Big Ideas

Promoting Youth Entrepreneurship

I'm currently working with the Philadelphia Youth Network on a project to promote entpreneurship to youth called Studio E, and we had our kick-off webinar today. You can see a recording of that broadcast above. We covered: 

  • The Entrepreneurial Imperative--what's happening in today's job market that is making it necessary for all young people to seriously consider self-employment and to develop the skills of entrepreneurs. 
  • New opportunities being created in the market by technology and trends in work arrangements and innovative funding options. 
  • Strategies for integrating entrepreneurship into our work with youth, regardless of the type of program we are running. 

We also introduced Try it Tuesdays, a weekly feature we'll be running for the next several weeks where we'll feature a new activity to try with youth that promotes entrepreneurship and/or teaches them some of the skills and thinking used by expert entrepreneurs. 

If you want to keep up with Try it Tuesdays, then you can follow the posts here. We have our first activity up, called The Inventing Game. It's a great way to get young people thinking about how simple tools and resources can be used to solve customer problems and how this ties in with starting a business. 

We're really excited about the intiative and looking forward to generating new conversations about how we can integrate entrepreneurial thinking and ideas into all of our youth programming. If you have ideas about this or resources you use, please drop me a line in the comments section. We'd love to hear from you! 

Hacking Workforce Development


For many people in workforce development, "hacking" is when someone breaks into a computer's hard drive to steal information or to plant a virus. 

But there's another way that the term is used--to describe an effective solution to a problem. We have "life-hacks," which are productivity fixes to make your life go more smoothly. And many companies are sponsoring "hackathons," where they bring together a bunch of programmers for a short period of time--24-48 hours, usually--and task them with finding a software solution to specific problems. 

For example,

  • Indianapolis is sponsoring an IndyCivic Hackathon where they are inviting programmers in to propose and develop applications using public data that can solve community problems.
  • The Tech for Justice Hackathon will bring together lawyers, public and private justice organizations and developers to develop solutions to address access to justice resources through technology. 

Some challenges include a cash or other kind of prize for the winners, while others rely on the fact that a lot of tech folks get great satisfaction simply from using their skills to create something cool. Hackathons are also great places for people to meet, network and develop collaborative partnerships that go beyond the events of the day. 


Hackathons for Workforce Development

The idea of a Hackathon could easily be applied to the workforce development field. Local WIBs or a coalition of WIBs and other nonprofit agencies could bring together employers, job seekers, American Job Center and WIB staff, other stakeholder staff and the technology community to help forge tech solutions to some of our challenges. Maybe do one event that focuses on job seekers and how tech could help them with their careers and job search and another day that focuses on HR and recruitment and what employers need. 

Hackathons can also be done entirely online (no in-person event) or go beyond technology solutions. For example, on OpenIdeo  organizations can post challenges like "How can we make low-income urban areas safer and more empowering for women?" People can post their ideas for addressing these issues and sponsors can select solutions to implement or work on further. 

This is all part of the ethos of open innovation or crowd-sourcing, where you bring together people  from different disciplines and fields and invite them to work together on big problems. Major companies and organizations are getting great results from these strategies through sites like InnoCentive. They've found that they can quickly surface surprising solutions to problems that they've spent years working on when they bring people together who have different ideas and assumptions about what does and doesn't work and when different problem-solving processes are used. 

As we continue to try to "do more with less," and to deal with some difficult workforce dilemmas, these are the kinds of strategies we should be exploring and implementing to continue innovating and adapting to our uncertain economy. We don't have all the answers, so if we open things up and invite in more people to work with us in identifying and resolving some of our challenges, we could go a lot further with our work. 


If you're interested in further exploring the Hackathon idea, here are some resources to get you started:

  • How to Run a Hackathon--some step-by-step advice on everything from organizing to setting your agenda, selecting judges and marketing your event. 
  • ChallengePost--The largest listing of hackathons and online challenges anywhere. You can see examples of other Hackathons as well as post your own here for free. 


10 Questions We Should Be Asking Ourselves in Workforce Development


A great article in Forbes Magazine lists 100 Questions Every Entrepreneur Should Be Asking, many of which are applicable to us in workforce development. 

Here's my list of the Top 10 Questions we should be asking ourselves as we think about our workforce programs and services. 


1. What counts that we are not counting?

We have our standard performance measures, but we know that they don't capture everything we do, nor do they give us all the information we need to improve our work. So what else do we need to be measuring and paying attention to?


