As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Carlson. Jennifer Carlson serves as Executive Director of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) Workforce Institute. The Institute is the workforce development arm of the WTIA focused on addressing the tech industry’s workforce and diversity needs through a building a nationally registered technology apprenticeship program called Apprenti. Additionally, she serves on the Tech Councils of North America (TECNA) workforce board and as an Adjunct Professor in Graduate Studies at Seattle University. While Jennifer began as pre-law in college, she completed her BA in technical journalism with a concentration in public relations, a minor in sociology, and has an MBA from Ohio University.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started in your current role?
As a founder, my story is probably no different than most others, I saw a need, and with it an opportunity, then created a solution that I theorized would work. I come from Fortune 500 Corporate environments, mostly insurance, where women were few in the leadership ranks, and I had the benefit of effectively creating my roles within these companies. I’m skilled in building products and solutions from the ground up and looking at root cause to build sustainability rather than solving for “in the moment” issues. In my experience, too frequently diversity was/is relegated to entry level or lesser-skilled roles like customer service and isn’t being measured equitably at every level of an organization.
I’ve been in Seattle for more than a decade and love the city, its energy, and offerings. In 2013, I decided to work for the WTIA (Washington Technology Industry Association), the trade association for tech, to learn a new industry. At WTIA, I saw firsthand the central issues to tech’s growth limits and pain points and with that Apprenti — the nation’s first registered tech apprenticeship program — was born. There was a need for more domestic tech talent on whole, plus a significant, some would say systemic, diversity shortage, so after several conversations with large companies about job requirements compared to real training needs, I was able to get many of them comfortable with the idea that we can train people to fill several mid-level tech roles using accelerated classroom time plus hands on, mentored training, which gets people to an acceptable level for us to consume and retain. Today, Apprenti is a public/private partnership partially funded through a Federal grant from the American Apprenticeship Initiative (AAI) of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), supported by the State of Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries, in partnership with industry leaders such as Microsoft, Amazon, Accenture, JP Morgan.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake (or general mistake) you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Oh my god, where to start!! Not so much a “general” mistake as much as an incorrect viewpoint that is baked into many psyches about how we think fairness works, and this resonates right now more than ever. Part of what I was trying to create from the start was an applicant system that removed bias and gave credit for critical skills, i.e., competency over pedigree. Just like I needed the companies to move off their hiring requirements, I also needed to understand from the community side, what are the core barriers to entry. Having read many articles about ‘what’s in a name’ and unconscious bias, I wanted to strip out as much as possible in the decision process, but how do you ensure diversity is at the top of the candidate pool for consideration and give companies comfort in the process when they don’t get to see a resume?
I convened a group of community stakeholders as part of the design process; my, and my team’s, assumptions were that we’d build in a calculator of sorts to ensure diverse targets rise to the top for consideration. This community group was comprised of women in tech, ethnic diversity from both tech and non-tech backgrounds, and veterans. After the committee reviewed the process, it was clear that I needed a philosophical shift. If I “just fill the pipeline with the diverse talent we want, deliberately through recruitment, then we don’t have to play those kinds of games.” In short, if I truly believe what I say, that there are lots of capable people out there with the aptitude to do the work, then just go get them.
I learned a lot from this including:
- We all have unconscious biases, even when we don’t think we do or are doing our best to eliminate them; there is a lot more baked into us than we realize
- Trust the people who are willing to challenge your thought processes and approach
- Don’t work in a vacuum, test your theories, then test your solutions and don’t be entrenched
Is there a particular book that you read or podcast you listen to, that has helped you in your career? Why do you think so?
Well right now, the book that is resonating the most is an oldie but goodie: Who Moved My Cheese. This short but profound book is what should keep you evolving. There is a point where too much willingness to shift runs everything off the rails, but you do have to be able to see the turns in the road coming and pivot to meet the needs of your audience or you die. Given where we are economically, workforce shifts to the gig economy, automation displacing workers, and of course COVID, this book is a great illustration about reminding us to not get too comfortable, and to challenge “the way it’s always been.” Absolutely nothing frustrates me more than the mentality of “the way it’s always been.” I will always ask “why” and challenge, if we had it to do over, “what would we do differently?”
One of my favorite podcasts is FOMO Sapiens, and almost anything else on HBR Presents plus their Managing the Future of Work series for obvious reasons. Great viewpoints on everything from living a mission driven life or feeling fulfilled to entrepreneurship and how it can redefine and reshape the economy. Anything that shifts our thinking is always a welcome listen!
I’ve also consumed “So You Want To Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo. Learning to recognize micro-aggressions better, and the need for open, sometimes painful, dialog is critical, but most importantly — equal is equal. It’s not negotiable, there is no compromising.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Talk to us about Apprenti’s vision and purpose and how that’s evolved, if it has overtime?
