Kevin: It is possible to follow a plan until you can't. The gears of our economic system have been churning in overdrive for over a year. A year that was like nothing you or I have ever experienced. I can't say I was fully prepared for the seismic shifts happening in our world. And yet, here we are trying to navigate new personal and professional paths.
It got me thinking. Do we have the systems in place to support a workforce full of explorers, and are we providing those just beginning their careers with the tools and skills they need to succeed? I want to know more. I want to know how corporate America is preparing the next generation of workers, and upskilling employees to meet new and modern demands. As we move forward, we must also ensure equity and representation for our diverse workforce.
In this episode, I'm happy to be joined by Marc Morial and Cheryl DeSantis to discuss the relationship between established educational paths and the needs of both institutions of higher learning and corporate America.
Cheryl DeSantis is the chief people officer at SmileDirectClub, the fast-growing telehealth pioneer credited with disrupting the $12 billion orthodontics industry. In this role, she has global oversight of talent acquisition, compensation and benefits, business partnership, and development for SmileDirect clubs across the globe. Before joining SmileDirectClub, Cheryl acted as vice president of people and organization at Mars Petcare. There, she led enterprise-wide programs and policies, serving 4000 employees around the world. Prior to working in human resources, Cheryl worked on notable campaigns in advertising and communications, including the Space Jam campaign, with Warner Brothers and Michael Jordan.
Look, we have a lot to cover, but I have to ask you, Space Jam? What was that all about?
Cheryl: Space Jam? Well, I spent a little bit of my career at MCI, and we had the pleasure of working with Warner Brothers and Michael Jordan on some advertising campaigns. I can't believe you found that.
Kevin: I found out about Space Jam. Now, are you a basketball fan?
Cheryl: I played basketball, and I'm a basketball fan. I played up through high school.
Kevin: You know, we've got a lot to talk about, as I said, but I have to ask you a question. LeBron or Michael Jordan? Which one is it?
Cheryl: I'm old school. I'm gonna stick with Michael Jordan.
Kevin: There you go. There you go. That's gonna generate controversy in and of itself, so...
Cheryl: Ah, no.
Kevin: You've been a leader in terms of your commitment to human development, preparing young people for work, you have a passion around this area. Where did it come from? Did you always know you wanted to go in human resources and help develop skills for people who have tremendous potential?
Cheryl: I actually got into human resources later in my career. What really set the stage for me, I think, was athletics, which is why I love when kids get involved in sports. Because not only did I have to develop and I had to go through successes and failures, but I had to help my team develop if we wanted to be good, and I always sort of gravitated to the leader or captain role, because I loved helping people, and I loved standing for the team.
Kevin: This idea of leadership, and helping to develop folks, that's encompassed in this title of "chief people officer." We've changed that. It used to be "HR Director." What's the significance of "chief people officer?"
Cheryl: I think that even though the term human resources has the term "human" in it, it can feel dehumanizing. I don't call my team "human resources." I call them people and organization, because our job is to get to acquire, engage, and develop the right people, and make sure that we have the organization structure and capabilities to win in the marketplace.
Kevin: And now, we're in this place where post-pandemic employers are looking at ways to develop their future workforce in a way that suits their needs. Young people are challenged. Should they be focused on college? Should they be focused on skill development? What are you all looking for, and how important is that college degree in terms of your future workforce?
Cheryl: There is a whole trend right now around hiring for skills, not schools. But that can mean that we're looking for the skills they have, not necessarily that they did the same job at another employer, or that they came from a specific school. And that is taking over how we attract talent, because what we know is a billion jobs are being changed by technology. That means people today don't have the skills to do those, jobs because they don't even exist yet.
So, for young people who are coming out, you know, when you look at a company, even like ours, we have roles that you can come into if you have the right skills right out of high school or out of a trade school, and then we have more specialized expertise roles that a college degree will just help you be more precise and skilled. So, I think there's such a battle for talent that there's gonna be room for all.
Kevin: Where do you go to find talent?
