Making Progress, Not Excuses

Peter S. StrangeThe Workforce Solutions Collaborative in Hartford, Conn., was among the first funders collaboratives established with support from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. In November 2018, it celebrated ten years of developing an educated, economically self-sufficient workforce in central Connecticut.

The National Fund’s board chair, Pete Strange, was asked to deliver remarks at an event to mark the tenth anniversary. The National Fund is printing his remarks here. They have been very lightly edited for clarity and presentation in written format.

Thank you Ricardo [Henriquez, director of Workforce Solutions Collaborative]. I am honored to be here with you to celebrate ten years of making progress, instead of making excuses.

I bring you greetings from my people: old, white men. We come in peace, not because it is in our nature to be peaceful, but because at long last we are realizing just how much we need your help. With your leadership over these past ten years here is what I think we have learned.

We have come to understand the true competition. I have lived my life in construction. Those of us who succeed in construction pride ourselves on our ability to survive in a hyper-competitive environment. That pride has been the chief barrier to our understanding and embracing the true competition. The true competition is not for the next contract, the next project, or the next customer. The true competition is for the next generation of talent. If we don’t win the true competition, we won’t be around for the rest of the game. We need your help to win the true competition.

We have come to understand the reality of engagement. We used to think that our role as old, white men was to give really good speeches, telling education and social services what they were doing wrong and sharing our frustration at their shortcomings. We have come to understand that every problem that could have been solved by a really good speech from an old, white man has almost certainly been solved. It is time to move from talking to action. We need your help and the help of robust [workforce] intermediaries to achieve engagement. Providing information about our needs and frustrations is not engagement. Communication about our expectations is not engagement. Only engagement is engagement.

And we have come to understand the realities of our future. I was blessed to lead an employee-owned company. Because employee ownership (access to capital) doesn’t really work unless you stick with the program long enough for capital growth to matter, we embraced a career-length planning horizon. There is a heck of a lot that you just can’t know about the world forty years from now, but we arrived at three absolute certainties. I believe that, with your help, the old, white men of the world are coming to understand those certainties.

First, it is absolutely certain that it will be impossible to run a successful business in a community where people don’t want to invest. If we are to have a business future, then we must be part of creating vibrant economic environments where every individual has both the opportunity and the motivation to be part of value creation.

Second, it is absolutely certain that our enterprises will thrive if—and only if—we find a path to representing internally the demographics of the communities we serve. For those of us in construction, this is a special challenge, because the technical schools of this country are a wasteland with regard to diversity.

Third, it is absolutely certain what the talent pool of the future will look like. This is not sociology—it is arithmetic! The workers we will hire over the next twenty years—the people who will lead our companies into the future—have already been born. They are in the pre-schools, grade schools, high schools, trade schools, and colleges of our country. We can’t have a meeting of old, white men and change the demographics of our future. The only reason to have a meeting is to change our strategies so that we win the true competition: the competition to attract, retain and grow the next generation of talent.

A Decade of Workforce Progress

I have been around the workforce development system for more than thirty years. I describe my experience as thirty years of effort with about ten years of progress. Here is the difference your leadership has made over the past ten years:

We are talking to each other instead of talking about each other.

All parties are at the table, and we are creating strategies based on employment reality, rather than frustrations or aspirations.

We have a long-term commitment to progress. In the past we have often shown the attention span of a sand flea, choosing to abandon programs, redesign, and re-fund, rather than face the harsh reality of measurement. The commitment of our funders to allow for innovation, failure, adjustment, and re-engagement has made a huge difference in our ability to create robust solutions instead of band-aids.

We have greatly reduced the level of defensive goodwill. We have always had people and groups who want to do good. But often they have embraced their version of good so deeply that anyone who suggested the dreaded four Cs—communication, cooperation, collaboration and, God forbid, consolidation—was seen to be attacking. We spent huge amounts of energy defending our versions of good. Today we have communities of learners who embrace the four Cs.

We have moved far beyond placement as our definition of success. Our goals are thriving employers, who invest in good jobs as a competitive advantage, and thriving workers, who have financial self-determination and who are focused on long-term growth. And, we have models like CareerSTAT that support, share, and recognize the adoption of best practices in creating those career pathways.

The Next Decade

Over the past ten years, you have helped [employers] understand that we need [the workforce development community], and you have a lot of accomplishments to celebrate. Here is the work we must do together over the next ten years.

We must take the work you are doing to scale. You have proven that employer-centered, intermediary-supported, growth-focused career pathways create the foundation to successfully engage job candidates in lifelong value creation. We must find a path to engage more employers and serve more workers.

