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Special Episode: WorkforceRx Live Book Launch

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Special Episode: WorkforceRx Live Book Launch


Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health and host of the show, is also author of the new best-selling book, WorkforceRx: Agile and Inclusive Strategies for Employers, Educators and Workers in Unsettled Times. In this episode, Van welcomes some of the nation’s leading workforce development experts to discuss which strategies and insights from Chapters Three and Four resonated most with them. Check out their lively discussion about giving employers a role in shaping curriculum, making education and training more affordable and flexible, finding an ecosystem of willing partners and much more from this powerful new playbook for the future of work. 

Joining Van are: Rachel Unruh, Chief of External Affairs with the National Skills Coalition; Amy Wallace, former Deputy Director at the California Workforce Development Board; Debra Jones & Lynn Shaw, former system leaders with the California Community Colleges; Flannery Hauck, Director with SEIU-UHW; Kai Drekmeier, Chief Development Officer with Inside Track; Fred Freedman, Chief Executive Officer of Pima Medical Institute; and Katie Nielson, Chief Education Officer of EnGen.


Announcer: Welcome to this special episode of the WorkforceRx podcast. Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health and host of the show, is also author of the new best-selling book, WorkforceRx: Agile and Inclusive Strategies for Employers, Educators and Workers in Unsettled Times. In this episode, Van welcomes some of the nation’s leading workforce development experts to discuss which strategies and insights from Chapters Three and Four resonated most with them. Check out their lively discussion about giving employers a role in shaping curriculum, making education and training more affordable and flexible, finding an ecosystem of willing partners and much more from this powerful new playbook for the future of work.

Joining Van are: Rachel Unruh, Chief of External Affairs with the National Skills Coalition; Amy Wallace, former Deputy Director at the California Workforce Development Board; Debra Jones & Lynn Shaw, former system leaders with the California Community Colleges; Flannery Hauck, Director with SEIU-UHW; Kai Drekmeier, Chief Development Officer with Inside Track; Fred Freedman, Chief Executive Officer of Pima Medical Institute; and Katie Nielson, Chief Education Officer of EnGen.

And now, here’s Van…

Van Ton-Quinlivan: I’m so delighted to have your company today. The book proceeds will be donated to Futuro Health’s nonprofit mission, which is to increase the health and wealth of communities by growing the largest network of allied health workers in the nation. Some folks ask me why have I written this book and why this book now? The answer is the numbers: 8.4 million unemployed and 10 million job openings. The pandemic has really wreaked havoc on our labor market, which already was in turmoil beforehand. Workers can’t find jobs. Employers can’t find workers. We need our nation to have all our engines revving to connect people with the right skills for the right jobs.

There’s no more perfect time to get these workforce development strategies and these proven playbooks out since we do not need to start from scratch, and we can be working together in collaborative ways to build upon each other’s good works. This is a moment in time when — to borrow a phrase from former colleagues — you don’t want to ‘post and pray’ that there’s a talent pool on the other end. There are many, many strategies that are proven that can be employed in order to ensure that you have the talent pool when you make that job posting.

I’m so excited to introduce the set of speakers who will be joining me and react to Chapters 3 and 4. Before I introduce them, I just wanted to mention that when we invite them to speak, they are going to do a small ice breaker, which is to give a keyword they would use in order to find this book on Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or Google. Then, they will go into the following question: what insight, story or strategy in the book resonated the most with you, and why? I’m so appreciative that they came together to celebrate this moment with me.

Rachel Unruh is number two at the National Skills Coalition. There is a very short list of go-to people when it comes to federal skills policy and Rachel is one of these individuals who everybody knows about. So, thank you Rachel for joining us.

Amy Wallace has a big ‘corporate America’ job of driving philanthropy right now, but we met when she was in her former role as the number two at the California Workforce Development Board, driving a lot of those policies when we were synching-up on regionalism and a lot of other intents on how to make dollars braid together and work together so that we can get more Californians into better opportunities.