Cheryl: Part of the skills-based hiring is us taking off our biases, unconscious, and saying, "How do we get the right person in?" Or, "How do we find that person that we can train to do the job?" You know? And so, I think it is taking off the old kind of mindset and blinders people had on, "You have to be at this school, you have to have this many years experience," and looking at it new. And what I know from data that we've looked at is that 57% of jobs that are posted on LinkedIn are now more skills-facing jobs, that they're looking for skills, and that's how they're screening people.
Kevin: Let's go through skills. What are specific skills that are really important in the workforce of the future?
Cheryl: As I said, you know, a billion jobs are being changed by technology. And so, some of the skills, I'm gonna say, are softer skills, like curiosity, learning by doing, and really trying to have that attitude and that agility to go into something that you don't know, and you get trained on and you do. But I would say, if I look at the skills we can't find right now, it's in artificial intelligence, it's in anything IT. So, I would say if you have to think about adjacent skills, you know, problem solving. That's a big one. Being able to look at data and make sense of it, or look at numbers, math, you know, kind of that analytical side, is really becoming something that, you know, if we can take that and then train you on something different, then we feel you'll probably have more of an aptitude for the skills that are missing.
Kevin: I want to throw another skill out there and get your opinion on it, and this is, I guess this characterizes life skills, because years ago, I remember hiring some high school students in my office as summer interns, and my assistant immediately had them assigned to answer the phones and do some copying and running some errands. And I remember calling my office a day or so after these young people started, and someone picked up the phone said, "Yo, Chavous' office." And it led us to understand and appreciate the fact that we couldn't skip steps, that while there are a lot of talented, bright young people who were working in that program, we had to go through the mechanics of how you conduct yourself in an office, making sure that they left early enough to get on the bus to come in, so they wouldn't be late, how they dress. I mean, how important is all of that when you're talking about a diverse work pool and the skill development needs that are just out there?
Cheryl: That's really important. This is about belonging, and when you walk into a system, so, a company is like a system. You know, you have family systems, you have corporate systems. You had to take a moment to make sure people are oriented to what the system is, so they know how to belong. Because when someone knows how to belong, then they can relax, you know, they'll take risks, they'll be creative, they'll be innovative, they'll make real progress. But if they don't know how to belong, it's harder for them to do that. So, what you're talking about, I think, is those entryways of saying, "This is how we do things here."
Kevin: Yes, yes.
Cheryl: And it's vitally important, because when a person feels like they don't belong, they'll shut down.
Kevin: Yeah, but there's two sides of the coin, because on the one hand, young people who may not have those skills may not understand the system. They will shut down. But from a lot of the corporate employers' point of view, they won't even give a look at some of these potential workers if they can tell at first glance that they don't know the system. I would submit, intentional about taking the time to develop the training, to enhance the skills, and Cheryl, you've been doing this a long time. How many companies today are really willing to do that?
Cheryl: I think companies out there are very well-meaning, and they think they're doing the right thing. In my experience, often, people think, "If I just do the right programs, or if I just say the right thing, then we're doing it." I think what we're learning in today's society, and I think the approach I'm trying to take, is what companies probably haven't done enough of is listening. Listening to people who are coming in. What's it like to join here? Having empathy of, "Oh, I can understand why that might be jarring," based on the background, you know. And yes, everyone in that group is college educated. We bring in folks that maybe aren't. Have we done enough to prepare both sides? And it's that empathy, that curiosity, and taking the time to listen, I think, that's gonna move the mountain here.
Kevin: One thing that has always been important, and that is building one's own resume. Is it still important today to have a resume to advertise who you are? Young people now are going on LinkedIn. We work with a company, Tallo, which is like a LinkedIn for high school students, where they can talk about their certifications and whatever skills they have, and their experience. How important is the selling oneself via resume, today?
Cheryl: Big companies, like us, obviously, we have hiring software that's going to look for keywords on how we find talent. So, a resume's still important, but what's more important is authenticity. Authenticity in who you are, and I think a resume gets you in the door. We have to find you somehow, right? We have to search on LinkedIn.
Kevin: So, all right. Now we're here. You can tell America what are the keywords on a resume that will get you in the door?
