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WorkforceRx Live Book Launch: Forming an Echo Chamber of Support

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx Live Book Launch: Forming an Echo Chamber of Support


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 the strategies and insights from Chapters Five and Six that resonated most with them. Check out their lively discussion about building consortiums of industry players and educators to develop meaningful career pathways, redesigning the community college system, new approaches to credentialing, how to scale up innovations and much more from this powerful new playbook for the future of work. Joining the host are: Chauncy Lennon, Vice President, Lumina Foundation; Earl Buford, Chief Executive Officer, Council on Adult Experiential Learning; Rock Pfotenhauer, Chair, Bay Area Community College Consortium; Amrit Ahluwalia, Editor, Evolllution; Jim Caldwell, Chief Executive Officer, Workforce Incubator; Amy Schulz, Dean, Sierra College; and Steve Wright, ICT Statewide Director, California Community Colleges.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: WorkforceRx has had a good start on Amazon, hitting a number of best seller lists as well as hot new release lists. 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.

Joining me today are some very distinguished individuals who are longtime colleagues and friends that I will introduce in a second. What I’ve asked them to do is start off their comments with a fun icebreaker question: What keyword would they use to find this book on Barnes & Noble, Amazon or Google? They will follow that with the answer to this more substantive question: What insight, story or strategy resonated the most with them and why?

I will just do some color commentary on how I met them and began working with each one of these individuals. Chauncey Lennon: I actually met him back when he was with JPMorgan Chase and led a $350 million investment by his company, which is really one of the earliest big investments in workforce development by a major corporation.

Earl Buford: You’re going to hear his name as a brand name in the world of public workforce development because he has come from that system. Earl is now CEO of CAEL, which is the Council on Adult Experiential Learning. This national nonprofit works to improve education-to-career pathways for adult learners.

Rock Pfotenhauer has been a steady leader in the California Community Colleges system. Thanks to his advice, the California Community Colleges system has created products like the data tool called LaunchBoard, and the reporting tool called NOVA. There is so much infrastructure that you need to create that enables the education system to do what it wants to do.

Amrit Ahluwalia hails from Canada. Amrit is editor in chief of The EvoLLLution, the online newspaper developed by Modern Campus to create a conversation hub focused on non-traditional higher education and the transforming postsecondary marketplace.

Then we have Jim Caldwell, Rajinder Gill and Steve Wright. One of the key strategies that we employed in the California Community Colleges was to rethink how we made investments. We borrowed a concept from the private sector called ‘key talents’ because public policy is a crude tool, and you need someone on the ground that can adapt those tools for that immediate situation…for the local dynamic, the regional dynamic and the problem at hand that is being solved. We sought out creative and ingenius problem solvers who had good people skills to be able to tackle what was needed on the ground and adapt the policy intent to the local needs. I am so delighted that we continue to have a long-term friendship and working relationship, Jim, that has spanned from PG&E days to the California Community Colleges, and now.

Rajinder Gill was an entrepreneur who so passionately believed in what is called “soft skills” — interpersonal skills, 21st century skills — that she was able to scale her work from one college to ten colleges, to twenty, to sixty, and then eighty-five plus, in terms of adoption.

Another individual who was able to scale curriculum adoption at that pace, which is extraordinary, is Steve Wright. He was able to discover, in working with Manpower, how to do employer-sponsored, employer-endorsed curriculum which lowered the risk for both students and for colleges.

So with that, let me turn it over to Chauncey.

Chauncey Lennon: Thank you, Van. I’m so excited to be here. Congratulations on this really great book. There are many positives about it, but I think the one that comes to mind is it’s just timely. These issues are always important, but in the wake of COVID, they’re even more critical to building back better, as the Biden administration would put it.

So, your first question…I don’t have a great answer to that, but I want to avoid using the word workforce largely because I feel that it is kind of an insider term that doesn’t travel all that well. I would say, let’s call this a book that we would describe as education and training strategies. But I would say that that’s not great either. Really, it is a message to all of us that we’ve got to find some better words, better language, to help explain to a wider audience why investments and better policies around building skills benefits not just individuals, not just businesses and industries, but really all of us.

But let me then get to your second question. Chapter Five was really exciting for me, as were many parts of the book, because in some ways I felt like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been in that moment, I’ve experienced exactly this problem.” It was great to get your thoughts, understand how you responded and what solutions you built. But in this chapter, you talk about the challenge of coming up with a so-called soft skills strategy that was beyond just a pilot at one college.