Speaking about opportunity, Debra Jones and Lynn Shaw are here. As you know, education reform is not an individual sport. It is a team sport, and there’s no better team I could have had than Debra Jones and Lynn Shaw working with me at the State Chancellor’s Office in California to drive and design many of the reforms that we put through, including doing what matters for jobs and the economy and strong workforce programs. Debra and Lynn, thank you for being here.

For Chapter 4, we have Flannery Hauck with SEIU-UHW. Flannery’s union of 100,000 health care workers had the foresight to actually make the significant investment in launching Futuro Health last year, pre-pandemic, in order to grow the next generation of healthcare workers. So, thank you for having that foresight.

And with her is Kai Drekmeier, who is with Inside Track. Especially as we think about adult-friendly education that is flexible to their hours, a lot of that moves online. Adults need to feel a sense of connection and the personal touch, and Inside Track has been a fantastic partner to us at Futuro Health in order to ensure that even as we take advantage of online methods, we always have the personal touch.

Fred Freeman, CEO of Pima Medical Institute, also had the foresight to be able to bring together a coalition of education partners who have healthcare programs. It is his foresight that allowed us to more easily launch not only a whole range of education programs, but he was also critical in launching, at the ‘speed of need’, curriculum that we needed to deliver in two and a half weeks in order to meet the timing of the first COVID-19 surge that was going to happen.

I also want to welcome Katie Nielson. She is so fantastic and such an evangelist for meeting students where they are, including where their language needs are, and how to bridge that gap between where people are on their education path and the work path that they want to get on towards their aspirations.

So let us begin with Rachel. Let me invite you to do your ice breaker question and launch into the topic.

Rachel Unruh: Thanks, Van, and thanks for having me. Thanks for writing this book. It’s really great. I think if I was trying to find it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Google, I would think of ‘partnerships’, ‘adaptation’, and ‘innovation’. Those are really connected to the story that you told that resonated with me most in Chapter 3, which was when you talked about the ecosystem that you helped to create in California when you were at the community colleges and how important that ecosystem was to scaling some of the innovations, and also to adaptation. And that involves bringing all different folks to the table who represented different stakeholder groups, who had control over different funding streams, and how important it is to be able to collaborate and braid those funding streams in order to serve the greatest number of employers and workers.

I think what really struck me about that — thinking back to the last major economic disruption we had, which was the Great Recession — is there were some federal dollars that came down that folks are pretty familiar with, I think. The TAACCCT grants helped community colleges and a lot of their partners build those kinds of workforce ecosystems and that was just really essential to how folks responded to the Great Recession and helped get people trained for jobs and address what were similar numbers to what you showed at the beginning.

I think one of the challenges, of course, is that while those grants were great, we still in this country have no dedicated funding for the capacity that’s required — not just to build those ecosystems but to sustain those ecosystems. Because as you know Van, you don’t just conjure those overnight. It takes a lot of trust-building. It takes a lot of capacity. So, given the disruption we saw with the pandemic where workplaces saw ten years of technological change overnight that required rapid re-skilling, I think it’s going to be essential for the workforce ecosystem to have that capacity across the country as we respond in real-time when we have economic disruptions and also to innovate at all times.

Van: That’s a great point, especially for smaller and medium businesses. They need these intermediaries. They don’t have dedicated personnel to be able to do this work and yet they very much need the talent. Thank you, Rachel. Next, we have Amy.

Amy Wallace: Hey, good morning, everybody. I also want to congratulate Van on her amazing achievement. This book is so impressive. I’m so thrilled to have it in my electronic library. It’s really so thrilling to be able to see this work come to fruition. I so appreciate being invited to participate and see many of my old friends who I worked with when I was at the State of California.

My keyword search for the book would be ‘real change’ because I think so much of what is talked about throughout the book is how you create the kinds of systems and structures and partnerships to ensure that change is actualized for workers and for businesses, and how do we make that a long-term sustainable proposition?

In terms of the thing that resonated for me the most, it was this highlight from the end of Chapter 3, which is, “Creating a talent pool from a talent puddle lies in finding an ecosystem of willing partners.” What I loved about that is, so many of the examples in the book speak to the importance of identifying the right partners to get the job done.