Cheryl: It depends on the job. It depends on the job. But if you want to come work with SmileDirectClub, it's definitely curiosity, collaboration, agile. It is about the skills. Because when you're looking at that, you're looking at will this person have the skills to come in and do the job? You have to look at the job description and know that it matches.
Kevin: What advice would you give to young people who may come from a working-class family, they may not be going to the right schools, but they clearly have some talent? What advice would you give them in terms of seeking ways to better themselves to make themselves more attractive to potential employers?
Cheryl: I will be honest with you. SmileDirectClub, when we first started our business, we hired 100% for attitude in the beginning. Nobody knew who we were. We found people who had done a little research about us as a company, and who came in passionate. Passionate about the mission, wanting to do a good job, understanding the purpose of the business, and being able to say, "This is why I like the purpose of your company."
Kevin: Preparation, preparation, preparation.
Kevin: It's one of those old values. It's not timeworn. It still is important for young people who are looking for a job or a career to demonstrate that they really want to do it, they have the passion, and they've done homework about the interview process. You still see young people coming in with that level of interest, don't you?
Cheryl: Yes. I would say there's two areas. Preparing, and coming in and knowing about the company, we ask everybody that. What research have you done? And I'm telling you, when someone says, "I did this, I did that. I went to a Smile shop," you know, we already are like, "Okay, they've taken their own time to go check out our business. They're in it." But the second factor is thinking ahead of time of some questions. Because if you're gonna go do that research, take the time to jot some questions. You know, at the end of every interview, I always say, "What questions do you have for me? You can ask anything." The people that come in and say, "Okay, I've got several," I like that. Sometimes people say, "I really don't have any questions," you know, and that's a detractor for me.
Kevin: But there's an elephant in the room, and that's the educational intuitions. You still have folks in higher ed who promote this idea that if you have the right degree, if you have our degree, an Ivy League degree, you can get in the door. What should education institutions be doing to bring it all together, to bring the synergies in place so that authenticity matters, research matters, people bringing their true self matters, and it's just not the stamp of approval of a degree from a certain school?
Cheryl: So, I think as more and more corporations say it's about skills, not schools, and that old formula doesn't work anymore, I think those institutions are then going to have to change, because there's gonna be a pull. I think what the educational institutions needs to do, A, they need to look at their own selves and how they can evolve. Because I know, for them, it's a business, right? But I know if they're going to be able to help us have the workforce and compete, they're gonna have to reach out to some of these other schools, because we just won't be able to have enough skilled labor the way we've done it in the past. So, the education institutions have to be a disruptor.
Kevin: Yeah. Along those lines, and this is where I really want to know, can you be a disruptor and still part of the status quo?
Cheryl: Well, I always say to be a disruptor, you have to have a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. So, you can be part of it, you just don't necessarily like it. And so, there's enough tension in the system to do something different, and I think that's where disruptors really get their energy from.
Kevin: There has to be a coming together. You know, that's why I talk about us all being on the same page, the educational institutions, the employers, and the future workers, so everyone knows what is needed in order to make the system work more effectively. And the point that you mentioned earlier about the jobs of tomorrow not even being in existence today, those skills, like being a problem solver, being able to work in teams, being able to understand how to manage content, because everyone has content through the internet, those are things that are timeless. How do you see it shaping up going forward?
Cheryl: I'll take the humble and the hungry any day, because I know they're going to come in and work hard. And that's always been part of my recruiting mindset and my leader mindset, the humble and the hungry, because they come in, they want to learn, there's no ego, so if they come in with a degree and we say, "Actually, this is the scope of the job," they're going to jump in and want to do that. I think that's an important concept that I would love to get out there.
You know, how these things all align? We're at a big tipping point right now. As companies continue to grow, there just isn't enough talent, so companies are going to have to invest in this upskilling, or taking people who can come in and they can teach the traits that you may not be learning in college. Individuals are going to have to come in, like I said, and be willing to change their focus, and I think there's a lot missing right now of what I see people coming in with the right leadership skills, which is around authenticity, courage, compassion, and really bringing your whole self to work.
We're often taught, "Oh, we have to have all the answers, we have to be perfect. You have to stand up and get the perfect score." No. You have to be willing to fail, and you have to fail fast and fail forward. But we're not getting the right leadership skills right now, coming out of our educational institutions. I know that's provocative.
