Kevin: When the pandemic began, low-wage workers comprised 43% of the U.S. labor force. Today, those same workers account for more than half of those still looking for a job. As a K-shaped recovery threatens to leave vulnerable populations behind, what can we do to help low-wage workers bounce back? How can we help more people learn the skills they need to succeed in the modern economy and what is the future of lifelong learning in a world that's been forever changed by the pandemic? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today I'm joined by Steve Lee to find out. Steve Lee is an entrepreneur, investor, and non-profit leader who serves as the executive director of the SkillUp Coalition. SkillUp brings together education providers, tech-firms employers, and philanthropists to help workers affected by the pandemic find opportunities in high-demand careers. In just one year, it has helped hundreds of thousands of frontline workers prepare for career paths aligned with the economy of the future.
Steve is with us today to explore how upskilling, reskilling, and a renewed commitment to lifelong learning can help level the playing field. So glad to have you on, Steve. And, you know, I wanna talk about your career. You've had an amazing career, you're doing great work now. How did you get to this place where you are now? And particularly what I'm focused on is your decision to deal with the skill gap. Because there's a career that you've had that was always about giving back but then, at some point, you decided, "You know, we need to do something different."
Steve: This notion of intergenerational poverty is really really...it's the lexicon of our current environment. So, if you think about how, you know, since the war on poverty, 70 years ago, not much has happened and transpired. Even despite all the efforts. It's not as if money hasn't been put into the system because there's been trillions of dollars, right, and probably trillions more that's needed. I personally feel there's a failure in the education system in part that is often skews against those who most need the help, right, to be able to get to the next place. And the second I think is the workforce, the labor market as a whole, and how employers and other systems treat workers that need to and want to advance in their career.
And you're asking like why did I get into this...the second way I think you can help intergenerational poverty is if you give parents the opportunities to succeed in life financially and that trickles down into their kids. So, when the kids get older, they can break out, and then their kids' kids, right, can break out.
Kevin: Part of skill up is that you felt that there was a particular niche, in the wake of the pandemic, that sort of necessitated this new look. So, as we've seen in other areas where the pandemic has that impact, it really has offered an opportunity, don't you think?
Steve: A hundred percent. And, so, listen, there are tens of millions of workers out there who are looking for something better. And we're not the only solution in town, right, we're one of many but what we are is we are, what I call, a talent wholesale aggregator. It basically means that we can source lots of talent through our digital marketing efforts, through our product experience, to create a curated experience that can take that curated individual job seeker into systems that are looking for those workers. So, systems like employers, big employers, in the world we live in, they're looking for talent. Community college programs, they're looking for talent. Job training providers, they're looking for talent. American job centers, they're looking for talent. They can't find that curated talent so we can aggregate that wholesale experience into, what I call, the retail market. The retail market being colleges, employers, job centers, and training providers. And we help them do their job better. Right? We can't boil the ocean, we can't be everything, but we can wholesale good talent, opportunity talent, talent that needs these opportunities into these systems, and let those systems be their very best. And we think that's a good model, right, to create some scale across the country.
Kevin: Isn't part of the problem though this idea of a worker's confidence? If you've worked in a job, you haven't had an education, didn't have a strong education, didn't go to college, but you, you know, had a working-class existence, you did well, you lost your job, part of it is that many workers who find themselves new in the workforce world, trying to find a job, they're afraid, they don't know technology well...and I was struck by one comment that I read you made where you wanna make sure that these kind of workers doubt their own self-doubt. I mean I thought that was a great line.
Steve: If you go into communities, there is doubt. The system has often been, in some ways, against them. Right? And, so, they try to break through. And breaking through is really hard because they feel like the systems are against them. If we can offer some level of confidence, right, into these folks, that we are with them...so, for example, we offer coaching services as part of SkillUp, right, because we know that sometimes people need a tactile experience, sometimes people need a guiding hand. We offer scholarship funds, right, because, honestly, sometimes cash can be a barrier. So, we hope to offer other things to break down the doubt so people can start doubting their own self-doubt. We're not perfect at it, there's still gonna be some doubts, and there are some folks that can't overcome that doubt, but we try to have the systems in place to do so.
Kevin: So, let's go back, let's define what SkillUp is and then the Coalition. Because I do wanna make sure that people have a full understanding of what you're doing and how you're helping to address this challenge that many of our working-class citizens have been facing over the last year and a half.