What really resonated there for me was I feel like we do struggle in the wider conversation about opportunity in this country to understand the critical role of community colleges. I know this audience may know these numbers, but I want to repeat them just one more time. We live in a country where there are only about 20,000 people in boot camps. There are only about 200,000 people in WIOA-funded adult workforce training programs, and only about 500,000 apprenticeships. But there are more than 10 million people at community colleges, and half of them are there specifically looking for the skills that will get them a better job.

We forget that we do have a large workforce training system. It’s got many challenges. There are many things about it that need to be improved. This book can give you a real lesson in what that can look like, but we’ve got to start from a place of understanding that we do have a system, and if we’re trying to have impact at scale we need to focus on that system.

So, the story Van tells in this chapter is how instead of just coming up with a pilot, what she did was build a consortium. That consortium wasn’t just ten pilots all mashed together. It was really thinking about how she could use her levers — some of those were around money, some of those were around metrics, some of them are around their own data, some of them are on creating the kind of new curriculum around a kind of cutting-edge innovative approach to soft skills training — and then thinking about how by working with a consortium she could drive change in the system, and the much larger investment that the system represents, into innovation.

The last thing I’ll say is that Van uses the term, ‘money, metrics, data.’ That’s exactly right. The way I often think about that is we need to remember — when it comes to helping the community colleges grow and adapt to the economic realities of the world we live in — that there are three important changes that we should be thinking about. We should think about policies that allow the system to be more agile — and again, the book does a great job of showing what those can look like. We should think about wonky, boring things, like business process reengineering. We’ve got a system that was designed for a different era. We’ve got to redesign it. We don’t actually allocate much money to thinking about how we redesign a better system. Again, Van shows us in the book how she, in her role, was able to really use the tools she had to drive that change and that’s the biggest bang for our buck out there. And then, of course, we need better data for management. The system can’t actually get better unless we understand it and build the kind of data and then use that data to drive change.
So again, thrilled to read the book. So excited to be part of this conversation and look forward to the comments of the other folks here.

Van: Thank you, Chauncey, for just reinforcing the need to rethink policies and business processes and data. It takes all sectors to relook at what they’re doing, to see what their biases are and whether or not they’re getting the desired outcome to create the talent pool.

So, Earl, we’d love to invite you to share your keyword and then the answer to the question.

Earl Buford: All right. Well, first of all, thank you for having me, Van. I just think the entire field thanks you for taking on this work. You and I have had conversations over the years about all these things, but now to have them illustrated is important. Just really happy to be part of this conversation.

So, keyword: articulation. The theme in this book is really what’s the end game here of each approach? I think your three-legged stool analogy in the earlier chapters really sets up Chapter Five nicely. You give the basics of what’s the best echo chamber/ecosystem/consortium model. Starting with employers, how does the community benefit from that and participate in something, and then also how the right training providers and education providers really fit into this whole ecosystem.

For all three legs of that stool to work and to start forming the skill approach, you have to have articulation. You have to go in there knowing that there’s some transaction that will happen and that will benefit. So, from an employer standpoint, obviously, the talent development, talent attraction, talent retention efforts are spelled out very clearly so that the community knows that if they go take this class — or go pursue their baccalaureate or their associate’s degree — they know when they’re done, their economic goals are met, and that’s finding a job in a career pathway that’s easy to understand and easy to identify. So that’s why articulation is my keyword.

From the training and education provider side, to know that we are doing exactly what the employer is looking for and also providing the vehicle for community members to advance and meet their economic goals is really important to that three-legged stool approach which sets up the forming of this ecosystem.

My favorite insight from Chapter Five is really your quote: “In the nonprofit and public policy world, a program that lacks an intentional strategy to go to scale also misses the opportunity to make a systems-level impact.” That statement kind of incorporates what Chauncey mentioned earlier about the public policy side of this conversation as well, and that articulation I mentioned earlier. I call them intentional collisions. When you’re intentionally making these things connect, and there’s an articulated purpose here, I think scale has been approachable.

I came to CAEL six months ago because I wanted to think about a larger framework for scale. I’ve worked in local areas and regional arrangements. But really, now’s the time for this type of approach if we’re going to ever achieve this ever-elusive scale.

Van: I think the intentionality is very key, because this is a long game. These are complex systems that Chauncey has laid out, and that you have lived in, and so we have to stay the course when we want change to manifest. So, thank you, Earl.

All right. Next up, Rock.

Rock Pfotenhauer: Well, I also had difficulty finding the right word or words that could serve as a tag. I agree with Chauncey that we sort of lack the vocabulary, I think, to communicate these kinds of ideas to the general public. So, mine is more of a phrase. It’s ‘workforce pathways to prosperity.’

