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Transcript - Episode 76: How To Tackle Workforce Inequity With Kome Ajise, Executive Director At Southern California Association of Governments Episode 76

Aug 16, 2022

How To Tackle Workforce Inequity With Kome Ajise, Executive Director At Southern California Association of Governments Episode 76


00:00:00 Kome

But the issue, I think, that compels maybe an even more in-depth conversation is to what extent is that equitable? Do we all have access to being able to work at home? And so, the digital divide, I think, is the bigger issue here in the conversation about the future of the workplace.


00:00:22 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.


00:00:35 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?


00:00:47 Salvatrice

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


00:00:55 Christina

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


00:00:59 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.


00:01:13 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.


00:01:33 Christina

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


00:01:41 Salvatrice

And I'm Salvatrice Cummo, and this is the Future of Work.


00:01:44 Salvatrice

Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Future of Work Podcast, I am your host Salvatrice Cummo. Today, we'll be talking about the Southern California Association of Governments and what they are doing to encourage a more sustainable Southern California. We will also talk about SCAG's partnership and how we as a community college can get involved.


00:02:05 Salvatrice

With that, we want to welcome Executive Director of the Southern California Association of Governments, Kome Ajise. Mr. Ajise brings over three decades of experience in regional planning and transportation. He has served in his Executive Director role since 2019, and we are lucky to have him here with us today. Kome, welcome.


00:02:26 Kome

Thank you, Salvatrice. Glad to be here. Thanks for having us.


00:02:29 Salvatrice

Thank you. Let's dive right on in if that's okay with you.


00:02:32 Kome



00:02:32 Salvatrice

Excellent. For our listeners, can you please share with us what led you in this path of work in regional planning and transportation, and why it's something that you continue to work in?


00:02:45 Kome

Well, thank you. Great question. You never know what you're going to end up doing in life as a career, but you have aspirations. I growing up always wanted to be an architect because I have this sense of just being enamored with spatial references and how the spaces around us are formed and conceived.


00:03:02 Kome

Didn't quite have enough chops to get into architectural schools, so I became a planner. I think it's the way the story would go. And I'd worked in planning for the last couple of decades, mostly on the transportation side, always wanted to be a city and regional planner because that's what I have a graduate degree in.


00:03:19 Kome

And the opportunity at SCAG came along in 2017 to be back to planning. And so, it was really welcomed, grace that I had to be able to come back to planning, especially in the largest metropolitan region in the entire country. So, it's been almost like a gift to be back where I really wanted to be as a professional.


00:03:40 Kome

And at the regional planning level, we are a little bit removed from local planning. At the same time, we have strong interaction with local planning to conceive of the vision for a region. So, that continues to sustain my drive and my passion for wanting to again, see about how our environment is formed and shaped and conceived of.


00:04:03 Salvatrice

That's great. Thank you so much for sharing that. And in this work, in this role since 2019, have there been opportunities where SCAG is partnering with employers or community colleges in workforce initiatives, programming, really anything of those matters?


00:04:19 Kome

Yeah, we don't directly engage in workforce training other than our employees, and we again, strive to be an employer of choice. And so, we focus on that for our employees. However, we are engaged in a program that's funded by the state. There's a 3.5 million inclusive economic recovery strategy program that we came up with coming out of the recession, and we're fortunate to get a grant from the state of California.


00:04:45 Kome

And so, we're using that to engage our economic partners and our local agencies. And indirectly, there will be some workforce training element in that strategy, in the spending of the 3.5 million over time.


00:05:00 Kome

Now, through our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, we also make sure that we are living up to the tenants of the policy that adapted on equity. And so, we try to bring in a diverse group of employees, and especially, interns with respect to colleges. We have a very inclusive internship program that affords students around our region to be able to spend time working with us.


00:05:28 Kome

We also participate in fellowships like the CivicSpark's Fellowship, where we bring in both current students and recent graduates back to spend a year or two with us, gaining that initial experience before they then find their way in the profession. Those two initiatives; the internship program and the fellowships have been very, very productive, both ways.


00:05:49 Kome

For us, tremendous amount of work was done, but we also feel like the participants have gained a lot, and all of them have gone on to gainful endeavors beyond SCAG. Many of them stay with us where we have openings. So, to answer your question, that's the extent to which I think we would see ourselves in workforce training.


00:06:09 Salvatrice

That's a lot. It may sound simple, just one or two things as the internships and the fellowship, but the mobility that SCAG is offering those participants in those two capacities is forever within their career journey. It's not wasted. You've created some significant impact for those individuals that are able to participate with SCAG within these two vehicles. So, thank you. Thank you for doing that.