This is an interesting idea; it certainly makes a difference in the “how and why” I get up and engage every day. Purpose is found in many ways and for me I like complex puzzles, new ways to solve old problems, e.g., what was once true may not hold anymore. So, using the platform of apprenticeship to move people more flexibly into an industry — solving two problems at once by closing the talent gap and creating economic mobility and equality — is certainly purposeful and fulfilling. It’s hard not to pontificate about how much better the world would be if we took a more altruistic viewpoint on a number of subjects, but what I most love about what Apprenti is evolving into is a platform of true public/private partnership. Apprenti is an intersection of Industry, Education, Government and Community Based Organization’s that create better, sustainable and measurable outcomes. The investment has been across all of these four partners to get the program going, yet no investor to repay means we have latitude to do what is in the best interests of the two beneficiaries — industry and community. Thus, we have a great design, building a sustainable model, and the positive impact on the people who come through the program are incalculable.
The Vision, is to get companies to define talent differently and shift from exclusively acquisition to also embrace creation of talent, balance. Skills are equally as important as what you learned in college, but one does not cancel the other out, so we can value each set of contributions differently, we just have to open the aperture farther.
The mission is about improving access to and for diverse candidates in the field of technology, through the time-tested system of apprenticeship. We want to improve access by standing up an alternate pathway for people into tech, and concurrently get companies to shift to job requirements to allow for either college or apprenticeship. In Europe, 30 percent of the population goes to University, the other 70 percent go through apprenticeship in virtually every role imaginable from culinary to engineers and medicine. In the U.S., we have the same stat on the number that go through University, but a very small percentage that have access to apprenticeship and those are typically for building and construction trades, manufacturing, and similar industries. Those are great jobs, and can yield very similar financial results for people, but more than 50 percent of America isn’t continuing and learning a skill, and college isn’t the answer for all. Apprenticeship can offer entrée to all, in virtually every field, if companies simply embrace it. I find it most interesting when I come across a global company that uses apprenticeship in other regions of the globe, but has difficulty adopting it in the U.S.
That is where we come in. And when I say we, I really mean WE. I am not the only one who benefits from this purpose. I have a great team, philosophically aligned to the mission. It motivates them to see this through to success equally as much as me. We all take this work personally, so perhaps that is why the research is so compelling.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Be direct, don’t commit to anything you can’t deliver, and accept that we will not be all things to all people or companies…and that’s okay.
We had a large multi-national company ask us if we could apprentice Data Scientists out of our candidate pool. My answer: No. An apprenticeship can be built for that role, which we’d be happy to help anyone file, and if you define the role as PhD track as most companies do, then you’ll need to recruit at that level, but that is not who we recruit. (The company already knew coming into this conversation that we don’t prequalify anyone on educational attainment.) On the call there was a lull, and then they said, great, we can move forward. Let’s get some other folks into this discussion. Clearly it was a test.
I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m sincere, I’m honest and my directness comes with good intent and is delivered respectfully. And as a result, most people know where they stand with me.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you share a personal related challenge(s) you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address the challenge(s)?
How personal do you want to get? My 24 year old God-son was stuck in Peru as the country shut down due to COVID, he was staying at a hostel that was exposed to COVID by a guest, he and most of the other guests likely contracted the disease and were confined in the facility and quarantined by the Peruvian government with no resources, little water and food for weeks and told they couldn’t leave for up to 3 months. No tests administered, just told to assume they have it given the symptoms all displayed. Meanwhile his mother and I were calling everyone we know, and a lot of people we don’t know but were willing to beg for assistance. Hunting for everything from food delivery to decision makers to alleviate the situation. He’s back in the U.S. now, and that too is a harrowing and lengthy story about our State Department, poor communication, support from the Red Cross (Thank you again by the way RC) and a lot of other people that we owe favors to for years to come.
Personally, but still with my team, it is all about keeping everyone whole, financially emotionally, psychologically, etc. I feel for small businesses and service-based companies that had to close and couldn’t work. It was intensely personal to keep everyone on the team employed, the business moving forward while respecting that even major companies were determining how to pivot to a remote environment and that we weren’t a top priority. Once we shored up the budget, my focus migrated to the emotional — how everyone was handling the challenges COVID presented- not only in their own work, but to their families who were going to lean on each other. The duration then became the psychology exercise. Everyone is powering through, making sacrifices, thankful, distributed, stretched or thin, but still supportive of each other and coming from a kind place with each other. That if frankly all I can ask and more than I can ask.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Primary one is keeping the team comfortable while working from home and making room for mental, physical, and emotional health. Some are extroverts who need more social interaction, some are working from home with family also working from home, some have kids that need attention while out of school, some are solo, and loneliness is all too real. We are all working that little bit extra to be there for each other and go that extra mile.