This book, just as Chauncey said, is so timely. Very timely, personally, just for me. I’ve been working in the community college workforce development space for a long time and most of the challenges that we face now have been with us for as long as I can remember. Van, you made just extraordinarily successful movements in helping our system to address these challenges, and really reconfiguring how we’re resourced in ways that I think will enable us to increasingly move — to use a phrase from the book that I really like — at the ‘speed of need.’

But COVID has just made that need so much more apparent. The chasm separating the populations that we serve and the work that pays livable wages really requires us to substantially reconfigure how we deliver education, and it requires us to form partnerships with other systems. We can’t and shouldn’t be bridging this chasm alone. All of us — our institutions and certainly the populations we serve — will be much better served if we can work together. But making these kinds of changes is hard, of course, and it requires conversation. It’s not solitary work. Yet COVID has really made those kinds of conversations much more difficult to have.

Reading this book felt to me like an extended conversation with somebody who’s deeply knowledgeable about the kind of work that we’re doing, and that’s a conversation that I just really needed. I finished the book last night and I found myself really looking at all of the things that I’m doing and thinking, what would Van do? What I got out of this was a mindset. It was the accumulation of those playbooks which I think constitutes sort of a change makers mindset. That, I think, is just so valuable to us right now…to have a book that really outlines both a set of strategies, but also a way of thinking about how to approach these. As usual, I think you’ve identified what is needed right now and provided it. This book really does that. So, thank you for the book. I’ve got this phrase stuck in my head now, this acronym, WWVD — what would Van do?

Van: I love that Rock and I love the change maker mindset. I think you need to write that book, Rock.

With that, let me turn it over to Amrit.

Amrit Ahluwalia: Hi everyone. Thank you, Van, so much for inviting me to be part of this event. This again, is just an incredible piece of work. I’ll join the chorus on that.

So, in terms of keywords, I think one thing that kept jumping out at me as I read the chapter was the idea of sort of ‘H-I-R-E Ed for real life.’ It’s the idea of how do we connect our post- secondary ecosystem and programming to the needs of folks on the ground who are looking for pathways into careers? As an industry, we have really, really struggled to close that gap, arguably, since the early 90s, maybe even into the 80s. It’s not an area that we’re particularly strong in.

As I think about the ideas that are being laid out, especially in Chapter Five and Chapter Six — around connectivity with the labor market, around innovating on credentialing types and credentialing approaches — there seems to me to be a pathway toward that kind of reengineering or reinvention of the post-secondary space through creative credentialing, and, importantly, through collaboration between the traditional main campus and Continuing Education our Workforce Education divisions. These are divisions that have been pioneering work in labor market-relevant programming and credentials for decades.

If we think about the opportunity that stands before modern colleges and universities, these Divisions provide pathways and playbooks to make that programming truly relevant to workforce outcomes in terms of designing assessment mechanisms that are going to support clear competencies and clear communication skills, but also in terms of having credentials that make sense to folks on the ground, in terms of being able to clearly identify skill sets individuals carry.

I remember I was having a conversation a little while ago with David Schejbal, who’s now the president of Excelsior College. He was pioneering the work in competency-based education that was happening in Wisconsin. One of the things he mentioned was we expect liberal arts credentials, especially, to provide these rich soft skills that individuals should be able to build T-shaped professional careers out of. But because of the way that programming is structured and because of the way that we train educators, what genuinely winds up happening is your average liberal arts degree program is workforce training for academics. It’s not necessarily focusing on this rich skill set development that’s going to allow someone to leave the college and be able to articulate their ability to think critically or to communicate effectively or to collaborate across groups. Those are the skills that employers are looking for and those are the skills that we expect students to have upon completion, but we don’t necessarily give them the tools to recognize that they have those skills or to understand how to leverage them.

So, this is where I start to look at the role of workforce and continuing education as being essential to bridging that gap between the work that higher education institutions genuinely are doing, but the outcomes that employers expect folks to have.

Van: Your point is well taken. Even within the silos of existing higher education institutions, all those walls are blurring, much less different tiers of education, and the walls between employers and education. So, thank you, Amrit.

All right. Next up, we have Jim.

Jim Caldwell: As always, Van, it’s just great to be in a conversation with you. There’s so many uplifting ideas and such richness to the discussion. The keyword that came to mind for me was ‘talent pipeline development,’ which I think has a meaning for both education and industry. Industry certainly needs to build talent pipelines somehow, and educators are a primary means for helping do that.