00:06:33 Kome

Yeah, it's just a matter of when people go to seek employment, the employers are always looking for experience. And if they never get a chance to work, how would they get the experience? So, the internship and fellowship programs, I think they're rich for that. And when somebody's a fellow with us for two years, postgraduate, that's a strong experience to take anywhere.


00:06:54 Kome

And we just had three fellows leave us this last month. And two of them have gone onto really significant employment in planning. And I think one's probably pursuing further education, getting their graduate degree. We feel very blessed to have had them on because they did work for us that continues to be sustained to help us get what we need to get done, done.


00:07:15 Salvatrice

Thank you so much. Are you finding that maybe perhaps the fellows, are you finding that they're helping raise awareness around trends, around policy trends within planning, development? Or is that something separate one of your team members is doing on really seeking the trends around policy design as it relates to planning and development?


00:07:38 Kome

Oh, absolutely. They are assigned real work - real and current work. In fact, I think the three fellows that I just referenced, work on an emerging area of housing, accessory dwelling units, ADUs. These are relatively new in concept. This used to be the granny flats that you would have in the back of houses, and they have now been formalized as a matter of policy in the state.


00:08:02 Kome

And so, the question is how do they fit in the strategy for increasing housing supply in our region, and they did some really good work, groundbreaking work for us in identifying the barriers and constraints, and the opportunities for ADUs, accessory dwelling units in our region. So, they've left us with that gift. So, they spend a good amount of their time on it.


00:08:24 Kome

And that's really one of the ... employers should take note of that. That's one of the benefits of having these young, bright minds be given meaty tasks, focus on it, get you a well-done product and they leave you with work. That may be your full staff just wouldn't have time for because there's all the other stuff that's going on in the agency. So, that was a real benefit and a good example, and we had them present it to our board last week and it was well-received.


00:08:53 Salvatrice



00:08:54 Kome

And it was gratifying to see them accomplish what they did.


00:08:57 Salvatrice

And that's really speaking to Southern California's sustainability, and to have them really develop this product that you can then implement, expand, amplify, all those good things. To your point, you're right. Most organizations don't have the bandwidth to do everything else that is needed outside of the daily functions of that organization.


00:09:18 Salvatrice

And I wonder just kind of like along that same thread, is there room or space for community colleges to partner with SCAG, or if you're seeing other entities partnering with community colleges that can support the intentionality of making Southern California more sustainable?


00:09:39 Kome

Oh, absolutely. I'm a fan of interns coming into an organization. And I say that selfishly, because I started working as an intern with the Department of Transportation, Caltrans many, many years ago, and that led to a full-time job with Caltrans. And I spent most of my career working at Caltrans.


00:09:58 Kome

So, coming in as an intern, one, it's really helping the prospective employee at the time as an intern, understand what that agency is; if it's a good fit for them or otherwise, they get some experience to go somewhere else that's a good fit. So, at SCAG, we are available - not just we would be - we're available to work with colleges.


00:10:18 Kome

One of the things to note in our region is we're rich with higher education population. And there's just a really deep talent pool in our region. So, we always look to bring those talents to our organization, to the extent that they're interested in the mission of SCAG.


00:10:35 Salvatrice

Fantastic. And just to switch gears a little bit - related kind of unrelated, SCAG; what could we look forward to in the near future? Are there any new projects that you and your team are working on that you'd like to bring to light or share with us today?


00:10:50 Kome

There are a lot of things going on. We have a very dynamic region. Our region is the 16th largest economy in the world, if it were a country by itself. So, if you stop to think about 193 or so countries in the world, if you take their economies, we would fit right there in the top 20, just for the sixth county area. So, it's a very vibrant economic region, probably the most vibrant in the country.


00:11:12 Kome

So, we have this need to continue to maintain that vitality economically. But on top of that, under the adage of walking and chewing gum at the same time, while we are so focused on the vitality, we must also not forget what makes this region attractive to people. It's the environment. And so, preserving that environment, it's not an either-or, it's and, it's both.


00:11:35 Kome

So, our work is really vitally engaged in making those connections between assuring that we maintain our economic vitality, but also, maintain our environmental consciousness while at the same time, making sure it works for everybody. So, that equity overlay that we've been talking about over the last couple of years, more so, becomes very important.