While I was working for the state, I had the pleasure of working with Van while she was at the Chancellor’s Office, as well as the California Labor Agency, the Governor’s Business Development Office, and many, many others, to create a regional initiative designed to address challenges that existed at the intersection of workforce, education, and economic development. The key to this was creating a flexible structure for groups to come together, define a problem and decide how they wanted to address it collectively. What came out were ‘coalitions of the willing’ — individual actors and organizations that were committed to moving the needle on job preparation, and our role really became just to get out of their way.

These partnerships really found their north stars and drove systems change in a way that was most meaningful to their communities, each one tailoring to their own strength. As a result, we saw a flourishing of regional industry collaboratives in healthcare, manufacturing and IT, and many other sectors. The lesson for me from this work was that there really is no one-size-fits-all solution to workforce development challenges, but having the right folks at the same table can be infinitely creative in getting the job done right.

Van: You take me back into memory lane, especially the concept of getting out of the way of these coalitions. That’s not always easy because you’re changing regulation, legislation, or the flow of state money. So, there’s plenty of work at the state level even when you’re trying to get out of the way. Thank you, Amy. Debra Jones.

Debra Jones: Good morning. Congratulations, Van. I had the opportunity to work with Van at the Chancellor’s office. I was, as she refers to me, her lieutenant, which means that we spent many mornings and evenings and weekends and sometimes very late nights together working, and I really want to share a story that shows who Van is as a person.

I looked at ‘strategy’ as a keyword because everything that Van did was deliberate and there was a strategy behind it. Van created her ecosystem amongst a world of doubters and resisters at the State Chancellor’s office. How she did it and the impact that it had on her work was phenomenal. How did she do it? Well, Barbara and Rona — their legislative policy insiders — and Van went to breakfast one Friday morning early in her tenure. And that Friday turned into every Friday morning and the breakfast crew grew. Tim Rainey who I think is on here, is head of the Workforce Development Board. He joined them and it grew from there. That was the beginning of a strategically curated ecosystem of partners.

So, on most Friday mornings, Van would come back to the office excited and full of energy. She’d bring napkins with written notes and graphics, boxes and arrows — which is her common thinking language. At the breakfast, they would scheme and strategize. They developed a common language around the workforce. They defined California’s landscape by regions and sectors, and they aligned grant schedules and outcomes. Most importantly, they became an echo chamber for each other, and that was powerful.

Another example was the building of the foundation when WIOA was reauthorized and required joint planning. Had it not been for those breakfast meetings and the relationships that were established, the planning would have occurred in agency silos. The field, workforce development, economic development, adult education and community colleges were able to work together and do real joint planning and braid funding.

Van was with her family of colleagues. They supported her in her work and at the same time, they offered critical feedback and new perspectives around legislation and policy. She’d return inspired and ready to tackle the challenges at hand. It was a safe sounding board. She could test out her ideas with the Friday group and together they could strategize solutions that worked for each. It was a place where she could get real feedback. It wasn’t always positive feedback, but it was feedback that informed and shaped her next steps.

One of the greatest values was the alignment and advocacy for legislative policy changes. Together with one voice each person represented their agency and reflected the collective. I remember going to Senate hearings where each person from the Friday breakfast group would testify — again each with a single focus — but all with a collective and aligned vision. Together, they were strong and able to shape legislation. They couldn’t have done it on their own. So, the lesson was to curate your ecosystem. It will serve you well and strengthen your organization. Congratulations, Van.

Van: Thank you, Debra. Your comments also echo my sentiment which is that education reform is not an individual sport, it is a team sport. Thank you so much for having been a critical member of the team. With that, let me turn it over to Lynn Shaw.

Lynn Shaw: Hi. I’m really glad to be here. Thank you, Van, for inviting me and congratulations on writing this book. I really enjoyed reading it. I lived with you through many of the stories, so that was really fun to sort of see your perspective in writing. My keyword search would be ‘workforce health.’ I think you’re looking at building something really healthy that can be sustained.

