Brooke DeRenzis and Rob Garcia on Fixing America’s Skills Gap

Posted October 30, 2018, By

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Interviewee:

The nonprofit National Skills Coalition organizes broad-based coalitions seeking to raise the skills of America’s workers across a range of industries. Brooke DeRenzis — who serves in the role of state policy network director — leads the organization’s efforts to advance skills policies at the state level.

Rob Garcia also works for the National Skills Coalition, serving as manager of Business Leaders United for Workforce Partnerships. In this post, Garcia creates a platform for business and industry leaders to advance workforce and education policies that address their needs.

Prior to joining the National Skills Coalition and at the time of this interview, Garcia was the senior manager of workforce initiatives at the Cobb Chamber of Commerce in Northwest Atlanta. In this role, he helped develop a coalition of business, education, and community leaders to identify and address the workforce needs of Cobb County.

If you're able to earn a higher wage and find a family-supporting career, you're able to bring economic security to your family.

–Brooke DeRenzis

Show Notes

In America today: 54% of all jobs are middle-skill positions, meaning that they require an education beyond high school but not a four-year college degree.

Also in America today: 43% of workers are trained to this skill level, according to an analysis by the National Skills Coalition.

This mismatch — where skilled job opportunities outnumber qualified workers — is called a skills gap. It’s also a problem — one that can prevent businesses from hiring, job seekers from working and local economies from growing.

Enter Brooke DeRenzis and Rob Garcia, who — in their respective posts for the National Skills Coalition — are working to close this gap. Casey’s Lisa Hamilton recently spoke to DeRenzis and Garcia about building and sustaining a skilled labor force and why this work is so important for America’s children, families and future.

Original theme music composed by Stephen R. Frank at Baltimore Studios.

View Transcripts

Lisa Hamilton:
From the Annie E. Casey Foundation, I'm Lisa Hamilton, and this is CaseyCast. At the Casey Foundation, we work to build a brighter future for children and families. To realize such a future, kids need financially stable homes with the resources to meet their needs. That's where good jobs for parents come in. But low-income families and individuals face a range of challenges to getting, keeping and succeeding in a job. To support these families, Casey works with organizations across the country to reduce barriers to employment.

One such partner is the National Skills Coalition, which brings together businesses, community organizations and workforce development organizations, to help workers increase and improve their skills.

Joining us today is Brooke DeRenzis, the National Skills Coalition's state policy and network director since 2014. Welcome, Brooke.

Brooke DeRenzis:
Thank you.

Lisa Hamilton:
We're also talking with one of Brooke's local partners, Rob Garcia. He's the senior manager of workforce development initiatives, at the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce in Georgia. Thanks for joining us, Rob.

Rob Garcia:
Glad to be here, Lisa.

Lisa Hamilton:
Well great. This is absolutely a timely conversation that the whole country is having around jobs, so I'm excited to talk to two folks who are so knowledgeable in this space. I guess the first thing we ought to talk about is, what are the skills that workers need these days? As we talk about workforce development, what is it we need to be thinking about? Brooke, let's start with you.

Brooke DeRenzis:
Sure, thanks Lisa. So, today's economy is a skilled economy. The vast majority of jobs in the labor market today require some sort of education or training beyond a high school degree; so, it's a skilled economy.

Now, what do we mean when we use the term skills? Well, I think there's a few different categories. For one, we mean technical skills. These are the types of skills that are required to do a particular occupation, it can be coding for a computer program, it can be knowing how to operate or fix an advanced piece of machinery, it can be knowing how to provide a set of medical services in a hospital setting. So technical skills are one issue.

I think another issue are foundational skills. Reading, writing, language, math skills. And that goes without saying that's a skillset, but I think it's important for listeners to know that there are 36 million adults in the United States that have low, basic literacy and numeracy skills. And when you think about that number, just to get a sense of scale, that is equal to the populations of the states of Minnesota, Michigan and New York combined.

Now, most of those adults are working, but they're working in low-wage jobs. So, there's a need to think about improving those foundational skills, as well, if we're going to help people find better paying jobs.

