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Characteristics of Success

A Response to Catapult Revisited

July, 2021

By Paul Osterman, Professor, MIT Sloan School

The publication of the original Catapult Papers offered practical insight into four organizing principles for an effective workforce intermediary. The COVID-19 crisis put these principles to test. Were they unique to the tight labor market and low unemployment rates that prevailed at publication or are they of more general use? In “Catapult Revisited,” Jerry Rubin convincingly makes the case that the core ideas remain valid and are adaptable when economic conditions change.   

"Throughout this discussion what comes through most strongly is the value of close relations with employers."

In this edition of the Papers Jerry systematically describes how the guiding principles were implemented in face of the new challenges. Throughout this discussion what comes through most strongly is the value of close relations with employers. Via these relationships, Jewish Vocational Services was able to identify which employers continued to need JVS services and how best to provide them. JVS was also able to maintain its commitment to job quality and to redefine this important concept in terms that were sensible in the new context. I should add that the nimbleness of JVS was also evident in the speed at which it was able to pivot to a workable online training model.

JVS is among the very best labor market intermediaries in America and it is distinctive in the range of its activities. It works with the most sophisticated health-care systems, but it also provides services to fast food restaurants, manufacturers, nursing homes and pharmacies. It prepares clients for entering community colleges, but it also runs successful adult basic education programs. It receives grants from foundations and contracts from governments but it also has innovated a pay for success funding model. It provides skills training but also operates a labor exchange.

What are the organizational characteristics that explain the diversity of its programs and its ability to pivot in the face of such a sudden and deep crisis? The principles Jerry lays out in the newest Catapult Paper essay are important but so is the deep staff expertise, an expertise that encompasses understanding of employer needs, the life circumstances of clients, and understanding of pedagogy. And, of course, a longstanding commitment to economic justice and the upward mobility of underserved populations.