I just wanted to tell a short story. My first experience with workforce disruption through technology was when I called to get my refrigerator repaired. The repairman came, and the first thing he pulled out was a laptop. I was so shocked because he didn’t have a toolbox. That was when I realized like, “Oh my God, the workforce is really changing.”

I think one of the systems that can really change the way we train people is apprenticeship. I served an electrical apprenticeship and I’ve also been a miner, a steelworker and longshore worker. There’s a lot of tag words people use for the earn-as-you-learn approach, but you start out with a job and you learn on the job and you learn in the classroom at the same time. So, it’s not like you go to school and then get a job. It’s all integrated.

I believe the workforce of the future and the way people learn and the jobs they have are going to be ever-changing. I think we used to use the term ‘lifelong learning’, but I think it’s going to be ‘lifelong skill attainment’. You sort of fill your toolbox with various skills. I do believe it’s not the degree you have, it’s not going to be even what you know, it’s going to be what you can really do. I think that’s a great shift in the future of learning and the future of work.

The last thing I want to talk about is this “talent puddle into a talent ocean.” I think there is occupational apartheid. In other words, I think there are still women’s jobs and men’s jobs. I think if we can change the way people look at work, to have no gender, that will create a different kind of talent pool or talent ocean. So, congratulations, Van. I’m really happy to be here. Thank you for letting me get on my soapbox.

Van: Thank you, Lynn. I’m delighted you were able to talk about apprenticeship as a learner model very effectively, and how it can increase the agility of the workforce to be able to acquire new skills more systematically. Thanks for joining us. Now, let me turn it over to Flannery Hauck.

Flannery Hauck: Hi there, Van. So glad to be here and so impressed and proud of you for this book and for all your work developing Futuro Health, which is how Van and I actually met. My keyword has already been uttered multiple times. It’s the word ‘ecosystem.’ I don’t think I can add much more to what Amy and Deb and Rachel all said, even though they didn’t pick it as their keyword.

I heard ‘ecosystem of willing partners.’ I love Debra’s ‘ecosystem of doubters and resistors.’ It really speaks to Van’s gift in understanding the — whether we call it a team of rivals or a coalition of allies, people on this call talked about community and employers — that the power of people with a common interest and complementary assets can’t be understated. I really don’t think I could say it any better than Debra, Amy and Rachel already have. But my word would absolutely be ecosystem. I think our call here today is a little bit of an example of that.

My favorite story was really right in the beginning of the foundational story from Chapter 3. You share a story about Nathan, a midwestern CEO who thought he had a really good tuition reimbursement program. But, in doing an investigation, he learned that employees need the flexibility to account for things like childcare and second jobs, online programs that would allow them to take advantage of the hours that they have to go to school, and affordability. Sure, the company covered the cost by reimbursing, but not by disbursement. He implemented the feedback, and that grew participants from 70 to more than 600. My takeaway as a union organizer is that the answer came from talking directly to the workers to understand the need.

That’s part of what I think is so powerful about Van’s work with Futuro Health. It broadens this idea of an ecosystem beyond public-private, or employers and education providers, but has a direct line to the contribution of frontline healthcare workers about what their needs are as students as workers and as practitioners. Even in the work that we did to stand up the COVID curriculum — and we have to give all praise to Pima for that — you were willing to draw on the direct experience of front-line respiratory therapists who were treating COVID patients to inform the curriculum. What a powerful addition to the ecosystem.

You also talk later in the chapter about the SEIU-UHW Ed Fund which you described as an employer-union advised training trust. Again, in this case, employers and the union representing workers jointly prioritize and invest in training to meet the needs of the workers, employers, and the marketplace. I think it all points to your gift in expanding the ecosystem.

Van: Thank you, Flannery, especially for pointing out that in building an ecosystem of the willing, the one thing that everybody will always agree on is to focus on the students and focus on the workers. From there, you can always build out other common ground. So, thank you for raising that point. Kai.

Kai Drekmeier: Thank you, Van. It’s great to be here and if I had one keyword that would help me find the book, it would be ‘agility.’ But that wouldn’t be enough. I would add ‘agility and action for effective workforce development.’ I know that’s a mouthful.