And then the third kind of set of skills that we hear a lot about particularly from employers, are these skills that are critical or fundamental for today's workforce. And there are things that are not captured in technical skill but are important across all types of occupations, and important across different levels of education. And these are skills like problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork.

Rob Garcia:
Obviously, there's technical skills that are a huge priority for businesses that are looking for talent, especially as many of those middle-skilled abilities are really hard to find. But when we surveyed around two or three dozen business leaders in our community, the single most important type of skill that every industry sector highlighted were soft skills, and that's exactly what you mentioned Brooke, the ability to write and communicate effectively, critically thinking, working together collaboratively, and punctuality, were some of those that were cited.

And some of those are real skills that we can really help develop, and some of them may stem from other challenges. Punctuality, for example, may be as related to transportation issues as anything else.

Lisa Hamilton:
So, Brooke, you mentioned the number of jobs that require a certain amount of education. And we hear a lot about this question of middle-skilled jobs, and Rob just mentioned that. Can you explain to our listeners the difference between low-skill, middle-skill and higher-skilled jobs?

Brooke DeRenzis:
Sure. So, the way we classify that at National Skills Coalition, and I'll start with middle-skills, because they're in the middle of the labor market, and they're an area where we focus, are skills that require some form of education or training beyond a high school degree, but not a four-year bachelor's degree. And these jobs make up almost half of the jobs in the U.S. labor market.

Lower-skill jobs tend to be those jobs that require a high school degree or less, and then high-skill jobs are those jobs that require bachelor's degree or more. But again, middle-skill jobs also make up the plurality of jobs in the labor market, and they're expected to continue to have strong demand.

Lisa Hamilton:
And we often hear about a middle-skills gap. Can you talk about what it is people are describing there?

Brooke DeRenzis:
Sure. So, as I said, more than half the jobs in the U.S. labor market are middle-skill jobs. So, 54 percent of jobs in the US labor market require some form of education or training beyond high school but not a four-year degree. At the same time, we're not training enough people with those middle skills to meet that demand.

So, despite the fact that those jobs are 54 percent of all jobs in the U.S., only 43 percent of workers are training to the middle skill level. And that's what we call the skill gap right there. And that skill gap creates challenges for workers and businesses, it creates challenges for workers who may be lower-skilled, and want an opportunity to grow their skills so they can move into a better-paying job or advance within their careers, and it creates challenges for businesses who want to be able to grow their businesses but need a skilled work force in order to do so.

Lisa Hamilton:
Rob, could you say a bit about how this gap plays out in your local community?

Rob Garcia:
Sure, just in terms of the number of people trained for those jobs, she mentioned 43 percent have the training for what's about 54 percent of the jobs. But the concern grows even more when you consider the retirement cliffs that some industries are facing are really starting to take effect.

So, for example, when we surveyed businesses in my community about the jobs they had today, but also the jobs they expected to create, we were short by about 30,000 registered nurses in our hospitals. But not just registered nurses, we were also short on practical nurses and patient care technicians. And a lot of those middle skilled jobs that are not only short on the talent themselves, but the talent they have already is expected to retire. And we need to make sure we're filling that with not just more workers, but a pipeline that's sustainable and continues to produce that skilled talent.

Another example for us was that construction companies are expecting almost half of the veteran trade laborers to retire within the next 10 years. So, we've really got to make sure that skilled labor is coming in now, so that they have experience and growth in their field by the time that retirement cliff takes effect.

Lisa Hamilton:
Are you saying this demand for middle skilled jobs in specific industries? You mentioned construction and healthcare, Rob, I wondered if you or Brooke are seeing this demand in particular areas or is it across the board?

Rob Garcia:
To a degree, we experience it across the board, but certainly there are industries that are particularly affected. Manufacturing is another example where the labor market in manufacturing has gone from historically being low skilled work, to now pretty much more in that middle skilled area with a lot of technical expertise. That in some ways even mirrors coding and computer science types of jobs.

So as the manufacturing sector continues to grow, so does their demand for middle skilled talent. Distribution and logistics are another great example of a huge gap for that middle skilled labor.

