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Oct 1, 2011

Leading our way out of the Recession: A 21st Century WPA?

This post, authored by Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, was originally published at Harvard's Ash Center Social Innovation Project on September 28, 2011

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“As of 2008, the war for good jobs has trumped all other
leadership activities […] The lack of good jobs will become the root
cause of almost all world problems that America and other countries will
face.” –Jim Clifton, Gallup Management Journal (September 2011)

Our economy is in trouble. Today, over 25 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed, and over 46 million are in poverty. Jobs and economic security are the single most important issues on the minds of people across generations, geography, and political parties.

The last time we faced an economic crisis of this magnitude was during the Great Depression. At that time, the federal government stepped in. Between 1935 and 1943, the Works Progress Administration (WPA, later renamed the Works Projects Administration) provided almost 8 million jobs.

But today’s labor market is different than that of the 1930s, and its challenges more complex. Moreover, the near crisis brought on by the administrative task of raising the debt ceiling last month suggests that bold, quick, and effective responses from our nation’s capitol are not likely.

Clearly, we need new solutions.

What’s the Problem?

Part of the reason the jobs problem is so difficult to solve is that it’s not one problem.
The national unemployment rate dominates headlines, but labor markets generally follow economies—they are regional, not national. For example, last month, the metro region of El Centro, California recorded an unemployment rate of 30.8%, while Bismark, North Dakota’s was 3.0%.

Communities face competing priorities—not just between “the jobs agenda” and other priorities (public safety and emergency response, for example), but also within the jobs agenda itself.

  • Should communities focus on supporting growing industries? Their largest industries? The industries with the largest share of exports? Those that promise to keep jobs local?
  • Young people are having difficulty getting on a career path, older workers can’t afford to retire, and Gen X is sandwiched between, often supporting children, parents or both. How do community leaders set priorities in this context?
  • Would tackling social ills (e.g., helping adults learn to read) yield returns? Or would investing in community strengths, on the theory that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, offer a better way forward?

While leaders are under pressure to respond to all of these priorities, resource scarcity makes “both/and” approaches difficult.  And many of our formal tools—from laws and regulations to institutions
and funding streams—lack the agility to effect the changes we need when we need them.

Connecting Bright Spots

Despite the complexity of these challenges, there is hope. People from all sectors and all levels of “rank” and experience are coming forward to solve these problems and are finding new ways to lead in the process.

During our one-year study
of the field of public policy known as workforce, we found many examples of leaders—including non-traditional leaders—creating new solutions in unexpected ways. In particular, they are experimenting with new methods of public participation, co-creation, and volunteer-led initiatives to expand learning opportunities (even if not in traditional “schools”), and connect people to work (even if not in traditional "jobs"). They are embracing agendas that, a decade ago, would have seemed far afield—from broadband adoption to entrepreneurship.

These leaders are social innovators, in addition to their roles as elected officials, bureaucrats, policy wonks, “geeks”, moms, or neighborhood activists. They are both ordinary and extraordinary.

Below this brief video accompanying the report Weadership: The Future of Workforce Leadership are two examples of leaders in action from our respective home communities.

Portland hacks. In May 2011, Cyborg Anthropologist, entrepreneur, and twenty-something Amber Case organized an Education Hackathon on a Sunday in a business incubator in downtown Portland, OR. A handful of senior level education officials identified key problems they thought technology might be able to help fix. About 25 technologists (programmers, hackers, strategists, designers, etc.) listened, asked questions, and then divided into teams to tackle three problems. It was a friendly competition. Eight hours later, the winning team had developed a mobile app to better connect young people and their parents or guardians to summer activities and jobs in their communities—a problem clearly spanning workforce, education, and community development domains.

The team also conducted an impressive amount of asset mapping in the process. The gaps and opportunities identified that day inspired program changes right away, and highlighted systemic fixes for challenges youth-serving organizations had long struggled with. The city, county, workforce board, and youth providers are all working on next steps.

Silicon Valley remakes and retools. For decades, Silicon Valley has been a fast changing economy. More risk tolerant than many communities, it has seen some firms radically and rapidly expand and others collapse overnight. Whole new industries emerge with regularity. But today, even Silicon Valley faces high unemployment, especially among seasoned technology professionals who can have difficulty reentering the job market after a lay-off. Leaders have responded with all of their traditional tools, but they are also trying some new ones. For example a diverse partnership jointly commissioned a study of the technology cluster to provide a shared body of knowledge and common set of strategies for colleges, economic and workforce development professionals, and city and county leaders from the public and private sectors.