2. Are we changing as fast as the world around us? 

A big issue for us. How are our people, systems and processes keeping pace with the changes in our world? What are we doing to make sure that we are able to keep up?


3. What should we stop doing?

Something we should be asking ourselves regularly. 


4. Do we underestimate the customer's journey?

When was the last time we went through the entire process a customer must go through to access and utilize our services? How have we underestimated how hard we may make it for them to get what they need? Is every hoop we put in front of them REALLY necessary?


5. What happens in our organization when people fail? 

Great success comes when we take risks. We often fail along the way. How we treat failures and the people who fail is indicative of our attitude toward risk.


6. Do our employees have the opportunity to do their best every day?

Are we playing to employee strengths? Are we doing what needs to be done to create an environment where our people can feel successful most days? If not, what needs to change?


7. What was the last experiment we ran?

Innovation comes from experimenting, trying things out. Are we continually and actively experimenting? What could we do to encourage a culture of experimentation?


8. What potential market trends could make our organization obsolete? Will we be relevant 5 years from now? 

Taking some time to really consider the trends in the world and how they may impact us is critical if we want to keep up with changes. 


9. What are the rules and assumptions our industry operates under? What if the opposite were true? 

Some very interesting ideas can come from exploring these questions. What are the underlying assumptions in workforce development? And what if the opposite is true?


10. How do we stay inspired?

It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of tasks and to-do lists. But customers respond best when we act from a place of inspiration and when we are able to inspire them. What do we do to inspire ourselves and to pass those inspirations on to our customers? 


What are  your thoughts? How would your organization answer these questions? 

Supporting Self-Employment: The Speedy Start-Up

I'm a big believer in the notion that we should be doing more as a workforce system to help people explore the opportunities in self-employment, particularly when we're operating in a labor market where there aren't enough jobs to go around. To that end, I'm currently working with the Bucks County WIB to implement a pilot project we're calling The Speedy Start-Up.

This 12-week series is targeted to unemployed job seekers and will help participants go from identifying their business idea to actually starting up their company. As a small business owner myself, I know that the only way to learn how to run a business is to actually start doing it and this series is very focused on helping participants take specific actions to get their businesses operating with minimal investment and minimal planning. 

We're using the $100 Start-Up, The Lean Start-Up and Business Model You as core resources for the series, which will include weekly meetings, an online classroom and a series of structured activities to help participants identify and refine their idea, test it with potential customers and actually launch their business by the end of the 12 weeks. 

One of the big things that start-ups struggle with is isolation--people are trying to do things on their own with little outside support. The weekly group meetings are designed to help combat this isolation and to connect these fledgling small business owners to one another for support, feedback and accountability. They will also have the opportunity to leverage each other's learning, networks and resources. 

We're also focusing on the effectual process that expert entrepreneurs use to develop their businesses--a process that's quite different from how we typically teach entrepreneurship. Most entrepreneurial efforts I've seen in the workforce development field use the kind of causal approach that can work for established businesses, but that isn't appropriate for start-ups. In the Speedy Start-Up, we're using the latest research and information on how expert entrepreneurs build their businesses and create multiple income streams for themselves. 

Last week I did a presentation on the project to One Stop customers in the Bucks County CareerLink's Networking Now group and got an incredibly positive reaction. People are looking for any opportunities they can find to help bring in more income to their families and to begin feeling successful again. We have 12 slots open and in less than a week we've already filled over half of them. This is something I think people are desperate for and I'm very excited to start working with them. 

If you want to learn more about what we're doing, watch the video above and then check out our Speedy Start-Up website. If you have more specific questions, feel free to email me at [email protected].

What if Workforce Development Focused on "Achieving Stability" Rather Than on "Finding a Job"?


I was watching a Lead Center webinar on maintaining employment through economic advancement strategies and it got me thinking about how our work and systems might be transformed if we shifted our focus. 

In particular:

What if we focused on helping job seekers achieve employment and financial stability rather than on helping them "find a job?" 


In reality, when we work with people to help them find employment, our ultimate goal is to help them achieve some  stability. But this isn't an explicit purpose or focus of the workforce system. We're much more focused on "getting a job," which is only one strategy for achieving greater stability.

I've written before about why we need to expand our discussions about this, but it occurs to me that if we shifted to a focus on employment and financial stability it could open us up even more to how we could better support our job seekers. 