In terms of how that applies to this book — it’s evident throughout — but the main thing that I saw in many instances in the book was how simple changes can have a big business impact or big impact for students and for educators and industry alike. I think shifting the focus slightly toward talent pipeline development — which is a phrase I’ve heard you use for the twelve years I’ve known you now — is really an interesting context within which to view the workforce development function.

I also think that you’ve done something really amazing here in the book. You talk about ecosystems, and the one that I resonated with the most was the employer-faculty ecosystem where there’s a richness of exchange of ideas beyond the normal advisory groups that a lot of faculty have as part of their curriculum. This helps with building out to a regional labor market — including multiple colleges on a regional basis and the executive level of employers on a regional basis — so that you get a different viewpoint of what the needs of the industry folks are. That then lends itself to, if you can support that over a period of time, building a collaborative that is focused on that, and at least my experience has been that it really pays off.

You begin to align your curriculum with the needs of industry. You begin to develop a system of stackable credentials along a much broader career map. For example, a matrix of occupations and progression levels within those occupations, and then at the foundational level where you start on that, and then what are the on-ramps and off-ramps in each of those careers. Those are really important concepts for educators and for employers to work together on and to build the talent pipelines they need.

The other piece of it, I think, that you’ve always focused on was scaling. How do you scale? How do you start something simply, and effectively create impact? And then how do you scale beyond that?

So, those are all the things that I took away from especially Chapter Six, but they’re embedded throughout the book. I appreciated being a part of your system in the state community colleges. You allowed us to do a business development function, in effect, which is creating strategic relationships between employers and educators for the benefit of students and for lifelong learning on their behalf through stackable credentials. So, again, thank you for having me.

Van: Jim, I just wanted to recognize one of your strategies. In order to have all the colleges play together, you actually aggregated the trade associations so that they could agree on which industry-recognized credential the colleges should peg their curriculum towards. So, I hope people will check out your chapter in the book.

Next, we have Rajinder.

Rajinder Gil: Hi, thank you so much for having us, Van. When I was thinking about the keywords that I would use to search for this book or encourage someone to search for it, obviously, from my frame of reference I definitely look for soft skills, but then also achieving scale. People do talk about scale a lot, and you need a guidebook for how you’re going to do that.

When I was going through the book, and especially with Chapters Five and Six, one of the things that struck me was when you initially introduced the concept of how important it is to have someone who gives you a chance or believes in you when you have a program that you’re interested in starting. You certainly did that for my mentor, Amy Schultz, and I when we let you know we were doing this small pilot in a rural area on soft skills. You gave us the directive to go ahead and say, okay, we’ll look at getting ten colleges together that are willing to do this with you.

The phrase that you use in the book that I think a lot of people resonate with is the ‘ecosystem of the willing.’ Having that idea of bringing in the ten partners from the beginning really shifts people from thinking about one another in terms of isolation — which you don’t think of when you’re in a big system like the California Community Colleges — but oftentimes, we get focused on what we’re doing. We’re working in a sense of isolation or sometimes even in a sense of competition depending on how money is funneling, like you spoke about earlier.

So, that ecosystem of the willing really gives the opportunity to think of one another as collaborators. I think one of the things that may not be as immediately apparent in that — but we lived it and we saw how true it was — is this brings in a natural equity check to everything that you do because you have these partners that you’re working with and you really encouraged us to think about one another as building this soft skills program together.

In doing that, if you say you want feedback and you really mean it, then your blind spots go away because you have different individuals who are serving different types of learners. They can say, “Hey, we’ve got to think about this background or this demographic.” And in the California Community Colleges system, you have learners all the way from high school students who are taking early college classes, to individuals who are sequencing out of incarceration and looking at joining the workforce again.

Doing it as a collaborative is how you achieve scale in that kind of setting. What I think was really powerful about this method that you had all of us pilot in this way, was that scale can be achieved in a very grassroots manner so it doesn’t feel top down. It’s not a hierarchy. It’s something that’s built together, and you have these first adopters who are excited about the content, they’re teaching it themselves, and ended up becoming a lot of the individuals who became our trainers later on.

So, there really is that final component that I resonated with and what you were talking about is that — especially when we’re focused on skills and those interpersonal skills, the soft skills — it is something that builds people’s confidence as well as builds their ability to be employable. That’s all the way from the instructors who are teaching it, to the students who are going through it. I think that that’s a very powerful approach to take when you’re talking about workforce development in general: how does it become a “we” activity rather than a “me” activity, and that just naturally builds those ecosystems that you talk about.

I think that it was just a really powerful way of being able to give individuals who read these chapters kind of a step-by-step approach to taking a program to scale. It works in a system and it works when you are a startup, like we are now with the Essential Skills Program. It’s really a very powerful tool. So, thank you.

