Can you make a difference? I’ve been thinking about that question lately, probably more so because of my move from the workforce industry, where I was mostly working at a strategic level, to teaching. In one instance I was around lots of people who were trying to make a granular difference in the lives of others yet I was very big picture. With teaching I started working on the granular level, where I can, in theory, have a huge impact and make a difference in the lives of individuals. Yet, when I think about it, I wonder if I’m really making a difference.
First off, what exactly do I mean by workforce development? On the surface the term seems to make sense. It’s an effort to develop the workforce. Being that it’s a hugely complicated government program, it’s not that simple. I actually worked for a workforce development board as part of their business outreach efforts. In my experience, nobody in the general public knows what a workforce development board is, which is surprising considering how impactful it’s supposed to be in local communities. Granted, we were never allowed to even use the word marketing, let alone actually engage in marketing activities. Only the term “outreach” was allowed to be used.
Since I was part of that outreach effort, I developed a brief elevator pitch. I told people that a blob of money came from the federal government, and it went to the states. The state governments were supposed to carve up their states into manageable local workforce development areas overseen by a local board. This is where the term “workforce development board” or “local workforce development board” comes from. The size of the different areas depended on the population density. The local county commissioners would approve employers to sit on the board. These board members have jobs so they couldn’t actually manage the day to day operations. They would choose an administrative entity, something I always referred to as a general contractor to run the program. The general contractor, and the administrative entity would hire program operators to actually handle the day to day operations of interacting with John Q. Public.
The system is complicated to say the very least. I could probably write a book on the whole process; what it was supposed to be versus what it actually was. I’ve even been thinking about a series of articles trying to explain it all. In theory it’s all a good idea. By design it’s supposed to be local employers working in partnership with aligned agencies and nonprofits overseeing all of the local area efforts to connect all the dots and get them the workforce they need. In reality the system was so complicated that only the insiders, i.e., the staff to the board who worked for the administrative entity / general contractor, understood any of it. Unless the head of the workforce board was retired, i.e., they had all the time in the world to engage the system on a full-time basis or had been in and around the system for the years it took to understand it, the board mostly rubber stamped whatever the executive director decided.
In this system, the director is the pivot point. They understand the system and know what’s going on. They decide where the money is going to be spent and where it’s not going to be spent. They decide who they are going to partner closely with and who they will just give lip service too. Yes, an active board is theoretically in charge, but like I said, usually everyone on the board has a day job. The director just needs to keep them happy. It’s like that line from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The board may be the theoretical head of the workforce development system, but the director is the neck and can turn the board in whatever direction they want. So, what do directors do? The sad fact is that except for a few outliers who really wanted to create a dynamic and integrated system, they mostly did as little as possible. This wasn’t out of laziness. The directors I knew worked tirelessly. They had to, because they had to deal with a litany of moving parts. To start there are Federal and state regulations and ever-changing policies. There are never ending new initiatives from the state and other partners that all require a workforce development board’s participation. There are programmatic operations, i.e., the actual working with individuals that the program operators, i.e. subcontractors were supposed to carry out. Connecting all of this are fiscal operations. There is quite a bit of cash that’s being spent. Of course, every aspect of these programs and initiatives are audited regularly. To top it off there was local politics up the wazoo. These directors have tons of power but conversely, they are responsible for a great deal that is out of their power. For example, they can’t immediately fire a sub-contractor who’s screwing up the program or not meeting initiatives. So, what is the default? The default behavior is to not change anything about the system and simply show a best effort.
So, what’s the point of this? Well, I was part of the board staff that was supposed to work with employers and connect dots to all of the parts of the system. In effect I was supposed to make things happen among all the stakeholders. Did that work? Not really. I just went to a bunch of meetings. Gobs of meetings actually. I got to know a bunch of people and I really learned the system well. In the meetings, especially the trainings and conferences there were lots of stories and examples of success in having a huge impact, of boards making a big difference in the various communities. I knew most of it was hyperbole. It seemed to me it was like scrolling through Facebook. As someone once said, scrolling through Facebook is watching everyone’s else’s highlight reel and comparing it to your cutting room floor. I did feel like there were so many success stories some of them had to be true. There had to be boards which had some unique and positively impactful program and made a quantifiable difference in their communities.
