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Transcript- Episode 110: Confronting the Uncomfortable Truth: Why Students Are Struggling to Find Work in 2024 Episode 110

Jan 2, 2024

00:00:00 Salvatrice

At the end of the day - and we say this all the time, why are we here? Why is anyone that does this work here? We're here for the student, we're here to prepare them, we're here to enrich them with the skills that they need, both personally and professionally.


00:00:18 Christina

The workforce landscape is rapidly changing, and educators and their institutions need to keep up. Preparing students before they enter the workforce to make our communities and businesses stronger is at the core of getting an education.


00:00:31 Christina

But we need to understand how to change and adjust so that we can begin to project where things are headed before we even get there. So, how do we begin to predict the future?


00:00:43 Salvatrice

Hi, I'm Salvatrice Kummo, Vice President of Economic and Workforce Development at Pasadena City College, and host of this podcast.


00:00:52 Christina

And I'm Christina Barsi, producer and co-host of this podcast.


00:00:56 Salvatrice

And we are starting the conversation about the future of work. We'll explore topics like how education can partner with industry, how to be more equitable, and how to attain one of our highest goals: more internships and PCC students in the workforce.


00:01:09 Salvatrice

We at Pasadena City College want to lead the charge in closing the gap between what our students are learning and what the demands of the workforce will be once they enter. This is a conversation that impacts all of us. You, the employers, the policymakers, the educational institutions, and the community as a whole.


00:01:29 Christina

We believe change happens when we work together, and it all starts with having a conversation. I'm Christina Barsi ...


00:01:37 Salvatrice

And I'm Salvatrice Kummo, and this is the Future of Work. Welcome back. This is Salvatrice, your host, and I am joined today again, by my friend and dear colleague in our Department of Economic and Workforce Development, Ms. Leslie Thompson. Leslie, how are you?


00:01:54 Leslie

I'm great. How are you?


00:01:55 Salvatrice

Pretty good. I have to tell you, I'm going to keep repeating myself. I really enjoy these talks that you and I have because we get to unpack some of the things that are in our brain and even some of the experiences that we've had like the day of.


00:02:07 Leslie

It's a great way to reflect for sure, and keep us honest.


00:02:11 Salvatrice

For sure. And thinking about reflection - you used a trigger term for me in a good way.


00:02:17 Leslie

You're triggered


00:02:19 Salvatrice

We've been doing some reflection for sure in this office, and thinking about 2023, what we were able to accomplish, what were some of the opportunities that we perhaps didn't seize correctly, or ... we always do this right? Like at the end of every year.


00:02:37 Leslie

We start looking back, we try to wrap up the year.


00:02:39 Salvatrice

That's right, that's right. And I have to tell you, like just based on our meeting today - so for those listening in just a little background story: Leslie and I had an opportunity to meet with an external organization and help develop their strategic plan, and what it did for us ... I'm going to say us because we talked about it.


00:03:03 Salvatrice

What it did for us is it kind of brought out some aha moments about this work that we do, and it underscores some of the feelings that we've had as well. And I thought as a reflection episode, like let's really think that through. Let's think through like what this morning's meeting helped us identify, and really how it's going to position us for the upcoming years that we can continue to do more and better for our students.


00:03:32 Salvatrice

Okay. So, I'm going to share one of mine. I'm going to share one of my moments, and then you share one of yours. One of the moments I had was based on the conversation that funding sources drive programming, versus need driving the programming.


00:03:53 Salvatrice

And although we knew that, it was really underscored this morning because we were making decisions based on funding sources as an external organization. As a community college, we do follow the lead of the chancellor's office, we do follow the lead of our funding sources, but it's always tied to students. It's always tied to students.


00:04:19 Salvatrice

In this particular instance where we're part of an organization that is tied to workforce development externally, and the fact that we were trying to frame our work around funding sources versus the need, it really just kind of hit home for me. We may want to just pause and reexamine not only their work, but our work, and the meaning that we find in our work.


00:04:43 Leslie

Yeah, I like that idea because someone had made the comment during part of the meeting that there's a lot of people coming to this work now because there's a lot of investment in this work, and so you're getting a lot of new people and a lot of things are changing, but it's all about the same thing. It's all about chasing the money, which is ... that's the way things work. That's the way of the world, like I get that.