Steve: So, we want people to find great opportunities across the country. So, the first thing is we try to reach Americans. Right? Mostly through digital marketing and some other channels. And we've had 600,000 workers come to our site. So, once we find the workers, they go to a site, 80% use their phone and we try to create an experience for them that's simple, that creates simple choices for them to be able to make a decision that's gonna benefit their life.
We ask a few questions. Those questions create a profile. That profile then gets matched to in-demand jobs that we have identified with our partners, including McKinsey and others, that these are the most in-demand jobs that's gonna create career sustainability. Then we connect those workers, their profile to one of those careers. So, let's say, it's IT support, your profile says "IT support." We'll source providers, colleges, employers that are hiring and we'll connect into that retail market or little jobs for IT support. Right? So, we'll pull it out from API data sources or have our own relationship with employers say, "Hey, you're looking to hire? Here's a worker."
Kevin: In effect, you're a key facilitator to match the potential resources with potential needs?
Steve: That's exactly right, Kevin. Because, if you're a training provider, you don't know who's gonna walk in your door. Right? And, so, you wanna benefit the most number of workers and you wanna have success. Same with all the other systems. We can provide, we think, a curated worker into those specific retailer channels that's gonna have the greatest chance of success.
Kevin: How's the success rate been with those 600,000? I know, you know, not everyone is actually gonna go through the process but, you know, from what I understand, you've had significant success in terms of getting people employed.
Steve: We've had...so, our bounce rate's like 60%, we want it to be under 50%. So, roughly 250,000 workers have created something for themselves, a profile, an email address connecting to a job or a training provider. And we don't have exact perfect data but we estimate roughly about 10,000 jobs to date through the systems that we have brought people to.
Kevin: But it's more than just the job that directly comes, it's really the education and understanding of a process that eventually will lead to a job or better approach to career development. Because part of the challenge that I've seen with workers, you know, even in our company, they come, they don't know where to start. So, you can burn weeks and months just figuring out how to get to that finite group of employers that you curate through that initial process.
Steve: We start with the marketing effort itself. Like, you know, we say to America, American workers, "We're here to try to help you." Right? We have defined pathways, right, that might be good for you. And then, if they come, we do our best to create a holistic curated simple experience for their workers so that they can take simple steps, right, on their next way. And again, 60% bounce out. That's just the reality that we do. But 40% stick around and have some kind of experience with us.
Kevin: One question I wanna ask you was how bad are things with the pandemic? You know, McKenzie said they predicted that one-third of the workforce, as a result of the pandemic, would, in effect, never be the same. We understand the economies come back, in some form or fashion, but there is a segment of the workforce, prior to the pandemic, that still has challenges. And the question is will they be able to come back? I mean what's your take on all that?
Steve: We live in a K-shaped recovery, K-shaped economy, right? So, it's very simple, right, so, those on the basic upper echelons of society have done significantly better over the past 70 years. Right? Mostly real estate and the stock market. That's the reality. You know, what we're trying to do is we're trying to put people on simple pathways that will take a handful into that upper level of K as best we can. But again, you know, we're a small non-profit, hence the Coalition really matters, policy matters. Now, you can quibble with what we're doing now but I think people are taking steps, within the administration, that creates at least some levers that allow people to take opportunities to get them to a better place.
I'm cynical about employers and yet I have some level of hope. Right? From people that I've spoken to, our networks, actual employers, they're certainly looking for talent. They're saying the right words about hiring talent and upskilling talent. Right? So, this idea of upskilling within the company has become a big deal. And, as cynical as we are, and I'm the first cynic, my sense is there's some realism that employers need to play a different ballgame than they have in the past. If they do that, I think that will help, right, flatten that K. So, between employers and policy, those are the ways you change things at scale. And, hopefully, we can have a very small [inaudible 00:11:37], Kevin.
Kevin: Why are you cynical?
Steve: Maybe it's my bias having worked with employers for 15 years in philanthropy and how hard it is to change HR systems, right, how hard it is to change hiring decisions. The biases that we all have as human beings, right, that I have, that you may have, that we're looking for a certain kind of worker. And to flip it 180 degrees, it takes human-behavior change, as well as systems change. I think the first one being more important.