Kevin: Cheryl DeSantis, thank you for joining us on this episode of "What I Want to Know." Really appreciate it.
Cheryl: Thanks for having me.
Kevin: Marc Morial is one of America's most visionary and accomplished civic leaders. As president of the National Urban League, he transformed the 100-year-old civil rights organization into one of the nation's leading nonprofit groups. He also created the National Urban League Empowerment Fund, which invested almost $200 million in urban impact businesses. As mayor of New Orleans, Mark led sweeping police reforms, neighborhood revitalization, and initiatives to support recreation, education, and jobs for young people. He rebuilt and restored a declining New Orleans back to its international prominence.
The second of five children, Mark is the son of the city's first African-American mayor, the late Ernest Dutch Morial and Sybil Morial, a teacher and well-known educator. Welcome to the show, Marc.
Marc: Thank you for having me. Congratulations to you for your tremendous success and great career.
Kevin: What still drives you to do this work?
Marc: I mean, we're driven by a passion for justice. For me, equal economic opportunity. And a love of people, and a desire to see conditions improve.
Kevin: Well, and that's why having this discussion, and having you as part of this discussion, Mark, is so important. In many ways, the things that you and I have worked on to improve educational opportunities, those challenges are still there, but have they gotten worse?
Marc: Kevin, let me tell you. I believe we've lost ground. It's a painful thing to say, but in the last 20 years, if you look at numbers, so, you can't just look at unemployment numbers to get the complete picture. The real number is the large number of people who are working and they're still poor. The large number of people who have jobs, or sometimes two jobs, who still struggle to make ends meet, to pay a mortgage or to pay rent, to feed themselves, to clothe themselves, to take care of their loved ones, be it an elderly parent or a child or grandchild. That is the new reality.
Kevin: What about economic development? You were mayor of a major American city. Isn't economic development more than just building buildings?
Marc: Economic development is more than building buildings, stadiums, convention centers, rail lines, hotels, or affordable housing. It is about enabling people to benefit from that. And now, you've gotta be intentional about it. It won't just happen. The government has a role to play. The private sector has a role, but the private sector's animating interest is always profits and the bottom line. And in some entrepreneurs and business people's portfolio is a concern about people, but government is there to protect the public trust. To, theoretically, bargain for and ensure that people benefit from these economic development projects.
And so, I was talking about the issue of broadband, and the issue of the expansion of broadband. I raised the question, if the government's gonna invest in expanding broadband and improving the broadband network, let's insert, ensure, be intentional that people in the community have an opportunity to have those jobs, and in fact get those jobs. So it means skilling, and it means workforce, and it means intentionality about this. And that word of being intentional about racial income inequality, that word about being intentional about making sure that economic development projects benefit people in the community, is, I think, gonna have to drive us, because it is untenable for us to continue on this path where great wealth is created, great income is created, and many, many people are left behind.
Kevin: You talk about skills development. This skills gap is so pervasive, and you talk about upskilling in the right way. How should we focus that? Because there are different entities. There's the employers, there's the government there are the activists. What should we be doing?
Marc: We have to make sure we're preparing people for jobs that exist, and that we're not training them for nonexistent jobs, we're not selling them on meaningless certificates. We are preparing them for jobs that exist in that community, and then, this is important. If they start in a job, do they have upward mobility? And does the business and the ecosystem say, "I'm gonna ensure that in two years, you're gonna be a manager. And I'm going to try to ensure that those skills you don't have, we help you get them so that you can move up, and then you'll create an opening for someone else."
The whole idea is we want people, particularly black people, and brown people, and people who have been historically left out, with the opportunity to move up. Whether it's the Hilton or the Marriott or the Sheraton or the Loews or the Ritz Carlton Hotel downtown, whether it is the new startup tech company, whether it's a bank or financial services company, whether it's a small business, we want people to have the opportunity to move up in reality, not just theoretically. And the workforce system or the skilling system is fragmented in this country.
Marc: We don't have a system of workforce development, and what I really like to call it is adult education, because that's really what it is. We're training twentysomethings and thirtysomethings and fortysomethings to help them simply be able to get a leg up, to get a better-paying job, more responsibility, and fulfill their dreams.