00:05:04 Leslie

But that doesn't leave a lot of room for kind of higher-order thinking or taking time to really understand the best interest of whoever the client is.


00:05:11 Leslie

So, for us, at a community college level, yes, we do take the lead of the chancellor's office. Yes, we do seek these funding sources, but we also do our due diligence in understanding what the student needs and barriers are ahead of time. And then we leverage those resources to address those needs and barriers. That's the work of community colleges, that's what we do.


00:05:31 Leslie

And so, the fact that PCC EWD is part of a community college, like it's super important for us to orient our work around the values of the college while we go out and get that money, while we chase that money, as they say. But for me, I guess, like kind of it's like a personal thing. Like this whole idea of getting into this line of work just for the money or chasing down money, like that's an age-old problem.


00:05:52 Leslie

We can't do the work without the money, but the work is meaningless if you don't spend the time reflecting and considering the larger issues. You got to make sure that you're not continuing barriers or creating unintentional barriers, or just promoting some systemic issues that if you don't take time to just look at it.


00:06:11 Leslie

We do that in community college. We do that in all of higher education, and that's something that I think that outside agencies could do more of. And I think that that's the value of partnering with education aside from this. so-called talent pipeline that we all like to call it, which is another issue for me. But I think that's the value in partnering with education, is we're supposed to raise those questions. We're supposed to bring those things up.


00:06:35 Salvatrice

It goes back to what we were talking about earlier in the meeting. Well, you and I were talking about it. We didn't really bring this up because of all the things that you just said. Like naturally, in our work or in our environment of community colleges, we take the time to do that.


00:06:49 Salvatrice

We take the time to unpack all of the variables that surround - I'm going to use the term putting talent into jobs, or developing talent into career pathways, whichever term you want to use. Then there lies really kind of the issue, is that this work becomes ... unless you're within a community college, and even sometimes within community colleges, it becomes very transactional. Why? Because the funding is driving the work. And in order to receive more funding, that's driven by metrics.


00:07:23 Leslie

We have to deliver


00:07:24 Salvatrice

What we deliver, but then we're not pausing, I think as a system - I'm not talking about community college. As a system of workforce development agencies, partners, et cetera, we're not pausing to say, "Well, what are the true barriers to this work? What really drives this work?"


00:07:42 Salvatrice

At the end of the day, we're in the people business, I'm going to use your phrase - we're in the people business here. Like what are we doing for human impact and human development? That's what you were talking about earlier. And I want to explore that more.


00:07:55 Salvatrice

You mentioned the word "commodity" in our conversation earlier this morning, share a little bit about that.


00:08:02 Leslie

Sometimes I feel that the terms that we use and the way we describe, we use a blanket term of workforce instead of people or students, or we use this blanket term of workforce or the talent pipeline, and we're trying to get talent to and from. We treat people as if they're commodities in a sense, and we're just trying to fill a void, and we're just trying to sell you ... for community colleges, we have a talent pipeline that we're trying to sell.


00:08:26 Leslie

That's the language we use - we sell the pipeline. That's what we do when we hit the streets, because community college students are a great resource for labor and everything else. They're coming out of these systems, educated, skilled, talented, eager, all the things you look for in prepared ... all the things you look for in an employee.


00:08:44 Leslie

But for me, it's a fine line between preparation and speaking on behalf of that pool, treating them like a commodity just to get deliverables, to get metrics, to get more money. To me, the jobs are the commodity. Why should these students, why should these people go work for your company? What's in it for them?


00:09:05 Leslie

Like they're asking these questions themselves. They're like, "What's the value prop of coming to work for your organization? What are your ethical considerations? What's your mission statement? What good are you doing in the world? You want, what, 40-plus hours of work from me for what?


00:09:20 Leslie

They need more - increasingly we're seeing that people need more than a paycheck to show up, and they don't want to come in by the way, they want to do it from home. Like there's a lot of things that are shifting and changing.


00:09:31 Leslie

So, one of the big kind of ... I had two kind of aha moments this morning at this meeting, and one of them was that, in my mind, this thing was flipped. And I'm like, no, we shouldn't be selling the pipeline. We should be selling the industry, because you got to look at it differently.