I want to start by congratulating and thanking Van for the book, but much more for Futuro Health. I think this is the hottest organization in post-secondary work and workforce development right now. Futuro Health is doing amazing work and it really is the embodiment of this concept of agility and working at the speed of need. To me, seeing it close up and being in there, it really feels like a large-scale mobilization. It is not easy — and I’m sure Pima and everybody feels this way — we’re being stretched and pushed. But we, the Futuro community, are making it happen. Learners are thriving and making it through and making it in. So, I just want to take my hat off to Van on Futuro Health first and foremost.

For Chapter 4, so much of this resonated with me. More than half the work that we do at Inside Track is focused on serving and supporting working adults. Van nails it here. They require flexibility and affordability. There’s a passage that mentions that six in ten people here in the U.S. between twenty-two and thirty-nine cited cost for the reason that they didn’t finish, or didn’t even pursue, any sort of post-secondary education. These are low income or lower-income adults who are citing that. So, it’s just really unbalanced and problematic and we’ve got to address that.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the skills gap given that issue of ‘how do you pay for college?’ We have seen an employer hesitancy to invest in those who may leave, and Van talks a bit about that. The employment compact and the idea that you might work at the same place for decades, and that mutual loyalty that goes with it, is sort of dead. So, it requires new thinking. We are seeing employers step up and recognize that you’ve got to fund this. My hat goes off to Kaiser as well as the labor-management partnerships that we’re seeing that are so powerful. Also, SEIU-UHW, thank you for making this happen.

The other thing that struck me is great entrepreneurs don’t always make stuff up out of the blue. They’re often transferring concepts from other spaces and other industries, and Van has really hit this pretty hard…this concept that there may be effective playbooks that are available right under your nose or right across the street, somebody’s figured something else out and you can adopt that, bring it over and refit it to make it work. An example of this would be looking at other countries for innovation. For instance, Singapore with their different funding models using centralized funds. Also, looking at other countries and whatever they’re doing for apprenticeships.

The last point I would make here is that I kept being struck throughout this chapter on how we do need to transform K-12 and post-secondary education generally to involve more of this sort of contextualized learning and making things relevant and concrete. We’re seeing this a bit with more of an emphasis on project-based learning, but we need more of it. I think we’re going to see far better learning outcomes as we learn from what Van and others are teaching us in the workforce development context. I’ll hold there. Thank you.

Van: Kai, you bring up so many good points. Harkening back to your point about affordability, I think it’s startling to realize that forty percent of American households have less than $400 in their savings. So, when we’re talking about the ability to tap into tuition programs, we really do have to think about their cash flow when it comes to being able to afford the training. So, with that, let me turn to Fred. You are next.

Fred Freeman: Well, thank you, Van. First of all, it really is a pleasure to be on a panel with such powerful people. I think collectively, we represent quite a force in today’s workforce and changing the way that employers and employees view their role in today’s workforce. If I were looking up the book on Amazon and putting in some keywords, I might start with ‘identifying tomorrow’s workforce’ and to expand on that, ‘identifying and grooming tomorrow’s workforce.’ We don’t simply need to identify who are the likely candidates to fill the jobs, but how to groom them so that they understand exactly what role they play.

It really isn’t about the degree that someone has or what they know as much as what they can do. Therefore, career education — the technical skills, understanding the role that they play in becoming part of a team — is critically important. What resonated with me as I was reading it, Van, was your line that we must all move at the speed of business.

As a private career college, we are used to moving at the speed of business because we are literally preparing today’s workforce for tomorrow. When I say tomorrow, I mean tomorrow. One adage that we use at Pima Medical Institute is ‘job placement drives curriculum.’ We are preparing people based on what employer needs are. Whether it’s through advisory boards or data that’s gathered, we have to make sure that we are flexible and agile and move so that the employer demands are met almost immediately. That’s not an easy thing to do for anyone in higher education because the ship takes a long time to turn, and sometimes they require a speedboat. We have to have that flexibility and that ability to pivot quickly to meet employer demands.

