challenge.


Ron: Yes.  I am really privileged. I get to go hang out at the National Robotics Lab. I sit with the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute’s Workforce Advisory Committee. Every once in a while, they let this non-techie guy come and hang out with the robots. Farming is a part of how I grew up, and one of the things that’s really cool is that for young people who love agriculture but also love the tech side, there’s a lot of opportunities now because there’s so much technology used in agriculture. There’s the opportunity to combine both of your worlds — to get that technical education but to still work in an industry that you love. So, I think with the growth of technology, there’s certainly, like, crazy opportunities for people to really have a meaningful career and maybe an occupation that’s a passion.


Van: Doesn’t it also present an opportunity or a change in how the workforce system does its services? In other words, what needs to be done locally and in-person versus being done from afar or done with shared infrastructure? I’m thinking of many of the common services, like paperwork for the first visits. Does that really have to be local?


Ron: You can do DocuSign as a number of the Boards did when the pandemic started, and some did really innovative things like asking you to hold up your driver’s license next to your face on Zoom. They would do a screen capture. So, there’s your driver’s license and there’s your face and it proves that you’re you.


I think it’s a positive challenge. It’s one of the opportunities. What really are those things that I can check-in with you on a regular basis about, and what are those things that you and I really need to sit together and work on?  It’s why Workforce Boards across the country have been highly supportive of the investments and the expansion of broadband. That’s really critical for us, and not just in rural areas. We tend to think everybody in an urban area has great access to technology and that’s not always true.


Van:  So, what excites Ron Painter these days? These are hard issues that you’re working on.


Ron: (laughs) It’s the getting up and realizing that there about 165 million people in the U.S. labor force. As we watch the advance of automation, the collaboration between humans and robots, it changes the skill set. It’s the challenge facing our nation of how do we re-skill — this continuing process for the American worker — to allow them the opportunity to be the best in the world. How do you take that and push a public policy that helps that happen?


I started my life in a local elected office. I believe in local elected officials. I believe in the ability of locals to come together to solve their problems. They have to because they live there. So, for me, what really does juice me is when I’m in a room full of people who are trying to solve problems in their community. I get to bring that back to DC. I get to talk to state officials, and I get to advance that. I get to try and give them the tools to make this happen. And when we’re with the community colleges — and when you were on the board — I mean, when you think about it, this is not as abstract as we all think. This is about family.


I have family that keeps trying to figure out, “What am I going to do? What are the skills that are being required?” It’s about friends. It’s about neighbors and it’s about our community. Are there tough days in this business? Holy cow, yes! I’ve been blessed and I’ve been privileged to be able to try and make a difference in people’s lives by helping them get the skills they need to provide food, clothing and shelter for their families, and a sense of meaning for their life. I don’t know how it gets much better. I really don’t.


Van: I appreciate your leadership and advocacy on such important issues, and I want to mention Futuro Health has partnerships with several Workforce Boards here in California.


Ron: Awesome.


Van: Okay, I’m going to bring us home here with the final question, which is what makes you optimistic about the future work?


Ron: Mmm. We’ve faced these challenges before. When I went to work in Pittsburgh, the steel industry was in the last vestiges of collapsing and a friend of mine recommended that I read the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle who wrote in the 1800’s. Carlyle was talking to a group of British manufacturers who were worried about their industry because this upstart place called America, you know, was producing goods that were cheaper than what the British were doing. Carlyle said to them, “there will always be a market for excellence.”


I think that also sort of drives me. There’s always going to be that craving for excellence. I heard Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School speak once and she said “What really brought down the Soviet Union was that they all wanted to go shopping and they wanted access to quality goods.” I’m not saying that’s exactly what it was, but I think it’s our ability to continually meet the challenge; it’s our ability to reinvent; it’s our ability to look at a problem and to put it together for our communities, our families, and for ourselves; it’s the inspiration of innovation; it’s the search for doing something better. Can we do it more effectively, more efficiently?


There are a lot of challenges that face us. How do we make sure that small and mid-sized businesses — which really are the backbone of our economy — have access to the support they need for a skilled workforce?  But I am optimistic. I think if we can get the tools and the resources back into the hands of people in the community, we can solve these problems. We can solve these problems.


Van: Absolutely. I love your call to action to tap into our American spirit and rise to the moment and rise to the challenge. Well, there you have it. Thank you very much, Ron Painter, for being with us today.


Ron: Thank you. I really, really appreciate the opportunity to join you.


Van: 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.