Van: Thank you, Rajinder. For the employers that are on this call, I think a point or subtext that is maybe not clear is that in a normal company, you have a hierarchical organization, but within an academic institution, you have faculty that is the voice of the curriculum. So, if they buy into it and they’re wanting to do it, then it goes forth. If they don’t want to do it, it doesn’t matter what the dean or administrators want.

Because of that, it’s really important to have what Rock calls a marketplace where you find who is willing to do it, who has the capacity to do it, who has the competency to do it. If you as an employer are frustrated with your local institution, like in the welding example, look around because there are other institutions that maybe have the interest, the competencies, and the capacity at that moment in time.

All right, Steve, you are our best for last.

Steve: Thank you very much. Well, Van, I think the word scalable has come up a lot already and that was my word, too. So, when you go last, you have to accept that. But I think that was the key. I remember when I first met you. You said, “Well, Steve, what do you do here?” And I said, “I’m doing a number of seminars on using social media and the internet for small businesses, maybe twelve businesses at a time, once a month.” And you said, “Steve, that does not scale. You need to think systemwide.” And I’m like, what?  So, I think the illustration here is how do you take a former market researcher out of a tech company, and have them address ICT workflows in the community college system? Because that’s basically what you were dealing with is like, “who is this guy?”

So, to me — because I worked at Verizon, GTE, and a number of tech companies — I’ve seen lots of midlife people go through certifications, I saw the community college playing an important role in helping that kind of skills acquisition. But to answer the scalability question, it was like, what certifications are relevant to the greatest number of students for the greatest number of job opportunities? It was a metrics question.

And really, the opposite of that question is the realization that if you didn’t get it right, you could achieve scale doing the wrong thing. There’s a very important step there where you make sure that you’ve got it right, which is where we interviewed the placement agencies — like Manpower plays such an important role. I talked to certification market research teams. I joined the IT certification council. I paid for a survey of 400 small businesses on needed skills. We did focus groups with industry associations, like the Microsoft channel partners, and I interviewed many corporate hiring executives. They all helped endorse a number of pathways, and then later on, helped hire along those pathways and those pathways aligned with industry certifications.

So, we turned around then and shared that with the community college system, the faculty, and everybody else. I think they really liked it. At one time 80% of the colleges had courses on the business information worker pathway. The IT technician pathway was a little less because not every college offers that. But they were good, and I think for a while we achieved scale.

But then it comes to the problem you mentioned about the faculty. There’s something in the community college system that resists scale. Perhaps what we really need to achieve beyond scale is consensus, because inevitably, what happened to these pathways is they got customized for this college or that college so it was all integrated into what they did.

I think the enduring concept of this scalability seems to be that all educational platforms inside or outside the community colleges can play part of a certification-based pathway. It’s beginning to look like students will be amassing digital credentials which they will array on their LinkedIn profile, and that replaces the transcript. But scale is happening. The question is, are we ready for it? I think that’s another way to kind of look at the scale question. But I love that you surfaced all these issues in the book. It was like memory lane, going back and finding out all this stuff. In some cases, it was like, “Oh, so that’s what Van was thinking when she did that.” I really appreciate the fact that you took the time and effort to capture all this, Van.

Van: Well, thank you for all the work that you’ve done, Steve. I love that you laid out how much work you did to do the diligence. One of the things we found out from colleges, as we were doing our transformational policy changes, was that colleges felt they didn’t have enough resources to do the kind of diligence that you talked about. So, if there were coordinated efforts to do that diligence that could be shared more broadly, they greatly appreciated it because then it was a lighter load on each local college, each local faculty, and lowered the risk of investing in the new program.

So, with that, we are now going to wrap up our forty-five minutes together. We would love, love your help to spread the word. The issues are big, as you saw in the numbers, and we need to get these playbooks and strategies out there, so please pass the word along to your friends and family. Fortunately, WorkforceRx has had a good start on Amazon, hitting a number of best seller lists as well as hot new release lists. So, thank you for your help in advance to get the word out.

If you have a chance to pick up the book, please consider writing a review. There’s no better gift to an author than to have the book reviewed. It’s super simple. If you just go down to where the stars are, you’ll see a place called write a customer review. You hit that, add a headline, one or two sentences, and then press submit. I would so greatly appreciate a review from you as you skim through this book.

I would like to once again thank all of my friends and colleagues that came today to join me in this celebratory moment as panelists. And I want to thank all the folks in the audience who were able to join us in this celebration. Thank you and have a great day.