My friends at the National Fund for Workforce Solutions have had to listen to me for years say how tired I am of the starfish story. It is a wonderful, uplifting story about the thousands of starfish on the beach and the good person who is throwing them, one at a time, back into the ocean. The skeptic says to that person, “You can’t save them all.” And the good person replies, “Maybe not, but I saved that one.”

It’s a good story, but I aspire to something more. I want to be part of a community where we have the leadership, the planning processes, the resource allocation, and the energy to go out and rent a bulldozer and push all of the starfish back into the ocean. We cannot be afraid to work toward scale. If you think scale is not achievable, just ask yourself how many people had a cell phone in their pocket or purse twenty years ago.

We must achieve deep integration of learning and work. Employers must move off the sidelines and get in the game. Traditionally, we employers have seen employment as an event. We thought our job was to be great interviewers, but it was someone else’s job to send the qualified candidates into the interview room. We must move from event-based employment to investment-based employment.

What might investment-based employment look like?

It might mean creating virtual wallets for seventh graders and growing the dollars in those wallets each time a student elects to purchase education that we value—with a reliable promise that those funds can be used at the student’s discretion upon graduation. A scoreboard at the entrance of the school would show the student’s name and his or her account balance so younger students can see both our commitment and their opportunity.

It might mean implementing registered apprenticeship programs beginning in the seventh grade, providing students with educational support, skills training, and work experience that put them ahead for life. Most importantly, this approach would include a [punch card similar to a customer rewards card] that has the expectations printed on it, and in big letters reads, “Starting salary, $25 an hour”—[the reward] if all the holes are punched.

It might mean redefining the path to company leadership to include cultural competency and investing in learning and growth experiences for young leaders that better prepare them to lead the workforce of the future. One path might be to select the top two or three new hires from engineering schools each year and assign them to Teach for America for the first two years of their work careers. They will bring disruptive ideas into our schools and get to know the people they will work with in the future as they grow in leadership.

We must break the schedule. We have become an event-based society. Pre-school is an event, education is an event, a career is an event, retirement is an event. And the ultimate event is winning the lottery. Life isn’t lived like that. It is much messier and should be much more opportunistic. Right now, we declare success or failure at the age of eighteen. You are either ready for college or career at the age of eighteen, or we throw you on the trash heap and wait and hope you become one of the starfish that succeeds through a recovery program.

We have to make work a realistic part of every step of education and learning a part of every job. What this means is that an eighteen-year-old who is not prepared for college can enter the workforce and continue to grow, moving up the career ladder, accessing more education, and achieving ever more for themselves and their families.

The arithmetic is simple. If we hire a young person as an unskilled laborer at the age of eighteen, and with our help and investment, she or he completes engineering school by the age of thirty, our company gets a thirty-year return on that investment. If we throw that young person on the trash heap at age eighteen, we and our community get a forty-year expense.

From Social Services to Business Practices

We must change the paradigm about investment in workforce development from a social services mindset—helping those less fortunate, less prepared, and less able—to a competitive advantage mindset—winning the true competition for the future. Once we decide that the talent supply chain deserves the same level of aggressive management that we apply to the rest of our business model, we will make talent development part of our buying practices.

Our company performs over a billion dollars in construction work per year. Because of subcontracting, the vast majority of that work is performed by employers that are smaller and have fewer employee development resources. Here is our challenge. We have around 1,300 employees, but today on our projects there were around 8,000 people working. And because of the way the trades move through these projects, from concrete to finish painting, those 8,000 employees are drawn from a pool of over 100,000 individuals. Ensuring quality, performance, and safety for our customers requires us to influence that huge pool of workers.

If our subcontractors do not provide health coverage, our hospital customers pay for it through unreimbursed health care. If our subcontractors have poorly-designed jobs that lead to high turnover, the cost of that turnover goes right into the cost that our customers pay.

So what can we do about all of that? We can make the conversation about workforce development part of our buying practices, including having a list of activities that will demonstrate commitment to change.

There is still a lot to do, but the most important change I have seen over these ten years of progress is the quality of leaders who are engaged in the work. People like you who are better prepared, better supported, and better focused to lead. My confidence in the future is based on your leadership: your willingness and ability to influence events so that our goals are met. My enthusiasm for this work is driven by your energy, your insight, and your commitment to move beyond the starfish to create a community where every job, no matter what the pay level, is a well-designed job with a pathway to growth. A job that creates high value for the employer and the community. A job that creates economic self-determination and growth opportunity for the worker. That is my definition of a good job.

I end my part of this celebration with a toast: “To now, and how, and who, and why, and what we have together. Lift up your glass, give thanks, have rest; then make tomorrow better!”


Related: Read a letter from the Hartford collaborative’s board chair on celebrating ten years.