Kevin: I want to ask you about the value of a college degree these days. I came upon an interesting stat, Marc. Did you know that only 27% of college graduates work in a field where they have a degree?
Marc: That does not surprise me, because I think some people go to college and don't know what they're gonna major in.
Kevin: Well, that's an expensive proposition.
Marc: Well, people will major in something and they'll get out, and they'll pursue an opportunity that is different than that which they... Sometimes it's by necessity. Sometimes they say, "Boy, I thought I was gonna like this. I thought I'd like healthcare. I really don't like it." I still believe that college education does more than prepare people for a job. It also prepares them to be contributing citizens in society, which I think is a really important thing. And also, I think it creates a set of skills which creates the ability to adapt and adjust. And so, we have to think of learning perhaps differently, other than I get a college degree and then all of my learning and education ends.
And that's why, for some people, college may not be the preferred option. But we have to have people on a postsecondary learning curve. One of the great challenges now is debt, student debt. And student debt, disproportionately, just saw some information in the last few days, disproportionately burdens women, and disproportionately burdens people of color.
Kevin: It all has to connect, and I think that colleges are retooling. You mentioned debt. But also in terms of making it relevant for today's young people to benefit and be productive citizens going forward. You know, one thing that you did at the Urban League, which is pretty amazing, talk about this empowerment fund. Two hundred million dollars, that's not small potatoes.
Marc: We raised a fund $275 million, to finance an expansion of our programs. We did that between 2005 and 2009. At the conclusion of that, we launched another $100 million fund called "Jobs Rebuild America." That, coming out of the recession, was about expanding our job training, our reentry, our support for small businesses, and we believed that we needed to invest a portion of that into young people's pathway to postsecondary education.
Kevin: And how's that going?
Marc: Well, we have had enormous success at the National Urban League, but it's a bumpy ride, because a lot of our workforce programs depend on public investments. And the after-school programs are more funded by private dollars. So, when you're reliant to some extent of public investments, you ride the political curve. You ride the policies of an administration. While we've been successful, I don't think that the public investment, nor the private investment that we have been able to attract, is sufficient enough to give us the ability to do everything that needs to be done in the communities where we are.
See, that is the point. People said, "Wow, you have all these reentry programs." Yeah, but the reentry programs are serving a couple of 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 people, which is a significant number of people. But think of the need, which goes far beyond that.
Kevin: So much of what you're talking about, Marc, really relates to the government role. The government does play a role, but you and I both know, having been involved in government, that innovation doesn't always come from government. And so, this is what I really want to know. How and what should the government be doing differently to get the unemployed employed?
Marc: Government can't do it by itself.
Kevin: So, how do we do it differently?
Marc: It requires the private... Well, I like, on the job training, apprenticeship models. Models that give people an opportunity to hold a job while they learn the skills, so that they're not disincentivized because "Oops, I can't go to training because I gotta go to work, because I have to pay my rent. So therefore, I'll get around to the training and the classes when I can."
Marc: And this is a reality of now, because we're talking about a workforce where almost the majority of the people in the workforce are women, large numbers of women. We're not talking about a traditional, just men. We're talking about women, and we're talking about men, young women and young men. And I think what is so paramount in this is, and you know this well, how can you match up the public and private and nonprofit centers to do something significant?
Marc: How can we build capacity and capabilities together? That is what is required. The government alone can't do it, but I'm a believer also that the government should invest more heavily in summer jobs, more heavily in apprenticeships. I think there ought to be a system of public service jobs, where the federal government says to a city, a community college, "We're gonna fund 200 jobs for you, that are entry-level jobs, that help people move up the economic ladder in your institution."
Kevin: In your book, "The Gumbo Coalition," which is a little shout out for that, one of the things you talk about is bringing people together. The National Urban League has chapters all over the country. You've worked with state and local governments all over, so I don't want to put you on the spot, but are there any models out there of bringing the centers of power together with the government, private sector...