Kevin: One of the buzzwords that feeds the cynicism you have and, to some extent, I have is when people say, "We can't find the right talent out there." Because talent becomes very subjective. Now, it's one thing when you talk about skilled workforce or a skilled job need, if you will, but this idea of, you know, lack of a better description, good old boy network, the talent means people who I know will fit in, not just from a skill point of view but from a culture point of view, from our historical hiring practices point of view. I still think that there's this danger, while I agree with you, that many employers are saying the right thing and they're trying to do the right thing that that sort of, you know, subjective bias, you know, talent-hiring creep judgmental stuff could be exacerbated through the pandemic.
Steve: There are Opportunity@Work does some amazing work with their tagline [inaudible 00:13:13] STARs. There are 60 million Americans across the country who don't have a college degree and their research suggests these workers are skilled, they're passionate, they want a career for their families and their kids. And the companies are missing out on this. When we speak to workers, and we speak to a lot of workers because we've got participant voice, we hear the same things, "I want a career," right, "but I also need to work right now. So, I need upskilling within the company." Right? So, we're working on that kind of stuff.
Kevin: Well, and the work you're doing, as you have emphasized, is a small part. But, as you also indicated, you bring some partners to the table...talk about your partners and the role they play.
Steve: First of all, these partners are much better known than we are. Right? So, that helps, right, let's be honest about that. Second, they bring some money, it doesn't hurt, but, much more important, they bring thought partnership. Right? So, when we think about...we have a big initiative called Earn and Learn where we're trying to match workers who need work with companies who need workers and that have upskilling opportunities within the company. And we try to do that simple match.
We speak to Guild Education, this is what they do, they work with big employers to improve their benefits programs with it. We have learned so much about how to do things better because of Guild. I mentioned Opportunity@Work, right, they have this symbol [inaudible 00:14:38] STARs. We have learned so much about how to work with folks without a college degree. Jobs for the Future does so much work on training and working with the big...so, they are huge thought partners for us. I think we benefit some of them because we bring them talent, right, some of our partners. But without them, we would not be where we are now. We wouldn't have been able to start.
Kevin: One question I wanna ask you is what's the role that governments should play in all of this?
Steve: A government plays a crucial role, right, in this effort. And it's not just about the money because, like I said, we spent trillions of dollars since the war on poverty, it's really about changing systems and processes to help people doubt their own self-doubt. Right? And, so, if a government's gonna pay for my child care, right, let's imagine, holy cow, that frees me up. And that mentality says, "Okay, someone's gonna take care of my child, I can pay for it. Now I can do my thing." Without that then the first thing in people's minds that are parents is childcare. So, freeze up the brain, right, to be able to do things that they otherwise wouldn't do. And you can't do that without a government.
I will say though that what individuals do matter, right, Where parents do matter. Right? So, that's why I sort of agree with, you know, families matter a lot because the families have to make the decisions for their children specifically. But again, without the systems in place to be able to do that, families, it'll be tough for them to make the right decisions.
Kevin: So, Steve, this is what I really wanna know, what more should we be doing to ensure that workers get the training they need to participate in this new economy?
Steve: The government spends several billions of dollars on training programs across the country. They have job centers across America, right, they do this work. I'll be very honest with you, some of them are inefficient, right, some of them are not good. So, I don't think it's money. I would say that the systems and the processes and the incentive structures, right, are not aligned to really help the worker. Maybe they might be aligned to get someone a job. Right? But we don't want any job. Because that's what happened in 2008, we got people...and then they were in the same place 5 years later. We wanna get people into a better job.
Kevin: What's on the horizon for SkillUp?
Steve: We want to change policy, in some manner or form. And the way you can change is data. Right? So, we have 600,000 workers, 50,000 emails, we have lots of connections, coalition space. If we can use data to inform policy makers...and I think we're a couple years away from that, honestly, we don't have exactly the right amount of data yet. That's where we want to go. Because, if we can do that, then we've hit a triple. Not a home run yet, a triple.
Kevin: Well, and that's an exciting vision. Steve Lee from the SkillUp Coalition, you're doing amazing work. Thank you for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
Steve: It's my pleasure, thank you for inviting me.
Kevin: 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.
I 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."
Steve Lee is an entrepreneur, investor, and nonprofit leader who serves as executive director of the SkillUp Coalition. SkillUp brings together education providers, tech firm employers, and philanthropists to help workers affected by the pandemic find opportunities in high-demand careers. In just one year, it has helped hundreds of thousands of front-line workers prepare for career paths aligned with the economy of the future.
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.