Lisa Hamilton:
So, I guess we ought to shift to talking about what we can do, in order to help prepare workers for these positions. Brooke, could you talk a bit about the National Skills Coalition, and the work you do to try to help our workforce get the training it needs to qualify for these jobs.

Brooke DeRenzis:
Sure. So we are, as our name suggests, a broad-based coalition of community colleges, community-based organizations, workforce development providers, labor organizations, business organizations, and others who are coming together around a policy agenda at the federal level and, within the states, that can be used to advance skills so that every worker in every industry has the skills it needs to compete and succeed.

Lisa Hamilton:
We think of training as something that just is an education that's happening, and it's not always as clear what role policy plays in that. First, maybe why don't we talk about the variety of stakeholders that have to help this happen, and then how policy helps make this happen.

Brooke DeRenzis:
Skills issues span a host of different community partners, as you just mentioned. So, it's not uncommon to see skills issues being talked about in the K-12 system, in the higher education system, in the workforce system, in businesses themselves, by community-based organizations, and human service organizations, etc. So, one of the things we do is look for training solutions that bring those players together to help people get the skills they need.

Lisa Hamilton:
Is that part of the problem, that it does take all of these different stakeholders to try to craft solutions?

Brooke DeRenzis:
Well, I think all of those different stakeholders play a really important role, because workers have different skill needs and may go to different providers to help meet those skill needs. But I think one of the things we have been looking at is ways that those partners can work together around a common solution.

So, industry or sector partnerships, for example, are one of the proven strategies for helping to meet workers and business' needs in the skills space and that's a strategy we have looked at on the ground, to inform our recommendations around the best policies.

So what industry or sector partnerships do is they bring together multiple employers within a particular industry that have a common skill need. They're not able to find or hire the trained workers that they need in order to grow. So, they have these common skills need, it's common across the industry. The industry partnership usually has a central convener who brings those employers together to identify really, what are their skill needs? What are they having trouble with from a skills perspective? What are the common skill standards that they're looking for across their business?

And once they identify what those skill needs look like, they work with education and training partners, which can be community-based organizations, it can be community colleges, it can be the workforce system, it can be a combination of those partners. They work with those partners to craft a training program that really responds to that set of skill needs that employers have together.

So, it's training people with the skills they've identified there's a need for. And employers are oftentimes engaged in that training with those other partners. So, they may be engaged by helping to develop or refine a curriculum for the training program.

Lisa Hamilton:
So, they know when these folks finish this program, they're going to meet the specific needs.

Brooke DeRenzis:
That’s Right. And sometimes they may even be involved by providing equipment or instructors. Sometimes workers leave a training program with a credential that demonstrates that they've gone through a training program that has given them this set of skills. And if industry or employers recognize those credentials, then it can really help them when they're looking for a job.

And then finally, sector partnerships, oftentimes when workers complete a training program, do that matching between employers who sit around the tables and have openings, and workers who are looking for a job, to help facilitate that process.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's great. Rob, I understand you all have a couple of sector partnerships in Cobb County. Could you tell us a bit about what it looks like locally?

Rob Garcia:
Yeah. So, I'll talk specifically about one we called CHAMP. It's one of our regional sector partnerships across metro Atlanta. And it's really a partnership of our healthcare industry. And I'll say locally, at the very, very local level, we tried to begin this conversation among healthcare partners here in Cobb County, and we got our hospitals together and started asking them about their workforce needs, and they kind of look at their competitor to the left and their competitor to their right and were not immediately forthcoming with us. We had to figure out how to crack that nut.

But fortunately, the Georgia Hospitals Association and a group called Atlanta Career Rise really helped us develop that sense of collaboration within the healthcare industry. And that got that kicked off. So, we call it CHAMP, and there are really three areas of need that hospitals helped identify. So that right there, the employers were necessary to identify what those need areas were.

They had entry level needs, like the environmental techs, they're really the front line of infection prevention. They help make sure that a room is clean and ready for a new patient and they take care of that environmental area in the hospital, as well as the food service providers, that's a huge part of the health care system.

They also identified the middle skilled areas, which are really your patient care technicians, your medical assistants, your medical coders, sometimes your patient admission and your revenue folks on the non-clinical side, that need that middle skill-type of training. And then they talked about the high-skill needs they have, that looked a little bit more like your bachelor's in science and nursing, your registered nurses, and those folks.