 If employment and financial stability was the focus, then we might:

  • Help people think about developing multiple income streams, especially through combining employment with "side gigs" and small business opportunities. 
  • Find ways to help people who are currently working anticipate and address potential lay-offs BEFORE they happen, so that individuals can be pro-active, rather than reactive.
  • Work more effectively with employers to identify and implement lay-off aversion strategies and other work arrangements that would give workers more certainty in planning for their futures.

Right now, I think we're spending a lot of time chasing jobs. As a system, we might be better off taking a step back and really looking at how we could work in our communities to create more stable employment and financial situations for job seekers. By focusing on creating stability, we can help people access many more options and they will get some relief from the anxiety created by uncertainty. 

Zombie Ideas and Workforce Policies


Over the weekend, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman published an op-ed piece entitled Jobs and Skills and Zombies in which he tackles the ongoing idea that the problems in the job market are a lack of skills. He says:

. . . in an ever-changing economy there are always some positions unfilled even while some workers are unemployed, and the current ratio of vacancies to unemployed workers is far below normal. Meanwhile, multiple careful studies have found no support for claims that inadequate worker skills explain high unemployment.

But the belief that America suffers from a severe “skills gap” is one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.

And then he proceeds to make a very compelling case against the idea that its a lack of skills that explains our current unemployment problems. 

As Krugman points out, the problem with the skills myth is that it has very real-world consequences for our policies and interventions. If we're focused on the idea that people just need skills, then we are putting a lot of resources and energy into training and not looking at the real issue, which is a lack of jobs. 

No one is arguing that there are large swaths of the population that need skills upgrades, but I do think that we need to understand that it's a challenge to get people to upgrade their skills when there are no jobs at the end of that work. Job seekers aren't being "lazy" if they resist investing their own limited time and resources into credentials or activities that will have little payoff in terms of a job or even higher earnings when they complete the cycle. 

One of the key questions I think we need to be asking ourselves as workforce development professionals is

"What should our work be if the key problem in today's market is that there aren't enough jobs to go around ?" 

What are your thoughts here? Where should we be investing time and resources if our biggest issue is a lack of jobs, rather than a skills mismatch? What shifts in policies and mindset do we need to be focused in this area? 

The New Core Services: Career Management for the 21st Century


In yesterday's post, I introduced the idea that we should expand Core Services beyond our usual job search topics so that we could enage both employed and unemployed job seekers in a longer series of career management topics designed to increase their career resilience

Today, I want to share some of my thoughts on the types of topics we should be addressing in these expanded Core Services. 

Core Services Topics That Build Career Resilience

In my work with job seekers, both employed and unemployed, I've observed that there are a number of areas where people need to be getting more education and support. These are a reflection of how the job market has changed and how expectations for both workers and employers are evolving. 

  • Figuring out if they are vulnerable to a lay-off.  Too many people seem to be caught totally off-guard when a lay-off comes.  Somehow they've thought it wouldn't happen to them, even though we can see fairly clearly the industries and occupations where the handwriting is on the wall. I think we need to do a better job of helping people look at how technology and other factors may impact their work so they can begin preparing sooner, rather than later for the possibility of losing their jobs. 

  • Identifying the best new skills and credentials workers need to make themselves more valuable in their occupation and industry. In my work with job seekers, I've found that there is a great tendency to leave professional development up to the company. Workers will only access the training opportunities that their organization provides to them. This can be a huge mistake, however. Companies are focused on what's best for their business, not necessarily on what's best for an individual employee. Job seekers need support and information in thinking about and accessing skill development opportunities that will best serve THEIR needs, not just the needs of the company. And they need this help while they are still employed, not after they lose their jobs. 

  • How to create strong, resilient networks and quality relationships with people. Now more than ever, professional success is tied to the quality of your relationships. Yet most people don't recognize the importance of their networks until they need them. Worse yet, this is often when they discover that they haven't done a good job of building and tending to their connections. The people who are most likely to find work quickly once they lose their jobs are those who have created quality networks. These are also the people less likely to lose a job in the first place, because through their networks, they're always finding and accessing new opportunities.

  • Developing a "personal brand" and communicating that brand on and off-line. I know that in many of our job search workshops, we discuss the concept of having a "personal brand" and how you communicate that brand through your resume, interviews, etc. But the time to start creating your personal brand is while you have a job, not once you've lost it. People who are currently employed need help in understanding the concept and elements of personal branding and support in learning how to communicate that brand through social media and in real-life interactions. The more they are able to do this, the less likely they are to lose their jobs.