00:09:46 Leslie

But to go back to the earlier point that we're talking about people, and my concern or my question rather, is like how are we developing people throughout their lifespan? How are we contributing to their ongoing development? We're not doing job placement, we're not an agency, we're not an employment agency here. Those places exist, and those places have their own missions, and their own goals and their own metrics.


00:10:08 Leslie

But I keep coming back to this idea about like what do we do at the community college level as practitioners in this workforce development ecosystem that's different than everyone else?


00:10:20 Salvatrice

That's the million-dollar question. Like what are we doing that's different than everyone else in this space? I think that's our journey. I mean, let me rephrase that. I think our journey has led us to this point where we're saying, "Okay, we did it the traditional way. We've proceeded traditionally. Now, it's time to, I'm not saying go against the grain here, but maybe just try things a little bit differently."


00:10:44 Salvatrice

I mean, you just said it right now. You said we need to be selling the industry, not selling the talent. Because to your point, the community colleges do a wonderful job in my humble opinion. And this is just my opinion, and I might have some bias around it, but community colleges do a brilliant job.


00:11:01 Salvatrice

Our faculty do brilliant work around preparing our students for those careers for that job. But we, as a system, workforce system, we continue to try to sell the talent as if the talent is not being trained or educated, or just ... do you see where I'm going here?


00:11:28 Leslie

I do, and I want to kind of acknowledge that, but also acknowledge that that part of our role too, in fairness, is to gauge the needs of industry. If the students are coming out, if the output isn't what the industry needs, then our job and our role here on a community college is to come back and inform curriculum, and to come back and inform the college.


00:11:46 Leslie

Like, "Hey, they're needing these things, we need to update our programming. We need to update our curriculum. We need to keep up with the changing times." In that sense, we do need to make sure that we're plugged into that and kind of feed that back to the college.


00:11:57 Leslie

But yes, by and large they're coming out with these good baseline skills, like the faculty are doing a phenomenal job. To your point, our role is also just to kind of ... not to remind you, but just to kind of, for the sake of conversation, our role is also to inform instruction in that way, or to inform college in that way.


00:12:14 Leslie

That's our outward-facing, turning back in kind of lens, but I agree. Another kind of thing that came up was ... and it's come up at other meetings too. Today was the second time in a row with the same group actually, that I heard a comment to the effect that we have this need in this particular industry, and it was two different industries.


00:12:34 Leslie

And what we are having a hard time is getting people to understand that it's more than nurses, for example, in healthcare; we need more than nurses and frontline workers. We need accountants, we need lawyers, we need graphic artists, we need communications people, we need all these things.


00:12:49 Leslie

And it came up again today in a different industry. And I'm like that's what we should be focusing on, is getting students to see the options. There's so many options. They want options, they're demanding options, and there's so many, and so maybe we just flip it a little bit like we're selling this, look at all these things that you can do with this, that, and the other if you get this degree or you get that certificate, or you follow this pathway, you're going to, you know ...


00:13:13 Salvatrice

Yeah, I think that goes back to what you said earlier about selling the industry. It's like traditionally we think of the traditional roles within healthcare, but there's so much more. Could we be better at showcasing those options as demonstrating the cross-discipline work? Yes, we could do better at that. But then that goes back to what you said, selling the industry.


00:13:36 Salvatrice

It's both hand in hand. It informs curriculum, that cross-discipline, curriculum design is really important. We know that. But it's also sharing that there are some non-traditional pathways within a very traditional sector. Especially now with like this influx of AI. I mean, AI has always been here. We talked about this at previous episodes, but AI has always been around, but it certainly has informed the genetic makeup of our newer occupations, like it's shifted that.


00:14:09 Salvatrice

And so, there's so much more possibility. But I kind of see our work kind of going into the next year is just that, underscoring the value and the meaning of what workforce development is about human development and this almost like non-transactional narrative. That there's so much more to this work than just bridging the gap between industry and talent. Like there's so much more and everything in between.


00:14:41 Leslie

There's so much that happens in that gap.


00:14:43 Salvatrice

For sure. 100%, there is, there's quite a bit that happens. We could sit here for hours talking about that, and addressing, again, those barriers and opportunities, but also simultaneously thinking about how we approach the career possibilities with our students.