But did I, or my board, actually make anything of consequence happen outside of normal everyday operations? The answer was mostly no. I always felt that I could have. I brought up countless ideas and tried many of them, but I could never get anyone really on board with me. When I would vent to my confidants, I was told that it was because of the system structure, or my director or the culture of my board. Honestly, I always thought I was the missing link. That it was impossible for me to make something happen. I felt I was incapable of making a difference.
There was one group in Workforce that did make a difference every day, or at least it seemed they did. It was the program operators. These subcontractors to the board were directly involved in providing services to individuals. People who were unemployed or underemployed would walk into a career center for unemployment or job-hunting needs. Our program operators would, theoretically, work with them directly to get them the help they needed to get a job or get a better job that paid more than poverty level wages. This included sending them to school and helping them with services like daycare or transportation so they could go to school. Maybe it was just counseling. The point was they would interact with an individual and there would be a concrete change in behavior which, again theoretically, made a person’s life better.
This one-on-one interaction was very analogous to what I was doing when I began teaching. As an instructor, at least at the college level, you are really facilitating the learning efforts of students. Sometimes you wind up in an advisory role. A student will come to you and say, “I have this big important life decision to make, what should I do?” Usually, it’s about their course of study and what they want to do for a living. As an individual who holds a position of authority in their life, it’s a bit heady to have an influence on that type of decision. Still upon reflection, you may have some form of influence in the short term, but does it matter in the long term? The numbers aren’t defined, but ultimately only about a quarter of people work in their degree field. What usually happens is someone tries to get a job in their field, realizes they don’t like it as much as some other thing they are doing, and they move on to a different industry or job. So for 75% of those conversations, you can direct a student, but the reality is they will ultimately have a career in something completely unrelated. The most important aspect of college isn’t the specific degree, it’s the discipline and intelligence needed to get through it. For the most part it’s the whole system that is making the difference in the student’s lives, not the individual instructor.
This brings me back to the workforce contractors that I always thought had a huge impact on individuals. I wondered if they didn’t exist, would the individuals they serve find a different way? If you think of what they provided as a place to hold on as someone was trying to climb a cliff, then would the mountain climber just find another handhold if that one didn’t exist?
That’s the whole conundrum. Can you, and your individual efforts really make a unique and measurable difference? It’s a bit depressing of a thought especially since so many people give up so much so they can do something to feel like they are making a difference to better the world. I do think systems make a difference.
The education system, the workforce system, the medical system. I do think these systems, and their constituent parts in aggregate, make a difference. I cite as an example everything I know about the Caribbean Islands. If you are unfamiliar with the Caribbean, it’s a region of the world where lots of small land masses were owned by many different European countries over the years. As the centuries went by, one by one the various Caribbean nations became independent. Only the Caribbean Islands where the exiting country developed societal systems for the island that was run by islanders prospered. They mostly became first and second world nations. The islands where there were no systems put in place became third world nations, with the marque example being Haiti, a country that is forever in turmoil. Over the decades these third world island nations had no shortage of well-intentioned missionaries and other do gooders go down to try and turn things around. Rarely does it work.
So, then to make a difference, do we need to go back to that level I was at with the workforce board? Do I need to be developing the systems themselves? Well technically I wasn’t at the system design level, that job belongs to the US Congress. I was working on implementation and facilitation at a local level. Yes, there was some potential for design, but I had to be very careful. The workforce system is definitely not set up to incentivize trying new things that mostly will fail in hopes of finding a few that will take off.
My next thought is: Should I stay at my individual contributor level with teaching and just hope I’m having a huge impact on the few that heed my guidance. I’m sure over time I’ll make a difference in the lives of some students, but it won’t be a great amount.
I think the best thing I can do is to think of myself as a system. Systems take inputs, apply effort and then send off the outputs. No one element that flows through the system is guaranteed to make a difference, but over time and in sum, there may be a unique impact on the world. Like the Caribbean Islands, no one day or year made an island a first world location or a third world. It was a consistent application of organization and structure to the island’s operations that allowed the prosperous ones to thrive. Maybe my consistent efforts over the years in workforce made a difference. Maybe the years ahead teaching will make a difference. I genuinely don’t know. I do know that the only way I can make a difference is to continually keep trying. Then, when I retire, I can look back and maybe have a clearer picture if I did make a difference in helping to better the world. The best part is that even if I’m still unclear I can keep trying in retirement. I’m sure there will be a workforce board somewhere that needs a retiree who understands the system, has enough time to really get into the business of the board, and who will never stop trying to make a difference.