  • Thinking like an entrepreneur and developing multiple income streams. Entrepreneurs are always focused on finding new opportunities--how can they use their skills and resources to accomplish particular goals? This is the kind of thinking that employers prize and it's a mindset that people can learn. We should be teaching and reinforcing these skills. We should also be talking to people about creating multiple income streamsso that they are less vulnerable if/when a layoff comes. We should show them how they can start side businesses to supplement their income and how to construct a career from project work. This brings more stability to people's finances and also helps people develop new skills and opportunities for themselves.

If we really wanted to get serious about providing these kinds of services, I would see us making available a whole range of supports, including:

  • In-person workshops
  • Online live webinars
  • Recorded video presentations that people could review on their own time
  • Podcasts that people could download to their computers or to their mp3 players
  • Worksheets and PDF resources 

Obviously in-person workshops and regular webinars are the most staff-intensive strategy and I know that many American Job Centers/One Stops already feel stretched to the max. At a minimum, though, we should explore ways that we could provide these services online through pre-recorded sessions and worksheets, articles, etc. These can be created once and then used repeatedly. 

What are your thoughts? Can you see how these could benefit your customers and help all job seekers become more resilient and employable? 

The Case for Engaging Job Seekers for the Long Haul


When the Workforce Investment Act was first passed in 1998, part of its vision was to provide all workers with access to a certain set of core services that would help them thrive in the job market. In practice, this hasn't really happened in most American Job Centers/One Stops. The bulk of customers we serve tends to be unemployed and our work with them ends once they find a job. 

This is a problem because it means that we're engaging in crisis managment with job seekers most of the time, rather than in the sort of "preventive medicine" that could go a long way toward averting unemployment in the first place.

This short-term, crisis mode of thinking keeps us trapped in a revolving door with job seekers where the focus is just on "getting a job," rather than on "how do I manage a career in a world where I can't count on my company to be responsible for that?" 

One of the questions Kathy Krepcio and I asked in our State of the US Workforce System report was:

What do 21st century job seekers REALLY need from us in the new economy? 

I would argue that what they most need is guidance in developing the career management skills that will help them adapt to ongoing uncertainty and that will help them thrive in an economy that is changing rapidly. This means that we need to develop long-term relationships with people in our communities, not just providing the short-term, crisis management kinds of help we currently focus on.  

From the Emergency Room to Preventive Medicine 

In the past, the "quick fix" supports of educational workshops on resume writing, interviewing, etc. that we offered in core services were appropriate because jobs were relatively plentiful and periods of unemployment tended to be short and far between. Many workers might never experience a time without a job or if they did, it lasted only a few weeks or months and then they were firmly attached to another job. What they most needed from us was some help in finding a new job and they didn't need to work with us for a longer period of time. 

But now we are looking at large swaths of the population experiencing multiple periods of unemployment throughout their careers. And a good chunk of the workforce can go 6 months or longer without a job. While job search information is still an important part of the service mix, it's not going to be enough to really help people. They will be showing up at our doors again once the next round of lay-offs occurs. 

I think we've reached a place where we need to move beyond just providing job search information through core services.  Now we need to look at helping people develop what I call career resilience skills--career management behaviors that can help them anticipate and adapt to change on an ongoing basis, rather than when they are in crisis mode.

And we need to offer these services not just to people who are unemployed, but also to people who are currently employed so that they can be more strategic in their own career management

The "New" Core Services

For me, the new Core Services should be all about the career management skills job seekers need to survive and thrive in the new economy. Some of this is about job search, of course. But it's much bigger than just how to write a resume. 

There are several benefits to expanding our idea of what we could offer through Core Services so that we're enaging with people throughout their careers, rather than just when they are crisis mode:

  • From a WIB strategy perspective, this is a HUGE area for us to create value for customers. By positioning ourselves as providers of a broader range of career management skills, we fill a real gap in the marketplace, which is key to our ongoing relevance and funding. 
  • We can help people avoid unplanned job loss, ensuring that they are prepared with the skills and credentials that are in demand and helping them to access other opportunities. Lay-off aversion will be far better for our local economies and for the people who live in our communities. 
  • If people do lose their jobs, they are already connected to us and, therefore, more likely to access services earlier in the process. We all know that your chances of finding a new job plummet once you've been out of work 6 months or more, so the sooner people are connected to our services, the better. If they've been working with us already, we'd be a natural resource for them to use if they do lose their jobs. 
  • We will create a more skilled workforce that is more attractive to employers. When people develop their career management skills, they become more focused on their own professional development and growth. This is good for both job seekers and employers and creates a more resilient pool of workers able to adapt to ongoing changes. 