So what CHAMP did, it's got every major healthcare system from metro Atlanta together, as well as all five of the technical colleges that service metro Atlanta. We've got K-12 partners in the room. And one really key leading partner has actually been Shay Watkins from the Center for Working Families, who has really helped us identify what those barriers are to that initial state of employment, and how we cross those.

So, a great quick example is for that middle skilled area, the patient care technicians and medical assistants and medical coders. The efforts that we've had for the entry-level jobs are a really great blending together of SNAP-ENT funding. So a great funding source for low-income individuals seeking employment, but if they complete that training and find that job in the entry-level through the program we've developed, hospitals have agreed that once there's been six months of successful employment for those entry-level folks that we help get trained and plugged in, they will use tuition reimbursement and other supports within the hospital to up-skill those folks to those middle-skilled job needs that they've got.

So, once they set what the needs were, and we built an infrastructure around them, the medical community really stepped forward and said: "Okay, from there here's how we'll continue to build on their development and career advancement that helps both that worker and our hospital for the job needs we have."

Lisa Hamilton:
So how large is this pipeline? How many folks are going through this program? Is it ongoing throughout the year?

Rob Garcia:
Sure. So, we're piloting each of these cohorts right now. And each of the areas between entry-level, middle-skilled and high-skilled verticals, each have their own training structure. So, for the entry-level needs, most of the talent the hospitals hire in the environmental tech space or the food service area, do not actually have credentialing when they get hired, and oftentimes hospitals will work with them to get the credentials they need to remain effective in those jobs.

So, our training program is actually a boot camp to get some of those credentials, so they actually start at a higher level than the hospitals are typically able to find for that entry-level talent. So, for that we partner with Goodwill, we partner with SNAP education and training dollars to help fund that training. And they usually complete that, as I understand, within usually four or five weeks and they're ready to go to work.

Then as I mentioned, once they've been successfully employed for six months, that's where the group around those middle skill areas really kick into gear. That can be longer training, because the hospitals will host that on site, they'll have training on site, so those individuals finish their work day and stay for an evening and take their next course in that training. So that training may take longer, but it's partnering with current employment, so they're building upon the skills they have in the job they have and preparing for that next rung.

So, each of those areas has a different time table, a different number of folks in the pipeline, and we're really building them out step by step at the present moment.

Lisa Hamilton:
But it sounds like it's really happening through a robust engagement with the business community. And when we talk about this work, I don't know that folks always appreciate how important it is to have business at the table. You're with the Chamber of Commerce, how has business really understood their role and taken up this challenge?

Rob Garcia:
Sure, so for this sector partnership, we wouldn't have known really what the job needs were for hospitals, where the pain points were if they didn't help us identify them. So, for example, we were looking at CNAs as a job need, we found that many hospitals aren't really employing CNAs anymore, because there's a patient care technician role that's an upskilled CNA, and that's really what they need. We wouldn't have gotten that direction without their involvement.

it's really crucial that businesses there, just so these programs we build are relevant, and we're actually connecting these folks with employment at the end of the program.

Rob Garcia:
But they're also important for us because these are not needs that are going to go away. We're not just meeting businesses' current needs. But a lot of times as businesses expand, they're creating new types of jobs, and needing new sets of skills. So, the more we can anticipate the skills businesses are going to need and the jobs they're going to create, the better we can begin proactively developing that workforce pipeline.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's great. Now, Brooke, you started talking about sector partnerships, which is one way we can go about trying to address the skills needs of workers. But we're hearing more about apprenticeships as a way that can accelerate growth for workers, which has an even deeper connection, I assume, to business. Talk about the growth of apprenticeships.

Brooke DeRenzis:
Sure. So, apprenticeships really provide an opportunity for workers to have a paid job that's combined with on the job training and other types of education. So, workers are able to be able to earn money while they're learning a new skill and building a new skill. So, there's a clear benefit to workers, because they don't have to choose between whether they're going to go immediately to work or take time off to build their skill. They're able to do both.