00:15:03 Salvatrice

There's a lot of room for growth in those two areas for us, because at the end of the day - and we say this all the time, why are we here? Why is anyone that does this work here? We're here for the student, we're here to prepare them. We're here to enrich them with the skills that they need, both personally and professionally to grow.


00:15:24 Salvatrice

And we have to do our job to ensuring that we also address some of those system issues, or system barriers, or system problems, whatever you want to call it - that we address those openly and without hesitation, so that we have this very holistic approach to the work, and we have a very purpose-driven approach to the work.


00:15:51 Salvatrice

You and I have always kind of had that conversation, these sidebar conversations about like purpose and meaning, and it's so much more than just placing students into jobs and upskilling the existing workforce. It's so much more than that. And I think that now's the time for us to really kind of explore this so much more.


00:16:09 Leslie

Yeah, I agree. And I think that in the new year, I know we've talked about we might consider creating opportunities to have those conversations. I think it's 100% appropriate to have those conversations at the community college level, at any education level. That's what we do in higher ed.


00:16:24 Leslie

And also, I'm going to say this: probably whatever EWD at other campuses like here, those of us working in these spaces didn't come to them to chase the money, most of us answered a call to action within our institutions and found ourselves in this work. We didn't be like, "Oh, there's money coming into EWD, let's go do that for a while."


00:16:48 Leslie

We answered a call to action. An opportunity was presented and we took it. And so, at least I can say that, and I don't know if you would agree with me, but I feel like I can say that about PCC's EWD. Neither you nor myself were like, "Hey, there's a lot of money coming in to ..." You know, there was an opportunity, and we took it.


00:17:06 Salvatrice

I would say there was a need.


00:17:07 Leslie

A need and a call to action. Like the college decided that something was going to be done. And you were doing other work, I was doing other work. You know what I mean? Like this is the charge now. This is what we're doing now. So, we find ourselves here.


00:17:19 Leslie

And so, I think it's absolutely appropriate to have these conversations in these spaces, and to create opportunity for them, and to use this platform and other platforms at our disposal to have those conversations and encourage dialogue.


00:17:33 Leslie

I don't expect that an outside agency or a city or any entity like that is going to be like, "You know what? Let's have a big conversation." They're doing their transactional stuff. They got a lot of other things to do. Not that they couldn't have those conversations. You don't expect them to, I don't expect that they're going to call that meeting to order. I feel that that's going to be in the hands of higher ed, particularly community colleges. Especially community colleges.


00:17:58 Salvatrice

Right. And you're right about like we responded to a need and a call to action. I would also say those that are in ... one could argue any line of work or any profession, but specifically, within this arena that we work in, in higher ed and workforce development, there's an intentional drive to that.


00:18:18 Salvatrice

There's an intentional drive to fulfill the mission of the institution and fulfill the mission of our role. Maybe it's because of the lens that we see this work. Like we see this work so much more than talent development and filling a need gap. Like we see it as so much more.


00:18:39 Salvatrice

So, maybe that's where I'm coming from. But being around our colleagues in higher education and our partners, there's an intentional drive to this work. And I want to share that intentionality. I think that's where I'm coming from, Leslie. I want to share our intentionality around this work. That it's not just workforce development, it's empowerment, it's mobility, it's access, it's all the things we know.


00:19:14 Leslie

All the things that we know the benefits of the work. We know what the benefits are. But I think to your point, it's worth articulating and it's worth discussing and reminding.


00:19:23 Salvatrice

And reminding. I think sometimes, we get lost in the weeds of, like we talked about earlier - we get lost in the weeds of the funding source. We get lost in the weeds of even just the day-to-day stuff.


00:19:35 Leslie

Well, I was thinking about a conversation I was overhearing, actually, I was in the bathroom and they were having a conversation and we were all going back to the same space, and the conversation-


00:19:42 Salvatrice

That's the best place to have conversations.


00:19:44 Leslie

I was like, "Oh man, they're really talking about internships and how these internships change their lives." And this one woman was saying it was a hardship for her to take the internship, but it changed her life. It was a hardship because she was supporting her family.


00:19:54 Leslie

And now, we know here, that we try to get paid internships because we view it as an equity issue and because we don't want students to miss out on those opportunities at network building. All those things they miss out on if they can't afford to do a free internship.