00:11:55 Kome

So, to your question about what are the things we're working on, there are just a number of things. One is having come out of the racial reckoning that we had over the last couple of years and strongly making a statement by a board on equity, we're guided very, very much so on ensuring that there's an equity lens across the programs that we operate. And so, that's one major initiative where we're always focused on making sure that what we're doing affects everybody equally and also, bring capacities and opportunities to everybody equally.


00:12:27 Kome

So, on that note, one major initiative we just launched in February is the regional data platform. One of the assets we have at SCAG, at the Southern California Association of Governments (we always call ourselves SCAG) is the Regional Data Platform, the RDP. What that is, is we are a repository of a lot of data. So, it takes this data that is about each one of our member agencies, the cities, the 191 cities, and six counties that make up SCAG.


00:12:54 Kome

Each one of them have characteristics and data that we have, and being able to have that data available to each city at a very sophisticated two-level using geographic information systems, the GIS system, such that any one city can participate at the world-class level in terms of planning. So, I say that, and it doesn't sound like much, but when you stop to think about the fact that out of 191 cities, about, I'd say, almost 70% of them are a hundred thousand population or less.


00:13:24 Kome

So, they're not necessarily the big cities, that's 70% of them. So, majority of our cities have a population of a hundred thousand or less, and clearly, about 20% or so of them are even smaller than that, maybe 20,000 population.


00:13:34 Kome

So, these are not communities that have a lot of resources available to them to be able to play at the sophisticated level of regional planning and even local planning with the tools that the RDP brings to them. So, being able to launch the RDP was a very major initiative for us.


00:13:51 Kome

And so, it allows each one of our cities to have access, and that goes to equity when all cities have access to the same tools, to be able to do the same level of GIS work, to be able to have data-driven decision-making available to their policymakers because the RDP affords them that, but also, the RDP affords us to engage our communities.


00:14:14 Kome

So, it gives them the capacity to do civic engagement through this same tool where everybody's online now, but you need that capacity to be able to engage folks online. So, through the RDP, we have that. And then also, finally, have the planners in each one of these cities have access to capacities that are only available to maybe the richest of communities.


00:14:33 Kome

So, that's a major initiative that we just launched and it's getting recognized. In fact, we were given an award on Monday by Esri, the International User Conference, which was attended by 14,000 people. The award was Making a Difference Award and we were really proud to have been there to accept that with our board president, Jan Harnik from Palm Desert. That's one big initiative that I could put out to respond to your question.


00:14:59 Salvatrice

Thank you very much. Is there any dialogue or conversation within planning and development - and this may not be appropriate for SCAG or something that SCAG has a pulse on, but I feel like all the cities right now are preparing for the Olympics in 2028, everyone's getting like really excited about it. What role does SCAG play in that? Is there anything happening within the respect of preparations for that? Is that an appropriate question or ask?


00:15:25 Kome

It is. We stand ready to be part of a more in-depth discussion about how we plan for the Olympics. We've had some conversations with principals in it. Obviously, we're not going to be at the center of it, but I think we have capacities and a role to bring to the conversation, given that we cover the region.


00:15:42 Kome

And the Olympics is not going to be centered in one city. It's going to be across the region, if not different parts of the state for that matter in terms of events. And how do you get to and from those events, is a major mobility issue that I think is right in our wheelhouse.


00:15:57 Kome

We all notice to participate. I think there are some discussions going on that we have been part of, but we're not going to drive it at this point, is what I'm saying. So, yeah, we're relevant to the conversation and we continue to be available to be part of the conversation, but I think it's ramping up now. You'll probably see more of our role in it over time.


00:16:17 Salvatrice

Thank you for sharing that. I imagine that there's going to be some projects and momentum and activities coming out of SCAG in preparations for just given just the natural/the genetic makeup of SCAG and it's purpose and intention within our area.


00:16:31 Kome

Yeah. We're excited about just the notion of the Olympics coming in the first place.


00:16:35 Salvatrice

That's right. It is exciting.


00:16:36 Kome

We're going to bring our capacities to the table to make sure it's successful.


00:16:39 Salvatrice

That's right. That's right. This is the Future Work Podcast and if there is one thing you want our listener to understand about this topic and how it impacts their future, what might that be?


00:16:55 Kome

The one thing, that's where it makes the question really hard. Because it's not one thing.


00:17:00 Salvatrice

Well, you could sprinkle in some bonuses.


00:17:03 Kome

I think one of the things to note, and this is not going to be breaking news for anybody, is that more of us are working from home. Before COVID, we had anticipated that the population, the workforce that would work from home would be in sub 10%, essentially, and maybe might grow to about 12%.