And then there's a benefit for employers who host apprenticeships because they're able to train their workforce with the skillset they need. So that's really what apprenticeship looks like. Now, it’s been common for apprenticeships to be in the building trades or in manufacturing. But increasingly we are seeing interest by a number of industries in adopting an apprenticeship model, and so healthcare, information technology, others are talking about opportunities to adopt an apprenticeship model.

And one of the things we're seeing states and regions do is think about what supports businesses and employers need to be able to host apprenticeships and start an apprenticeship program. And so there are states who are thinking about the role they can play as intermediaries, or that their industry partnerships can play as intermediaries in particular regions, to really help employers think about what their apprenticeship programs can look like, how they get that apprenticeship program up and running, and also how they can connect to other organizations that can provide some of the classroom training and the support services that workers may need.

Lisa Hamilton:
Are there specific requirements around apprenticeships? We certainly have heard lots about them with European models and German manufacturing. But what qualifies as an apprentice?

Brooke DeRenzis:
Yes. So, there's a registered apprenticeship program in the United States that can connect registered apprenticeships and sets out apprenticeship models and is approved in order to have an apprenticeship program. Apprenticeship is broadly part of work-based learning, work-based learning really does combine paid employment with on-the-job training and education. And in some cases, we're seeing things like on the job training, or long-term skills internships for young people who may be out of school and out of work, as a way to get reconnected to the workforce system.

Lisa Hamilton:
Rob, you mentioned construction as one of the areas that is going to see big changes in the workforce over time, and that's certainly an area where apprenticeships have been popular. Have you seen apprenticeship programs gaining traction in your community?

Rob Garcia:
I am. And they're getting traction really in a lot of sectors, construction is an often-cited example for apprenticeships, and we're seeing a lot of energy around apprenticeship development for construction. But really the best example I can give in Georgia is a manufacturing apprenticeship that happened in partnership with what's called the Central Education Center in Coweta County. That's a college and career academy for high school students that can either be working or dual enrolling in technical education or university while they're in high school. So, a great model that they've developed.

You mentioned different types of apprenticeships. This is a German apprenticeship model. So those students begin their apprenticeship their sophomore year, and by the time they graduate, they graduate with a high school diploma of course, but they also graduate with an associate degree as industrial maintenance technicians, they've been paid up to about $20,000 over the course of the three years they've been apprentices.

Every one of the students in the pilot year for that German apprenticeship model was offered a job paying about $40,000 with the company they did their apprenticeship with. And they got what's called a German apprenticeship certificate from the German Chamber of Commerce, which is internationally recognized as a standard for excellence for apprenticeships in the manufacturing sector.

And So that level of partnership took about a half dozen manufacturers in the area, as well as both the local school system and the local technical college to build that out. And the German Chamber of Commerce was a big leader as well.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's great. Well, investing in the skills of workers seems like something everybody could rally around. Certainly, huge benefits for employees and their families, and also for businesses that are looking to fill particular roles. But I get the sense we're not making as much traction as we could, what are some of the hurdles that we're facing, particularly in policy work, that could help accelerate this?

Brooke DeRenzis:
So, one of the things we do at National Skills Coalition is bring together that coalition of players that I mentioned, and we use their real-world expertise to help inform policy making around skills issues. And Rob may want to talk a little bit about how business leaders engage with us through our business leaders united effort.

I think there are some benefits when it comes to the skills issue in the policy world. One is that there is a lot of bipartisan support for skills issues. And I think there is general consensus on the need for a skilled workforce. I think however, there are sometimes challenges with developing specific policy solutions and ways to invest in them at the state level when you're talking about state skills policies.

So, I think one of the challenges is that policy decisions and state budgets are often addressed in particular areas. You have K-12, higher education, human resources, workforce, and skills are part of all of those.

So, providing opportunity to think about what the skills thread is across all those agencies and how we can align, and coordinate, is key. I think a second issue is although there's recognition that a skilled workforce is critically important.

It's not always easy to think of investing in skills. However, I would say that investment in skills by states is going to be really critical if states are looking to close the skill gap we talked about. And I think it's important to note that state investments don't need to stand alone. There's really an opportunity to use state investments to leverage federal investments in higher education, human resources workforce development.