00:20:08 Leslie

But it's worth saying that, it's worth saying out loud, it's an equity issue. Internships have to be paid because X, Y, and Z, because it's resonating, because people are living it. This person probably, I'm going to guess, did her internship many years ago, and it was a hardship. Well, she knows that because she lived it.


00:20:24 Leslie

It's worth saying it. It's worth saying isn't that an equity issue? Like let's frame it in today's language. Wouldn't your life have been so much better if someone had paid you to do that work? You wouldn't have had to sacrifice this or that. You wouldn't have to choose what you were going to do or ... it's worth saying this stuff.


00:20:39 Salvatrice

And also, let's just also share that our time is invaluable. Like time is ... how do you put a price tag on time? Using that example of that story you shared is our students have very real responsibilities. And I'm just not talking about our community college students, students in general. Like they have very real responsibilities paying for their household, et cetera, taking care of their families.


00:21:09 Leslie



00:21:10 Salvatrice

Childcare. And yet-


00:21:11 Leslie

There's a lot of stuff. Life stuff.


00:21:12 Salvatrice

Life stuff. And yet we expect them to carve out time away from that, that they will not get back at no cost because it's taking directly away from their responsibility, directly taking away from their livelihood, directly taking away from the responsibilities that they have with their families and themselves. And so, like even just that example, Leslie, for us to be talking more about that.


00:21:41 Leslie

I would also add too, that the need for colleges to mix up their schedules a little bit so that we can let people have their day jobs. There's probably a lot of people that can't take all the classes that we offer at the times we offer them. We do have night classes, I'm not saying we don't. I'm just saying maybe we look at that too.


00:21:57 Leslie

There's a lot of things that people shouldn't have to make the choice between getting an education or having this invaluable workplace experience, and paying their rent, and X, Y, and Z. And living - how do they say on the social media? The adulting. Which I have mixed feelings about that term, but adulting is hard.


00:22:20 Leslie

You know what I mean? Like there's a lot of considerations, so I think it's worth having those conversations.


00:22:26 Salvatrice

But see, you just underscored what we just talked about. Like it's our duty, meaning our duty as practitioners in this space, you and I and others, that we declare that, that we share that out. That we have real talk about that. Because that's the non-transactional. Those are the non-transactional things that we need to be spending time on as a system, or that informs how funding is structured even.


00:22:55 Salvatrice

That is a real example. That's a real example where there's tangible solutions to, and yet I think as a system, we tiptoe around it. Like we don't really talk about it. Like why aren't we talking about it? Is it because we don't have the time? Is it because we're afraid? Is it because we don't know enough information? Is it because ... let's fill in the blank.


00:23:19 Salvatrice

But I think that's what you and I have been talking about. We need to do more of that because it informs the work of higher ed, and specifically, this institution and others. But I'm glad you brought that up because that's a real life example of what we're talking about here.


00:23:36 Leslie

As you were talking too, I was thinking about how other like outside agencies might handle some of these barriers. So, think of something like transportation. So, you have an outside agency and they're going to say, "Well, we're going to solve this barrier by giving out bus passes, or we're providing whatever,"


00:23:52 Leslie

And even here, we have basic needs initiatives here on campus. All the campuses do at this point. So, if you're having food insecurity, we have a pantry. If you have housing ... there's different things that colleges are doing to address those basic needs for students which is great, but outside agencies do it too.


00:24:08 Leslie

Like how can we leverage the resources we have to minimize the barriers? I certainly don't mean to suggest that outside agencies aren't minimizing barriers or trying to minimize barriers. I assume, and I've seen that in a lot of cases, they're leveraging their resources to provide a solution. Sometimes just providing that solution is not the same thing as solving the problem.


00:24:29 Leslie

But that social work across the board, providing relief is not the same as eradicating. And how do you eradicate these big social issues? That's not the purpose of this podcast. We'll leave that to other people to solve all those kind of problems. But I feel like there's definitely a need to create space to discuss the things we can-


00:24:50 Salvatrice

Well, it's our duty - it's our duty to raise that awareness


00:24:53 Leslie

When we're talking sometimes, and I feel like it's dramatic, but like it's a moral imperative. And it's like, is it though? But I mean, it kind of is. It kind of is for me. So, like it's important when you think about it. If what we do matters, then we should take an interest in it at that level.