Marc: I think it happens a lot more at the local level than theoretically at the national level, where political party is a driver. At the local levels, sometimes it's not the primary driver, and at the local level, a lot of times you can get people together around a project or an initiative. So, we say, "Look, can we get together on this? Now, we might not agree on all this other stuff, but let's work on this economic development initiative. Let's work on this community-based initiative." And I think the reality is, since I cut my teeth in local government and in state government, I found it to be less partisan and polarized, although people would fight over important issues. But it was also not uncommon that people would work together on specific projects and issues, even if they didn't politically align.
Kevin: Yeah, that is so true. That is so true.
Marc: And you'd have business people and activists and community leaders sometimes working on a particular project. Maybe it was affordable housing, maybe it was a major downtown economic development project. Maybe it was upgrading the pools and paving the streets and doing parks and playgrounds. It's a bit of the old slogan. I believe Ossie Davis may have uttered it at the founding of the Congressional Black Caucus. Hopefully I'm right on that fact, but it is, "We have no permanent friends. We have no permanent enemies. We only have permanent interests."
Marc: And I like to think that the National Urban League functions that way. We have allies, but we have a lot of different allies. We agree with our allies. Sometimes we don't agree with our allies. We have allies in the civil rights community. We have allies in the business community. We have allies in the labor community. We have allies in the faith community. We work with the Asian community, the LatinX community. We work with the Native American community. We work with the Jewish community. We work with the Greek community. We work with a lot of people on a lot of things. It's kind of the leadership model that I think suits the National Urban League, or not suit the National Urban League, but it's where we play to our strength.
Kevin: There's still a role that the federal government can play...
Kevin: ...the bully pulpit, to help support those locally-based projects and initiatives. And in particular, when it comes to preparing kids for the jobs of tomorrow, I've always thought, and I know you believe this, there needs to be better synergy between federal education policy and federal workforce development policy.
Kevin: How do we bring that together?
Marc: You know, if you were redesigning the federal government today, education and workforce would be one.
Marc: You would have the training and development side combined. You might have the regulatory side of the Department of Labor separate from the training and the support of work side. The government would look very different. Remember, when the Labor Department was founded, it was 30 to 40 years before the Department of Education was founded. The notion was, well, education policy is the exclusive province of the states, particularly K through 12 education.
The way the government and the systems grew up were not congruent with the best synergies, and I think you're right, because when I look at workforce development, when we think about the National Urban League, we provide services, human capital services, to support people in pre-K, people in K through 12, people in higher ed. Adults who didn't finish college, didn't go to college, didn't finish high school. And we're trying to always find the best fit as you come to us. We have people who we help with college degrees, PhDs, MDs, JDs, because we also have a jobs fair platform online.
So, we're doing a range of things in the job space which are designed to build bridges for people no matter where they are on the economic spectrum.
Kevin: Yeah. I'd say was very insightful. Marc Morial, you're a legendary leader.
Marc: Always. Thank you.
Kevin: Appreciate you. Thanks for joining us.
Marc: Thank you for what you do, and thanks for having me, and let's do it again.
Kevin: Okay. Thank you.
Marc: I love the yellow school bus.
Kevin: It's there for always.
Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review, too. Explore other episodes, and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Also encourage you to join the conversation, and let me know what you want to know, using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media.
For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Cheryl DeSantis is the chief people officer at SmileDirectClub, the fast-growing telehealth pioneer that disrupted the 120-year-old, $12 billion orthodontics industry. She has global oversight of talent acquisition, compensation and benefits, team member relations and engagement, business partnership, and learning and development.
Before joining SmileDirectClub, Cheryl acted as vice president of people and organization at Mars Petcare where she led enterprise-wide human resources programs and policies.
Marc Morial is one of America's most visionary and accomplished civic leaders. As president of the National Urban League, he transformed the civil rights organization into a leading national nonprofit organization and championed initiatives to assist young adults in securing sustainable jobs.
During his tenure as Mayor of New Orleans, Marc led sweeping police reforms, neighborhood revitalization efforts, and global economic development initiatives. He also served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and previously as a Louisiana State Senator.
Join the email list
Sign up and get notifications on new What I Want to Know podcast episodes.
Thanks for subscribing!
Check your email to confirm your subscription.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.