There's an opportunity to leverage the private sector's investment in skills training for their employees. And there's an opportunity to leverage community and philanthropic investments in this space. So, there's really an opportunity when making investments, to think about the ways it can leverage these other investors in the system.

And then I think a third challenge in the policy front comes to the need for better data. We just need not just better data, but better data tools that policymakers can use to understand how different education and training programs are working together to prepare people with different skill needs for the jobs that are in demand in their region. So, if we had that better data it would allow policymakers to see what's working and how it's working, and for whom it's working. But it also might let them have some answers to the first two challenges I raised around how you can align different programs and how you can make investments where investment is needed.

Lisa Hamilton:
Is there work being done on the policy level to even look at these foundational barriers that folks are having? If you have low literacy skills, that seems like it's going to be a barrier no matter what area you're trying to progress in.

Brooke DeRenzis:
Yes. So, there's a lot of work being done to think about how states can support this model, which is called integrated education and training. This is a model that was developed in Washington State, that really integrates the teaching of basic skills, literacy, numeracy, with occupational skills. And because those basic skills are taught in the context of what one needs to know for the job they're training for, it works. So, if I'm training to become a plumber, my math skills might make a little more sense if they're provided in the context of a plumbing problem that I'm trying to solve.

So, Washington State rolled out this program, it's called IBEST, it stands for Integrated Basic Education Skills and Training, and that program is now being replicated in places throughout the country.

There's a role that state policy can play in funding the replication of that and providing technical assistance to local regents who are trying to do it, in terms of fostering collaboration between the organizations that are providing adult education, and organizations that are providing occupation skills training, sometimes it's not the same organization.

So, there's a lot of work for state policy to do in terms of thinking about providing those on ramps to post-secondary education and training for people who have foundational skill needs.

Lisa Hamilton:
What about in Georgia, Rob, are there particular policy solutions you've seen already help or that you and your partners at the chamber are thinking about?

Rob Garcia:
Well sure. And I'll also add to that, there are groups called workforce investment boards all around the country, and I sit on our local one here in Cobb County, but those workforce investment boards leverage federal dollars, a series of federal grants, each of which are targeted for a different need, a different workforce area. So, when you talk about those fundamental needs, there's a lot of federal funding and a lot of support around literacy because it's so crucial and fundamental for the workforce system, as well as other types of more technical training more directly connected with careers. And so those workforce investment boards end up being a cross-section of a lot of that type of work.

But I'll also say from a policy side, Brooke's exactly right, the workforce system is incredibly complicated, there's a lot of areas that really are fashioned together to make it work. And so, one big policy need we have is that our policy makers are very familiar with Chambers of Commerce, they're very familiar with groups like National Skills Coalition. In some cases, they're tired of seeing us and tired of hearing from us, and one of the most impactful voices they can hear from is the business community.

And so, Brooke mentioned Business Leaders United, a group that they've got. Georgia has founded the first local chapter of Business Leaders United, we call it Georgia Blue, and that group is really starting to get our arms around what are the policy needs specific to Georgia? How can we equip our business community to be advocates both at the state and federal level for better skills policy, and we're really following the model and lead of Business Leaders United for workforce partnerships, the Big Blue, as we've come to call it, which is right out of National Skills Coalition. So, we are tying the work to that federal group. But, really, equipping business leaders to be those advocates can be as important in the policy arena as anything else. Because they're more tangible examples, they're clear voices of how skills policy effects those individual businesses.

And so that's a big focus of ours. Things like Perkins Funding, which funds career and technical education, businesses badly need to see an increase in Perkins funding, so we can produce more folks trained at that technical level, but many businesses may not even be aware that Perkins is what funds that. So, a big gap that we've got to overcome is the awareness that the business community has of the workforce system and how it works. The role they play and the advocates that they can be for better skills policy.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's great. You mentioned I think higher education. Before we close, I wanted to ask a question about particularly community colleges, which play a big role in this middle skills training. Do you have examples or ideas of the role community colleges can play in this workforce?