Workforce leaders are also responding to what some call the “job mindset” which keeps many experienced workers from securing employment. Flexibility Bootcamps use peer learning, open space, improv, and other techniques to help job seekers identify and market their value to an enterprise, rather than their ability to do a specific job. Some even decide they can make their own jobs.

Uncommon Approaches

In our research we encountered dozens of examples of workforce leaders learning from policy innovations like crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, social innovation and entrepreneurship, “Gov2.0” initiatives, even “gameful” technologies, with the intent of engaging their communities in productive learning, work, enterprise, and problem-solving.

Most promising is the swell of interest in such solutions from leaders across sectors in communities everywhere. As innovators they demonstrate the potential of uncommon partnerships and a focus on significant, sustainable, and scalable experiments for remaking community prosperity.

They, you, us—we are the new WPA.

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Photo Credit: DB's Travels on Flickr

 

Post
Oct 1, 2011

519 People Who Care About Jobs and a Needed Conversation About Leadership, Innovation, and the Future

This post, authored by Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, was originally published on the Social Innovation Exchange Blog, September 26, 2011.
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An Exploration of Leadership

There was a moment this spring, mid-way through a a project about the changing nature of leadership in the field of policy concerned with work and learning (we call it “workforce”), where we began to feel a renewed sense of excitement and promise.

The last several years have been tough for leaders working to help their communities achieve greater prosperity, especially in those parts of a Europe and the US where the rise of unemployment and corresponding social ills has been fast and severe. The housing crisis, unemployment, the escalating costs of health care and education, and a public sector in fiscal crisis—it can feel like an onslaught.

For policy and community leaders, the relentless push for efficiencies, cost-cutting strategies, and evidence-based practices—each important in its own way—can inhibit deeper thinking about the most critical contributions these leaders and their organizations make to the well being of their communities.

What We Learned

But we found leaders who were thinking deeply about their communities’ most significant challenges and what they could do about them—in partnership with government and non-profit organizations, and with businesses and citizens themselves.

The goal of our project was to explore the changing nature of workforce leadership—what leaders do, in what context, and toward what end, and how these have shifted over the past decade (a more complete explanation is here).

We engaged 519 leaders from public, private, and nonprofit sectors at the federal, state and local levels, documenting our activities on the project’s website along the way. We identified a framework and set of six practices sufficiently different from a decade ago to constitute a new model of leadership—we call it WEadership, a nod to its collaborative nature.

Three Insights Worth Thinking About

Three ideas that emerged during the project that strike us as posing fundamental challenges to the way we organize, manage, and assess investments in workforce.

1. Conversation Matters.

Repeatedly, workforce leaders told us that convening conversation with partners, stakeholders, program providers, local elected officials and citizens is the most important work they do. Not just important work, the most important work.

This will not be surprising to those experienced in the art and science of innovation as it is a social process. The source of much innovation is the blending and mixing of new ideas, technologies, and methods from one sector with those of another. Workforce leaders have long been hosting (both formally and informally) conversations about how to solve the jobs, skills, and economic development challenges in their communities. These conversations inform the actions of not just policy makers and workforce leaders, but everyone around the proverbial table that employs or develops people or supports a business. Such conversations have never been more important.

The problem is that the effects of this kind of work are difficult to evidence, especially in the short term.

As one a respondent in rural Iowa put it:
 
"When you use networks to move an agenda, it’s influence and momentum that matter. Changes can be small, but they are also cumulative—one day you look up and a lot of things are really different. But we don’t always have the ability to say 'A led to B.'"
 
This fuzziness makes some leaders uncomfortable. As a result, we do not acknowledge convening as legitimate work. This means we do not invest in our capacity to do it successfully, and we do not talk about it when we are successful for fear it will be seen as lacking in rigor.
 
But such convening is an essential ingredient in good policy and a necessary one for implementing better solutions to our most intractable problems.
 
2. Connectivity is a game changer.

The second insight has to do with social technologies. The fact that hundreds of millions of people are connected to one another using technology creates whole new possibilities for engaging in work, learning, and entrepreneurship in very different ways:

  • The explosion of peer-learning communities in the workplace and web-based platforms like Skillshare, P2PU, and Khan Academy are challenging our ideas about the very nature of educational institutions—is Skillshare school? Workforce leaders are asking themselves how these platforms can play a role in addressing skills gaps or simply engaging people in productive activity.
  • Manpower and other firms in the business of connecting people to work (even if not in traditional jobs) have been joined by firms like Taskrabbit that enable people to make a living by aggregating “gigs.” In the absence of sufficient numbers of jobs—even if there were a perfect match between the skills firms need and those job-seekers can supply—workforce leaders are asking themselves how these ‘unjobs’ can offer opportunities for those who need them, and what role policy can play in realizing them.
  • Peer-lending, microphilanthropy, and crowdfunding are helping us reimagine what it meansto launch a venture. While nearly every local workforce leader with whom we spoke indicated that job creation was a workforce issue, the linkage became more tenuous at the state level (except in the seven states that maintain self-employment programs) and almost invisible at the federal level. But social ventures of the kind typically supporting through platforms like Kickstarter are a kind of hybrid. They can enable people to make their own jobs (or ‘gigs’) by aggregating investors (“backers”) who support specific projects or initiatives. Again, workforce leaders are exploring how such platforms might connect people to opportunity in nontraditional ways.

3. Boldness wanted. Finally, across the board, workforce leaders expressed a desire for bolder experiments. Too often, the theories of change driving what are called “innovation initiatives” are determined at the top (whether by foundations or federal agencies) with little input from the field, and reflect the risk-averse culture of their organizations. As a result, local leaders often feel like they are working very hard to improve existing programs or approaches they know should be wholly reinvented. In addition, where innovation does occur, there are few mechanisms to share it with the field.

And yet, many, many leaders we spoke with persevere, seeking to maximize their impact on the economical health and social well being of their communities. Today, leaders at all levels and across sectors need to find ways to learn together, and to better support each other in solving what are absolutely critical community problems.

We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.
 

Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, of Social Policy Research Associates, authored the WEadership Guide (August 2011), the result of a one-year US Department of Labor study of leadership in the field of public policy concerned with work and learning. We were thrilled at the opportunity to link our professional pursuits (public policy) with our personal commitments to positive social change and innovation, and look to increase, accelerate, and intensify these connections within the field of workforce in the coming months. The entire project is documented at EnhacingWorkforceLeadership.org. Follow it at @WFLeadership.

Post
Oct 1, 2011

WEadership: We Are All Leaders Now

This post, authored by Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, was originally published on the Monitor Insitute's WorkingWikily blog, September 20, 2011.
_______________

“As of 2008, the war for good jobs has trumped all other
leadership activities […] The lack of good jobs will become the root
cause of almost all world problems that America and other countries will
face.”

Jim Clifton, Gallup Management Journal (September 2011)
_____________

“Jobs Wanted.” While the jobs bill (America’s Jobs Act) commands the attention of elected officials in our nation’s capitol, state and local leaders have struggled with employment issues for decades. They know there is no single solution because there is no single problem.

Most communities face some combination of the following:

  • Too few jobs (especially those offering health insurance and family-sustaining wages)
  • Skills gaps among applicants competing for good jobs that do exist and those in emerging industries
  • Young workers having difficulty making the leap from job to career (or from school to job)
  • Older experienced workers who cannot afford to retire or simply want to remain engaged but in different roles than they play today
  • Labor markets that lack transparency (e.g., applicants submit hundreds of resumes into “black holes“)
  • Persistent poverty, especially among communities of color, which limits access to job
    opportunities and to the social networks that help people advance
  • Overcrowded and underfunded public schools and institutions of higher education struggle to cultivate the talents of all of their students
  • Ongoing economic shocks—not just unanticipated layoffs, but also natural and weather-related disasters of which there have been 83 in 2011 (a record high in any calendar year)

No one challenge, no one solution. These challenges are not for the faint of heart, and cannot be solved by a single leader,organization or sector. But they are among the defining challenges of our day. And courageous leaders in public, private, non-profit, and civic sectors all over the country are quietly stepping forward to tackle them—increasingly, in partnership with one another.

Adopting more collaborative, open-minded, and entrepreneurial approaches than in years past, these leaders prioritize the goal—community well being and prosperity—above the means, be it program, funding, agency precedent, or political jurisdiction. We call this new approach WEadership in a nod to its collaborative nature.

Collaboration required. One of the most important opportunities this collaborative approach offers is the potential for shared learning and experimentation in ways that spread the risk and share the benefits. Here are three examples:

Volunteer-run services. In one California community, the need for workforce services had so overwhelmed a strapped public agency that staff began encouraging clients (job-seekers) to run their own activities. To their surprise, many job seekers jumped at the chance. Staff trained a small number of clients to use some basic organizing tools and allowed them to use the agency offices and equipment to run job search clinics, industry meetings, and other activities. As a result, volunteer organizers learned new skills, grew their networks, and were engaged in ways that made them feel valued—some secured jobs as a direct result. In addition, more job seekers could access a wider range of services (including those offered in the native languages of the organizers) at no additional cost. And other community leaders noticed. They valued the agency’s flexibility and creativity.