In tomorrow's post I'm going to share some of the topic areas I think we should focus on if we're going to re-envision what Core Services should be.

For now, I'd love to hear your input on the idea of expanding what we offer through Core. Can you see how this could benefit your local area? What challenges do you see in implementing new Core Services and how could we overcome them? 

What Looks Like a People Problem is Often a Situation Problem


It’s easier to blame and flame people than it is to fix the crappy systems that are often the root cause of unacceptable performance and behavior in our organizations.--Bret Simmons

One of the biggest challenges we face in any system is understanding the root cause of problems. So often in our organizations we see behavior in people that we find unacceptable and we end up blaming the people, rather than looking at the system in which they are operating. 

The reality is, though, that much of human behavior is about responding to our external environment. What are we rewarded for doing? How is good decision-making supported or thwarted? 

In the video above, Bret looks at something called the "fundamental attribution error." This is simply our human tendency to blame people rather than to look at how the underlying system or work environment is encouraging them to behave in a certain way. 

This is powerful knowledge for us to have in looking at our work. When we see staff doing things we don't like, rather than blaming them, we could look at what we're rewarding them for doing--how is the system encouraging this behavior?

Same thing with our job seeker participants. Have we set up systems that really support and encourage them to make the right decisions and to do what is most helpful to them in their careers and job search? 

More often than not, when we dig deeper, we find that what frustrates or infuriates us about the decisions and actions of others is not some personal failing on their part, but instead how our systems aren't providing the proper support and guidance. Rather than always assuming that people are to blame, we need to first look at how we've set things up in the workplace to encourage some of the behaviors that drive us crazy. 


Why We Need to Stop Talking About "Jobs"

One concern I have about the workforce development system is our unrelenting focus on "jobs." 

Don't get me wrong. People need to be able to make a living so they can support themselves and their families. But I think we need to stop talking about "getting a job," and start talking about "developing multiple income streams."

Here's the deal. The first thing we have to understand is that there aren't enough jobs to go around. 

As this map shows, most states are operating with a jobs deficit--they have more people looking for work than there are jobs available. 

Screen shot 2014-03-13 at 4.52.43 PM
Source: Joint Economic Committee US Congress


And the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been reporting pretty regularly now that we're stuck at about 3 job seekers for every job, which means that no matter how well qualified people may be, there are not enough jobs for everyone who wants one. 

And this isn't projected to change anytime soon, as the chart below shows. 

Working age pop and jobs


Why is this happening? For a few reasons.

First is the development of technology that is radically changing the need for human workers. We have sophisticated computer software that does the work of lawyers and Baxter, an inexpensive robot that can be "trained" to perform a variety of tasks with no programming necessary. Vast swaths of the workforce have lost their jobs in the last 5 years because technology allows work to be done with fewer human beings. 

The other big shift is in how businesses operate. Time was, if you needed to get something done, then you hired employees to do it. But in the past 10-15 years, businesses have turned to alternative arrangements--contract workers, contingent workers, out-sourcing, etc.--to accomplish their tasks. Employees are considered a "cost" so the last thing businesses want to do is add to their costs. Instead, they turn to other arrangments to get things done (See The Death of Jobs in Forbes).

Yes, there are still job openings. Some are the "gold standard" full-time job with benefits, but many more are temporary, project-based jobs that last 3 or 6 months. You can make a career out of this kind of work, but it requires people to be more entrepreneurial and it means they are dealing with a lot more uncertainty in their work lives. 

If we as a system are to provide more effective career counseling and services to our job seekers, we need to begin to accept the realities of this new economy. We need to start talking with our customers about ways to develop multiple income streams and how to build a career from a variety of projects, rather than through one single job. 

I would argue that we need to expand the kinds of workshops and services we are offering through our American Job Centers/One Stops so that we begin to help people navigate a career made up of multiple projects and income streams. We need to show people how to be more entrepreneurial in their careers and get them pursuing a variety of ways to bring in income. 

"Getting a job" just won't be possible for large numbers of our job seekers through no fault of their own. We need to begin preparing them for a different kind of future that is more project-based, fragmented and entrepreneurial if we want them to be able to survive and thrive in the years ahead.