Brooke DeRenzis:
So, community colleges are playing a variety of roles in training people for middle skill jobs. Before we were talking about apprenticeship, it's not uncommon for community colleges to provide the classroom instruction that's associated with apprenticeship. In fact, South Carolina, which has a large apprenticeship program called Apprenticeship Carolina, which acts as an intermediary and helps employers register their apprenticeship programs, is based out of the community and technical college system. So, they're able to align the apprenticeship programs with the classroom offerings there.

Another role that we're seeing community colleges play is just with training for in-demand industries that lead to credentials. So, one of the things we're seeing is figuring out how adults, who are trying to balance work and family life, oftentimes on a lean budget, are able to afford to go to college and enroll in training. So, we are seeing states take on the role of providing financial aid to adults and working learners who need to be doing that balance.

An example would be in Tennessee, where they have just made free community college and technical college available to all adults in the system, through a last-dollar scholarship. And so now adults are able to go and earn a community college or technical degree for free. We're seeing employers think about how they can support their existing workforce to upgrade their skills through that program. And that can be employers thinking about whether there are additional costs they could provide that aren't part of tuition but are crucial, and that can be books and supplies, and fees. Whether there's a role for employers to think about helping their employees learn about the program and what's available to them.

And some employers are thinking about whether there are opportunities to think about scheduling or flex time so that employees can go and take courses. So that's a good example of a statewide policy that's allowing community colleges to do training, and employers are thinking about how to respond.

Lisa Hamilton:
Well, we certainly know that more families need good jobs and a path to opportunity so that they can support themselves and their families. Do you see bright spots that give you a reason to be optimistic overall about the trends for skills building for our workforce?

Brooke DeRenzis:
Yes. Definitely. I think, again, there is consensus and recognition that we are in a skilled economy, and we need to build the skills of our workforce. And that that skilled workforce has benefits not just for the workers themselves, but for their families, because if you're able to earn a higher wage and find a family-supporting career, you're able to bring economic security to your family.

And then of course, as Rob has been discussing, there's a benefit for businesses as well.

Lisa Hamilton:
And Rob, just to give you the closing thought, do you see signs of momentum there in Georgia that give you and your colleagues a reason to be excited and hopeful for the prospects for folks to get the skills they're going to need to move forward?

Rob Garcia:
I do. I think there's a lot of great momentum here in Georgia. A great example is, our work really started in about 2014 when the governor launched what he called the Heideman Career Initiative. And in many ways the Heideman Career Initiative was the playbook that the whole state operated out of.

And so, when I got hired at the Cobb Chamber, to my knowledge, I was the first chamber in the metro Atlanta area at least, that had a full-time person solely focused on the workforce needs of the community. Since I got hired, I now have counterparts at nearly every local chamber that we border, that we work with. And since workforce is such a regional effort, we've been taking it on together and really working in a regional way that's uncommon for local chambers that tend to be competitive. We've all found ourselves working together on this and bringing our business partners together, around the region.

So, the momentum that HTCI really created, the Heideman Career Initiative, we could come behind and follow. And the amount of chambers and business communities that have said, "This is a priority for us, and we want to be active players, we want to be leaders and we want to be involved," is a really good sign that we're moving in the right direction, that we're picking up momentum and bringing the right partners to the table to make sure that we can start to really affect the workforce needs that are ahead of us.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's fantastic. Well I tell you, it's been really exciting to hear about the new strategies folks are using from partnerships, to apprenticeships, to hear about the strong relationships that are developing at the local level, from the business community, higher education, K-12 education, and public agencies, and to hear the ways that policy is really helping to facilitate this. So, thank you both for joining us today, it's been great to hear from you.

Brooke DeRenzis:
Thank you so much for inviting us, Lisa.

Rob Garcia:
Thanks for having us.

Lisa Hamilton:
Sure. And I want to thank our listeners for joining us as well. If you've enjoyed today's conversation, please rate our show on Apple Podcasts, to help others find us. You can ask questions and leave us feedback on Twitter, by using the #CaseyCast hashtag.

To learn more about Casey and the work of our guests, you can find our show notes at AECF.org/podcast.

Until next time, I wish all of America's kids, and all of you, a bright future.