  • Returnships. In communities whose key industries are shifting, public, private, and non-profit leaders are working together to provide adult internships (sometimes called “returnships“) for individuals who are returning to the workforce after caring for children or families or who are transitioning from one industry or field of practice to another. These experiences can help job seekers gain tacit knowledge and build networks that enable them to secure longer-term employment or launch their own ventures. Because adults demand specific learning and development opportunities, these internships tend to be carefully structured, not just provide an introduction to the workplace as many youth-oriented internships do. This focus can build the capacity of host firms and organizations to provide higher-quality internships and development opportunities for younger interns and existing workers, as well as returners.
  • Social innovation. In grassroots communities everywhere, social innovators in state and local governments, tribal nations, and nonprofit and
    private sectors are organizing their communities in ways that enhance economic opportunity. From helping aspiring entrepreneurs crowdfund small ventures on Kickstarter to organizing off-line peer learning communities around on-line learning and professional development platforms like P2PU and Skillshare, to promoting bartering on NeighborhoodGoods or “gigging” on Taskrabbit, social innovators are increasing access to work and learning, even if
    not in traditional ways. These experiments can even complement or incent changes in programs and services offered tradition institutions

Many small steps. Workforce leaders (who can come from any level, sector, or jurisdiction) are innovating in ways that can be hard to recognize because their innovations comprise many small iterations, rather than one headline-grabbing breakthrough. And often, they are disconnected. But these small steps matter. And leaders who take them are demonstrating ways in which can all play important roles in solving our most significant problems.

We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.

Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, of Social Policy Research Associates, authored the WEadership Guide (August 2011), the result of a one-year US Department of Labor study of leadership in the field of public policy concerned with work and learning. The entire project is documented at EnhacingWorkforceLeadership.org. Follow it at @WFLeadership.
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Photo credit: Senator Mark Warner on Flickr.


 
Post
Oct 1, 2011

WEadership Practice #1: Adopt a Wide-Angle Point of View

This post originally appeared on LeadChange. It is the second of a seven-part series summarizing the findings of a one-year study of workforce leadership in which we identified six practices next-generation leaders are using: a new model of leadership we call WEadership in a nod to its collaborative nature.
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Practice #1: Adopt a Wide-Angle Point of View

Where do effective leaders look for new ideas?
For better ways of doing things?

boy and telescope

In short, everywhere.

We found that effective workforce leaders look for new ideas in unlikely places—in completely unrelated fields of practice and peers and neighbors alike—and find creative ways to apply their resources and expertise. They focus on community problems, not just workforce problems.

It sounds simple but this kind of ‘opening of the aperture’ has fundamentally changed what many workforce leaders do. In fact, we identified many ways leaders can broaden there vision. Here are three. 

Embrace Long-Term

First, today’s workforce leaders embrace bigger, longer-term agendas. We talked to workforce leaders about industry clusters, broadband penetration, literacy, school reform, social innovation, poverty, entrepreneurship, and dozens of other challenges that comprise their to-do lists. Traditional issues like jobs, skills, and wages still anchor their work, but today’s workforce priorities can take many forms and require action on different time horizons.

Embrace Diverse Thought

Second, and following from the first, leaders are working with more diverse partners than ever before—not just economic development and education partners, but industry and professional associations, libraries and cultural institutions, universities, incubators, even grassroots and neighborhood groups. Leaders work with these partners in different ways—not just as Board members or political constituents (or competitors), but in a myriad of roles that reflect the multiple dimensions every person and organization brings.

Embrace Diverse Methods

Third, leaders are actively seeking ideas from other professional fields—even those completely unrelated to workforce or public policy—that have the potential to impact their own performance or field of practice. Whether through organizational or community book clubs, attending conferences or events in other professional fields or disciplines, or adopting new ideation, experimentation, or learning methods within their organizations and networks, these leaders know they do not have all of the answers and are employing methods that will both introduce them to new ideas, and engage their staff, partners, and communities in solving important community problems.

One leader convenes monthly discussion around TED talks; another asks staff to convenes openspace conversations to encourage sharing among staff and partners; several take (unpaid) sabbaticals and offer them to staff; and some regularly return to the classroom (in-person or virtually).

These leaders share shift strategies as new information changes how they see the problems they are working on. They share a commitment to doing what they can over doing what they’ve always done and a willingness to let others be in charge.

They know leadership is a shared role, and not just a title.

Is your own view wide enough? Are you gaining insight from innovators in other professional fields? Your own employees?