So, whether it’s public-private partnerships or private collaborations, none of us can go it alone. I believe that we’ve heard that echoed a number of times during this podcast. None of us can go it alone. In order to satisfy the workforce needs, we have to be flexible and scalable and have the ability to customize as best we can to meet those needs, or we simply won’t be able to provide a satisfying solution to the employment needs of today’s workforce.

Van, I really did enjoy every chapter of this book. I couldn’t wait to get it. I was on the pre-sale list so that it came to my home as quickly as possible. So, thank you for making that available. I would recommend to everyone on this call who has any interest in workforce development to grab ahold of this book and read it cover to cover because it’s fabulously stocked with information and productive ideas. So, thank you for that.

Van: Fred, we’ve so appreciated at Futuro Health the consortium of career colleges that you put together. Every time we come out with a new training roadmap, there’s someone within the consortium who is interested in a program. Again, not everybody has to do the same thing, but it’s because of the consortium that there’s the agility to be able to pivot and change with time. So, thank you again, Fred. And last up, but not least, Katie.

Katie Nielson: Thanks, Van. Thank you for having me and honestly, thank you for writing the book. Like everyone else said, every chapter was so full — not only of contextual examples of how to put your strategies into place, but almost clear operating instructions for how to solve specific workforce problems — that I hope it’s going to be a resource for workforce practitioners right now and people training to help the workforce of the future.

If I were going to pick a keyword, I think I would use ‘uncovering hidden talent.’ What struck me the most about Chapter 4 you summed up in one sentence, which is, “It’s not enough just to provide resources to workers. We need to make sure those resources actually get used.” This resonated with me particularly because my whole mission is to help historically under-resourced populations get access to the kinds of skills and training that will give them jobs with economic mobility, and they often get overlooked. They get overlooked because they don’t have the support to take advantage of the resources that are being offered.

So, when a workforce development organization or an employer is thinking about how to develop talent internally, it’s not enough to say ‘we have prepaid tuition and you can do this flexibly and you can do it online.’ That’s great. That’s going to work for some populations, but it’s not going to work for everyone because we have workers who are facing systemic barriers to access to digital literacy, to language, and if we don’t take the time to figure out what supports they need to succeed, we’re never going to be able to develop the talent that we need to have for the future. That’s what struck me as I read that chapter, and that’s what I think is super important for workforce practitioners and people building these ecosystems and building a workplace that has an educational program to keep in mind.

Van: Katie, I’m so appreciative that you have put a highlight on this issue of systemic barriers for individuals. Thank you for doing that and reinforcing that point.

You can see how very thoughtful and how experienced all of my guests have been. So, let me close out with a few requests. We would very much appreciate your help to spread the word about this book. The numbers are very large with 10 million open jobs and 8.4 million unemployed, so getting the strategies and proven playbooks in the hands of others is so critical at this point in time. We’ve had a good jumpstart with WorkforceRx appearing on a number of Amazon bestseller lists, but we could use your help to get these potent strategies into the hands of others. So, help us spread the word.

If you happen to be on the websites of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any of the other bookstores, consider writing a review. There’s no better gift to an author than to do a review. It’s quite easy. Just go to where the stars are and you can select ‘write a customer review.’ You just put in a title line, write a few sentences and hit submit and that’s all it takes to write a review. So, I want to thank you in advance if you can take a minute to write a review.

And with that, I want to once again thank our wonderful, wonderful set of panelists — my peers and colleagues and friends — Rachel, Amy, Debra, Lynn, Flannery, Kai, Fred, and Katie. Thank you so much for spending time today to celebrate my book launch. Thank you to everyone in the audience for joining us today. Check out other events at Once again, thank you.

Announcer: Thanks for checking out this episode of the Workforce Rx podcast. We hope you’ll head to Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other book retailers to purchase your copy of WorkforceRx: Agile and Inclusive Strategies for Employers, Educators and Workers in Unsettled Times.  Proceeds benefit the non-profit mission of Futuro Health. And, we hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.