Last week I was at the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Association Conference where the topic on everyone's mind was
Lots of panels and discussions about regulations and expectations and what USDOL and States are looking for from local WIB areas. Many questions, but not the kinds of answers that most people seemed to be looking for.
One thing that really stood out, though, was that local areas are receiving strong encouragement to become more innovative and creative both in the design of services and in delivering them to both employer and job seeker customers.
This morning I ran across this article about Brown's SuperStore, a grocery chain in Philadelphia (and division of ShopRite) that took on the challenge of addressing food deserts in the City. These are areas, both urban and rural, where people lack access to fresh, healthy, affordable food.
Brown's has is currently operating 7 successful and profitable stores in areas where they were warned no other grocery store had been able to make it. Not only are they surviving, but they are thriving and how they did it offers the workforce system some great lessons in thinking about how we could seize some of the opportunities presented by WIOA.
1. Re-Define Our Mission
Brown's mission is "Bringing Joy to the Lives of the People We Serve." Notice that there is positive emotion built into that mission. That it connects on a really human level. What would happen if we redefined our mission in that way?
2. Engage DEEPLY with the community before designing services.
When Jeff Brown was starting his stores, he says:
"Before we did anything, we brought together a group of community leaders, and we just asked them to tell us exactly what it is they were looking for in a neighborhood grocery store."
He did this for EACH store:
Before we open a store in a neighborhood, we work with community leaders ... learn about their background, religion, where their families came from.
This was an open-ended conversation, meant to learn as much as possible about the communities and the people who lived there. It was deep LISTENING that Brown then used in designing his stores.
This is the kind of empathy interviewing that businesses use to get at what's most important to their customers so they have a good understanding of what will attract, engage and keep customers coming back for more.
3. Look for outside sources of inspiration.
Brown also looks outside of his "niche" to learn from what other stores are doing that could be adapted for his model:
When it comes to selling fresh produce, Brown says he likes to take cues from higher-end stores like Whole Foods, which put lots of effort into marketing it. He says he has his employees at every store take extra time to hand-stack fruits and veggies "into little pyramids — because it avoids bruising and it's eye-catching."
He also invests in skilled butchers, fishmongers and in-store chefs. And that's how he's managed to tempt customers into choosing healthier food, he says, like "fire-grilled chicken" instead of fried chicken.
He doesn't just look to other grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods to learn from them. He is learning from the "high end" stores and bringing in their practices as well.
4. Broaden your understanding of who you could be.
Over time, by continuing to engage deeply with his local customers, Brown has really broadened his understanding of the role the grocery store can play in a community, incorporating new services into his stores that address local needs, such as:
- Community Centers where local residents can sign up to use space for their meetings.
- Social workers
- Health clinics
He's even considering creating Jazz Clubs because local residents don't have access to the kinds of "Main Street" bars and restaurants where people can go to have fun and just hang out.
Many of these services are being offered in partnership with local nonprofits, creating win/win situations for both.
The real question Brown's is asking is "What happens if the grocery store becomes the center for community life?"
This is a question that the workforce system should be asking of itself:
"What happens if we become the center of community life?"
Some of us are already thinking that way, but many are not. And even for those organizations that are thinking like this, there are still plenty of opportunities for innovation in continuing to ask this deeper question.
As we look to the future of workforce development under WIOA, we will need to embrace new ways of thinking and doing business. These four lessons from the Brown's SuperStore experience are a good place for us to start.