“A tight labor market is a terrible thing to waste” was the title of a Boston Globe op ed written by Boston Foundation President and CEO Paul S. Grogan over a year ago. But at a forum held on March 7 at the Boston Foundation, it was referred to so many times that it became a kind of clarion call for a radical change to workforce development practices. If not now, when? If not in Boston, with one of the tightest labor markets in America, where?
The forum saw the release of The Catapult Papers, a series of four essays that build an airtight case for the kinds of organizations—which the authors dub “Next Gen Workforce Development”—that are needed to expand opportunity for low-income individuals while simultaneously creating competitive advantages for businesses in need of workers.
The first three essays were written by Jerry Rubin, President and CEO of Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), the most prominent workforce nonprofit in Boston. The fourth was co-authored by Rubin and Rougui Diallo, Chief of Staff at Resilient Coders, a nonprofit that trains young people of color for high growth careers as software engineers and connects them with jobs.
The forum was kicked off by remarks from Janice Urbanik, Senior Director of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, who underscored the themes struck in the essays, chief among them: Employee placement and development must be seen by both hiring companies and workforce organizations as a smart business practice to maintain, not a passing charitable social initiative—and this model requires changes from all the participants.
“When employers invest in people, employees feel a sense of ownership,” she said. “It becomes a virtuous circle.” She went on to imagine what Boston might look like in the future if it became the first city in America to achieve the new vision for workforce development. “Think about the ripple effect to neighborhoods and communities. It would drive economic stability, better neighborhoods, better schools, access to healthy food and healthy families. Ultimately, it could lead to true inclusive prosperity.”
Marybeth Campbell, Executive Director of SkillWorks, a workforce development initiative housed at the Boston Foundation, led a lively and substantive panel discussion with employers and workforce development experts. “When Jerry Rubin approached us about The Catapult Papers,” she said, “his ideas aligned perfectly with what the Foundation and SkillWorks had been thinking.”
“The Boston Foundation is the most committed funder of workforce development in our area,” said Rubin. “We know—and the Foundation knows—that right now we have an economy that is booming in Boston while, at the same time, inequality is getting worse and worse. This unique atmosphere isn’t fleeting, but it won’t be here forever. This is a time when challenges meet opportunities. It’s time to go big and be bold.” That includes daring to try new things and to expand (and charge for) services, as well as pushing for systemic changes in welfare policies and wage rates that now put eager workers in a Catch-22 where they can’t afford to develop themselves or even take a better job.
Diallo emphasized that workforce development efforts like Resilient Coders have to grow in close partnership with employers. The employers on the panel agreed. John Pepper, owner and Executive Chairman of the Boloco food chain, is a rare business executive who elevates workforce development beyond his own company’s needs. “We want to advance people out of Boloco,” he explained. “We work closely with JVS to find workers and then to give them the skills they need to move on to another job.”
MJ Ryan, Director of Workforce Development for the giant health organization, Partners Healthcare, said that she works so closely with JVS that it is virtually embedded in Partners’ hospitals, adding, “Many people think JVS employees are on the hospital staff.”
When asked by Campbell about the importance of building an infrastructure to move toward the kind of future described by Janice Urbanik at the beginning of the forum, Rubin said that it’s a question of scale. “We’re working with hundreds of people when it should be on the scale of tens of thousands.” Diallo agreed: “An organization like Resilient Coders can’t get to scale until the field of workforce development scales with us.”
The discussion evolved to a focus on the importance of wraparound services, such as counseling and health care referrals, a theme that continued when audience members were invited to asked questions. Year Up’s Bob Dame and Advoqt Technology Group’s Reinier Moquete said that wraparound services are crucial to strengthening the worker pipeline. Moquete also asked about keeping the momentum up, saying, “We have to find ways of rewarding organizations that are aligning their approach to workforce development with the issues we’ve discussed here today.”
That was the perfect segue to news Campbell shared at the end of the panel discussion: She announced the official launch of a new initiative called “Project Catapult,” which will invest in the exponential growth of Greater Boston’s most effective, market-driven training and education organizations. “Project Catapult will provide leadership for the sector by serving as a learning lab and creating a network of organizations working in partnership with businesses,” she explained. “The goal will be to leverage our region’s potential for building and sustaining the workforce system we need.”
The forum was closed with remarks from Abby Marquand, Vice President of Global Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase & Co., who traveled to Boston from New York for the forum. “I come to Boston often because of the work that is going on here,” she said. “Catapult is coming at the right time. I agree with Jerry Rubin when he says that it’s time to ‘be bold and go big!’”