And all of this is before speaking about our apprentices who have shifted to online, synchronous learning from home and remote work environments — they thought they’d be going “TO” a classroom and a job. Now they’re having to assimilate remotely, with more limited access to coworkers; that lack of direct and casual interaction or knowing which person to connect with on what issue is more challenging in a digital environment. However, I would counter that it puts them on a level playing field with any other traditional new hire. My team is knocking it out of the park in managing their own personal life challenges and helping to get people through class and into their apprenticeship at the same completion levels as pre-COVID and addressing those new business challenges very nimbly in the process.
With anxiety at an all-time high it seems, what are some ways you’ve offered to support those in you’re closest too?
I think we’ve all gone through a painful period of adjustment, and I am no different. Checking in frequently is probably number one. Giving people the benefit of time is probably the best gift you can give. So, we call friends and family just to talk more often than we used to. Zoom has been a savior with friends as Happy Hour is more like 5 hours of catching up on a regular basis. There are lots of hard conversations taking place from some facing job insecurity to cancelled weddings and home-schooling challenges. Obviously #BLM is top of mind and leading to rich and hard conversations as well about how to be good ally’s, call out racism when you see it, and not avoid the hard topics. Usually, it’s just about being there to listen, not offering solutions. My significant other and I do regular pulse checks on each other, splitting household responsibilities between us, and finding space to have “me” time, but we’ve had more family dinners and game nights than normal, with my 15-year-old stepson, that and a lack of commute time have bought us more time together. And I think the dog is ready for us to go back to work, we’re getting in the way of his beauty-rest!
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like, but we can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe and also at the same time be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We have this one opportunity in perhaps a century to take the best of “the way things were” and make changes to the things that weren’t working before COVID to make things better. We’re starting conversations now with companies, before they start their 2021 planning, about assessing role requirements, creating more apprenticeship level jobs, onboarding new hires with pay equity guidelines and reskilling or upskilling their workers that may have been furloughed.
We can consult with companies on how to improve diversity, how to improve inclusion as that takes many forms, and of utmost importance, how to assess and interview differently. Call us, we’ve developed the tools to address many of the challenges companies have identified as a result of the conversations around Black Lives Matter, and we are happy to help them through finding some solutions.
How do you think the Covid pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Again, I’m going with a positive here, there are many!
- Remote work — it has been possible for many years, but now we have proof. I’m not suggesting we never go back to in person, but I think this creates healthy balance between in person and remote work.
- Many states, central U.S., have fallen outside of the tech boom and are not benefitting from the economic benefits, and frankly may suffer disproportionately from job dislocation due to automation. I think remote working may create more opportunities for economic prosperity if you can work from Des Moines or Wichita for a large company that previously balked at hiring remotely because of the cost of setting up offices.
- It also creates better opportunities for persons with disabilities to find meaningful work if they don’t have to also work through getting to an office environment. July marks the 30th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the U.S. Department of Labor has been working hard to find new opportunities to support ADA — here it is!
- Finally, companies are in a protracted slow planning period, and they have furloughed and laid off many workers. I’d like to see them really take this time to work on Pay Equity, diverse recruiting and hiring as they build out their future staffing plans. Reassess job requirements to recalibrate roles that may not need a college degree. And, commit to creating 15 percent of jobs going forward as apprenticeship eligible — the benefits outweigh the costs — I promise!
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild/reshape/grow Apprenti in the post-Covid economy? What would you encourage others to do?
We are working on a number of initiatives that will make it easier for employers to engage financially with some fixed cost strategies around training and favorable lending for apprentices needed financial assistance. Additionally, our consulting arm is expanding to support businesses that are looking, beyond apprenticeship, at how to build a diverse organization and systems that support retention and bias training. That focus on “moving the cheese” means we are evolving to serve companies and communities better based on what we’ve learned, so we’re growing our offerings to cover and fulfill more of the broader workforce needs of employers. Stay tuned!
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how it’s relevant to you in your life?
Not a life lesson as much as an aspirational belief: “We long for unity but are unwilling to pay the price. True unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes — a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.” — Barack Obama
It wasn’t said all that long ago, but its core message resonates with me, particularly lately. I have opportunity to meet with people from all walks of life and we have some really rich conversations. I find with most people that it’s easy to find common ground, even if we have differing views. That’s where the longing for unity lies and I think, perhaps hope, that it exists in us all. It sometimes requires us to let go of something. If we could all understand that there isn’t a single person or way of thinking that everyone is 100 percent in alignment with, we’d find that our common ground is most likely on enough issues that we could broaden in acceptance and change. That is the price to pay.