00:25:07 Salvatrice

That's right. And it does, and it does matter to us. And I know just within our own network that it matters to others too. I think it just, to your point, just raising the awareness and allowing space for that dialogue to happen. And I think that we're in a really kind of unique position to do that in the upcoming year in a variety of different ways.


00:25:31 Salvatrice

And I'm just really looking forward to it because you and I have no problem talking about the uncomfortable conversations. Like having uncomfortable conversations is kind of our specialty, but it's always done in a very tasteful way. Like I just want to be very very mindful of that. But it's okay.


00:25:48 Salvatrice

I guess what I'm trying to say - at the end of the day, what I'm trying to say is that it's okay. It's okay to have these uncomfortable conversations because most of the time, I should say, not only does it raise awareness, but it also ignites ideation around solutions to the work, and around elements of the work that we had may not have considered.


00:26:10 Salvatrice

It informs our work. I mean, it's just important to have. And so, I look forward to it, Leslie. And I suspect that you're going to have like a ton of things to talk about.


00:26:21 Leslie

Well, I just wanted to make a point that sometimes the conversations are only uncomfortable because we don't think we should be having them because we're too busy focusing on delivering. And so, we don't think it's our place to have those conversations.


00:26:35 Salvatrice

I love that.


00:26:35 Leslie

And so, what I'm proposing is that it's only uncomfortable because you're not used to it. And it's absolutely appropriate to have those conversations in higher education. It's absolutely appropriate for us to lead those conversations for PCC to host things or to ... it's perfectly acceptable. It's only uncomfortable because we're not used to it.


00:26:55 Leslie

And as far as outside agencies, I can't speak to outside agencies what their threshold is for uncomfortable conversations. But I think that in terms of initiating the conversation, facilitating the conversation, I feel like it's not uncomfortable for us because it makes sense.


00:27:09 Leslie

But it might be uncomfortable for other people only because they don't think they're supposed to or because they're focused on hitting those metrics, securing that funding, sustaining those programs, which are so often like we heard today, understaffed, underfunded, overworked.


00:27:24 Leslie

Trying to do meaningful work, but having a hard time kind of treading water is what happens in so many different areas, so many different industries in so many different agencies. So, you hear it all the time. People are trying to do a lot with a little, and constantly trying to get more.


00:27:44 Salvatrice

I'll tell you what, that's a beautiful way to like sunset this conversation because like you have put a call to action for all of us. Those listening and you and I, is like let's have the uncomfortable conversations.


00:27:56 Leslie

Yeah, and what are they?


00:27:57 Salvatrice

And what are they?


00:27:58 Leslie

You tell us. Tell us what those uncomfortable conversations are. I mean, we have our opinions, but these are just our opinions, these are just our observations. We went to a meeting, we had some thoughts. We're sharing them with you. We've hardly exhausted any topics. We're just proposing that maybe there's a conversation we can have around some bigger issues.


00:28:15 Salvatrice

That's right. Well, I think that's a great way to not only sunset this conversation and reflect upon the year and three things: reflection, position us for greatness in 2024 to have these uncomfortable conversations so that it informs our work and our duty here in this space.


00:28:33 Salvatrice

And then lastly, what a great way. It's positive, informative, and there's certainly a call to action for us, not only just to the listener, but obviously for us, you and I because we're always working on the next, on the next, on the next, on the next. But I love the fact that you've asked our listener to tell us, tell us what's up. Tell us what the conversations we should be having. Beautiful. Well, thank you so much.


00:28:59 Leslie

Thank you. Thanks for letting me think through my thoughts from the day. It's always nice to reflect and providing space for that. Hopefully, folks listening don't wonder why we're working it out here.


00:29:10 Salvatrice

That's right.


00:29:11 Leslie

But there's still stuff to share.


00:29:13 Salvatrice

There certainly is. There certainly is. Well, until next time, my friend.


00:29:16 Leslie

Thank you so much.


00:29:20 Salvatrice

Thank you for listening to the Future of Work Podcast. Make sure you subscribed on your favorite listening platform so you can easily get new episodes every Tuesday.


00:29:29 Salvatrice

You can reach out to us by clicking on the website link below in the show notes to collaborate, partner, or just chat about all things future of work. We'd love to connect with you. All of us here at the future of work and Pasadena City College wish you saftey and wellness.