00:17:25 Kome

We're noting that that's obviously changed. We were a hundred percent working from home for those who were office-bound before COVID. There's still a lot of employment that is in-person. Obviously, if you work in a hospital, if you work in the shipyards or factory, it's in-person. So, when you break the employment categories down, I think there is about 45% or so positions that have the potential to work from home.


00:17:50 Kome

So, when you then break that down, I think we had assumed that there will be a hundred percent of those people would work from home, but more and more - I'm in the office and we're getting back in the office. I think that number is probably in the sub 20%.


00:18:04 Kome

So, we'll see that. But the issue, I think, that compels maybe an even more in-depth conversation is to what extent is that equitable? Do we all have access to being able to work at home? And so, the digital divide, I think, is the bigger issue here in the conversation about the future of the workplace.


00:18:23 Kome

We have a saying here at SCAG, and I picked this up from my team who had been working on this concept of work at SCAG, where we're operating a hybrid work environment. Now, it was a very thoughtful process by our staff to do that. And we say work is not where we go, but what we do. And when you start to think of work in terms of what you do, not where you go, then the concept of the future of work begins to be so wide open because then work can be done from anywhere.


00:18:53 Kome

And the question is what facilitates that and obviously, access to high-speed internet is key to that. And then question, is how many people do have access to high-speed internet? So, we begin to think about how do we close that digital divide so that more people have the opportunity to make the choice of where they want to work.


00:19:11 Kome

And so, it then implicates this whole conversation that we've been having about the great resignation that we're seeing. I think over time, it's evolving from where it's more of a contemplation where people are now rethinking what exactly they want to do.


00:19:27 Kome

And that features into what employers offer what they want to do. And so, there's that mobility in the economy as a result that's creating a lot of shift to where people that really want to work from home for various many reasons are looking for those opportunities and not being static.


00:19:43 Kome

So, in terms of the future of work, I think the digital divide is a key player in there. And obviously, mobility is important because that's one of our key areas of interest. How we move becomes very important as well. Many of our young folks are not necessarily bound by the automobile. We live in a region where we are noted for our highways, but by all means, we know the future of work requires us to be a little bit more diversified in how we move.


00:20:13 Kome

So, the notion of mobility as a service, being able to not necessarily own a car, but if you need a car, you have access to it. But having a choice to be able to take transit or scooter, or one of the small micro-mobility options available to you, that choice also begins to affect the concept of work into the future.


00:20:32 Kome

So, when you look at our regional planning, we're focused on exactly that; creating choice for folks in terms of how they move. You could have a car, but you don't have to drive your car all the time, especially if you have a choice to take the train. The Metrolink system is one of the gems of our region. It's a commuter rail system.


00:20:52 Kome

Before COVID, it was doing really well. Because of COVID, mostly commuters, the ridership dropped, but what's really key to what Metrolink offers is, most people that took Metrolink actually have cars, but it was the choice that was afforded them allowed them to take it to work.


00:21:10 Kome

And so, Metrolink is beginning to adjust to making that same choice available to non-com commuters such that we have that choice across the hours of the day as opposed to just in the morning commute and the evening commute.


00:21:22 Kome

So, those are the things that are implicit to the future of work is what kind of mobility of choices we have, and what kind of access do we have to work in terms of high-speed internet.


00:21:34 Salvatrice

Mobility and access. I mean, that in itself is one hour-long topic. It's complex to say the least, not unreasonable, and not unachievable. It is achievable. It just takes system alignment.


00:21:49 Kome

It takes intentionality. It takes really good study and bringing good data and good information to bear on decision making such that we make the right choices.


00:22:00 Salvatrice

Thank you very, very much. This has been just a lovely conversation. I know that you're incredibly busy. I follow the work of SCAG, so I know exactly what's going on, but thank you so-so much for offering your time and your talent and your domain expertise with us. And if there's a way that our listener would like to connect, what is the best way to connect with you?


00:22:22 Kome

I think the best place is to go to our website; There's a wealth of information on there. And of course, you'll find my contact on there as well. I can be reached easily through the website.


00:22:34 Salvatrice

Fantastic. We'll be sure to put that in the show notes. Thank you very much, Kome, and you have a wonderful day.


00:22:40 Kome

Absolutely. Thank you, Salvatrice. You have a wonderful day too.


00:22:43 Salvatrice

Thank you.


00:22:43 Salvatrice

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


00:22:54 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 safety and wellness.