Photo credit: achichi on Flickr

____________________________________________

Last Week: An Introduction to WEadership: Workforce Leaders Remaking Policy and Redefining What it Means to Lead

Next Week: WEadership Practice #2: Build Diverse Networks

Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, of Social Policy Research Associates, authored the WEadership Guide (August 2011), the result of a one-year US Department of Labor study of leadership in the field of public policy concerned with work and learning. They were thrilled at the opportunity to link their professional pursuits (public policy) with their personal commitments to positive social change and innovation, and look to increase, accelerate, and intensify these connections within the field of workforce in the coming months.
The entire project is documented at EnhacingWorkforceLeadership.org. Follow it at @WFLeadership.

Post
Sep 24, 2011

WEadership: Workforce Leaders Remaking Policy and Redefining What it Means to Lead

This post originally appeared on LeadChange. It is the first of a seven-part series summarizing the findings of a one-year study of workforce leadership in which we identified six practices next-generation leaders are using: a new model of
leadership we call WEadership in a nod to its collaborative nature.

______________________________________________

As of 2008, the war for good jobs has trumped all other leadership activities […] The lack of good jobs will become the root cause of almost all world problems that America and other countries will face. – Jim Clifton

Jobs and economic security

These are the most important issues on the minds of Americans across generations, geography, and political parties.

Most communities face some combination of the following:

  • Too few jobs (especially those offering health insurance and family-sustaining wages)
  • Skills gaps among applicants competing for good jobs that do exist and those in emerging industries
  • Young workers having difficulty making the leap from job to career (or from school to job)
  • Older experienced workers who cannot afford to retire or simply want to remain engaged but in different roles than they play today
  • Labor markets that lack transparency (e.g., applicants submit hundreds of resumes into “black holes“)
  • Persistent poverty,
    especially among communities of color, which limits access to job
    opportunities and to the social networks that help people advance
  • Overcrowded and underfunded public schools and institutions of higher education struggle to cultivate the talents of all of their students
  • Ongoing economic shocks—not just unanticipated layoffs, but also natural and weather-related disasters of which there have been 83 in 2011 (a record high in any calendar year)

These challenges are not for the faint of heart, and cannot be solved by a
single leader, organization, or sector. But they are among the defining
challenges of our day. And courageous leaders in public, private,
non-profit, and civic sectors all over the country are quietly stepping
forward to tackle them—increasingly, in partnership with one another.

Non-traditional Leadership

During a one-year study of the field of public policy known as workforce, we found many examples of leaders—including non-traditional leaders—creating new
solutions in unexpected ways.

Adopting more collaborative, open-minded, and entrepreneurial approaches than in years past, these leaders prioritize the goal—community well being and prosperity—above the means, be it program, funding, agency precedent, political jurisdiction, or traditional role. We call this new approach WEadership in a nod to its collaborative nature. It is characterized by six practices:

  1. Adopting a Wide-Angle Point of View
  2. Building Diverse Networks
  3. Embracing Openness
  4. Encouraging Experimentation
  5. Adding Unique Value
  6. Cultivating Next Generation Leaders

These practices do not comprise a recipe or a checklist. Rather, they reflect our effort to synthesize finding from our literature review and discussions with over 500 workforce leaders in person, via phone and using social media.  Moreover, these are not independent practices: the six complement one another and point toward a future in which leadership is a collaborative endeavor.

We will cover these practices in a series of posts over the coming weeks. Meanwhile,
we’d welcome your thoughts.

What do you think about the future of the workforce? 

_______________________________________

Next Week: WEadership Practice #1: Adopt a Wide-Angle Point of View

Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, of Social Policy Research Associates, authored the WEadership Guide (August 2011), the result of a one-year US Department of Labor study of leadership in the field of public policy concerned with work and learning. They were thrilled at the opportunity to link their professional pursuits (public policy) with their personal commitments to positive social change and innovation, and look to increase, accelerate, and intensify these connections within the field of workforce in the coming months. The entire project is documented here (EnhancingWorkforceLeadership). Follow us at @WFLeadership.


Post
Aug 15, 2011

Mayor Sam Adams on Leadership, Complexity, and Engaging People

Sam Adams on complexity and leadership

The complete version of Mayor Adam's interview with the Enhancing Workforce Leadership Team is coming soon.

The whole collection is available on the Weadership Vimeo channel.

Post
Aug 15, 2011

Fred Slone on Leadership, Change, and "Never Enough"

Fred Slone on Never Enough

The complete version of Fred's interview with the Enhancing Workforce Leadership Team is coming soon.

The whole video collection will be housed on the Weadership Project's Vimeo channel

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