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Transcript- Episode 89: REVISITING: Why We Must Build Systems That Stop Forcing Students To Choose Between Learning & Living With Joel Vargas Episode 89

Mar 14, 2023

00:00:00 Joel

There're major economic drivers in any region. How are those being connected with investments in local entrepreneurship, ensuring that there're vehicles to increase access to capital through vehicles like community development and financial institutions?

00:00:13 Joel

It's not just about supply and demand in the labor market, it's also about the communities in which employers and employees reside. Inclusive plans, invest in local community assets - the benefits of investments in those areas encourages neighborhood vibrancy and local economic growth.

00:00:34 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.

00:00:47 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?

00:00:58 Salvatrice

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

00:01:07 Christina

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

00:01:11 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.

00:01:25 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.

00:01:45 Christina

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

00:01:52 Salvatrice

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

00:01:57 Christina

Too many people are forced to decide between surviving and getting an education, especially among the underrepresented student, first-generation student, and minority student populations. The barriers to education are insurmountable.

00:02:11 Christina

So, how do we start building systems and solutions that ensure access to economic advancements for all? We decided to re-feature this episode with guest, Joel Vargas, because these questions are still being answered, and are important ones to continue to ponder and search for solutions. It also happens to be one of our listener favorites. So, if you missed it, here is your opportunity to be a part of the conversation. Enjoy.

00:02:41 Salvatrice

Welcome back to the Future of Work. I am your host, Salvatrice Cummo, and with me today, I have Mr. Joel Vargas, Vice President of Programs at Jobs for the Future. Welcome, Joel.

00:02:52 Joel

Thanks, Salvatrice, it's a pleasure to be here.

00:02:54 Salvatrice

Thank you. It's wonderful to have you. I know we've had a chance to kind of chit-chat a little bit before the podcast, but for our listener who is not aware of who you are and what does Vice President of Programs mean at Jobs for the Future, we'd love to learn more about your background and your role. What would you like to share with us as it relates to your background and how you got here with Jobs for the Future?

00:03:19 Joel

JFF's work is as a national nonprofit organization. My office is out here in Oakland, California, where we opened an office in 2014. All of our work nationally is about designing and scaling up solutions that can transform our education and workforce systems, so that more people get the skills and credentials they need to advance economically, and that employers get the talent that they need to help grow our economy.

00:03:45 Joel

So, that's our mission. I am one of three program vice presidents at the organization. I'm a leader on programmatic strategy, on innovation, on fundraising, because we're nonprofits, so we're never done fundraising on the development and the coaching of our division leaders.

00:04:01 Joel

I make sure generally speaking, that our work is really on point with our mission and strategy, and that projects are positioned to leverage each other optimally and strategically.

00:04:12 Joel

Also, one of my duties is to oversee much of our published content. And if you go to our website ( you'll see we do a lot of published content because we try to influence the field to adopt and adapt best practices. One of my jobs is to ensure our published content is of high-quality and is in a position to influence.

00:04:33 Joel

I started at the organization 19 years ago and a common thread in my work throughout that time, even though my duties have diversified and grown, has been about advancing strategies that can change the structure of high schools, so that they're more integrated with college and career, that they're really structured in that way to improve outcomes for youth who've been really historically underserved by our education and workforce systems.

00:04:59 Joel

So, that's been a common thread in my work, and it's included initiatives like Early College High School, which you may have heard of, or policies and practices like dual enrollment.

00:05:09 Salvatrice

In reference to your work on the importance of helping underrepresented students, why has that been kind of a focus of your work for helping our underrepresented students successfully move through post-secondary education?

00:05:23 Joel

It's been a personal thing and obviously, a professional passion and mission of mine as well to kind of bound up with each other. I was a first-generation college goer, grew up in San Francisco. Grew up in the city. Yeah, we go, we should go. We go, yeah.

00:05:39 Salvatrice

We just keep showing up.

00:05:41 Joel

Let's just keep going. That's right. And we want too give back too. I mean, I see you doing that in your role. I worked hard as a kid and I really was successful by virtue in hindsight of really being in the right places at the right times to get access to learning opportunities and relationships that got me in a position, even through some tough times to persist in my education.

00:06:03 Joel

So, in hindsight there are just way too many systemic stumbling blocks that I had to overcome to make it where so many of my equally, if not even more talented peers, did not because those stumbling blocks are there for us who haven't had to navigate on our own before because our parents didn't do it.

00:06:26 Joel

That's why I started my career in small college prep programs, like the one I grew up in that changed my life, it was called at the time, Summerbridge, San Francisco. It's now called Breakthrough with replication sites around the country. And I helped to start up a couple of those in my career as well.

00:06:43 Joel

But I wanted to try to help up-and-comers get the help that I got to navigate the obstacles and the stumbling blocks. But that work of doing a hundred students at a time in any given year, while it was gratifying and definitely important, it wasn't fast enough, it wasn't systemic enough.

00:07:01 Joel

I saw too many students, including those with whom we worked, who graduated from our programs, pushing a rock up a hill of the systems that like were working downhill against them to send the rock back down on them. Sorry for the horrible metaphor, but that's what it could feel like.

00:07:17 Salvatrice

I get you, yeah.

00:07:18 Joel

So, I wanted to think about more systemic solutions. So, I went to grad school, studied policy, organizational change, strategies, that could address some of these barriers more systemically and at scale. And then fortunately, when I was done, near being done, I landed at JFF, which at the time was advancing a variety (and still does) of changed strategies focused on systems change in our education and workforce development systems.

00:07:45 Joel

And the initiative that I got into at the time was we were on the ground floor of helping partners in the field to develop early college high schools, which enabled students from low-income backgrounds to earn an associate's degree by the time they finish high school.

00:08:00 Joel

And research has shown over time, it's a powerful way to increase college completion simply by virtue of what these schools did, which was to remove the boundaries between high school and college for first-generation students.

00:08:13 Joel

So, anyway, long answer to your question, it's been gratifying for me. And as I said, I still carry on kind of that kind of work as well as other related work at JFF.

00:08:23 Salvatrice

You hit on something that you and I work through every single day, which is our systems. We have our educational systems, then we have our workforce development systems, and sometimes, they're very hard to get in sync, almost painfully hard.

00:08:38 Salvatrice

In your work, you've had some really great successes in your programming, and would you be able to share really kind of like what does effective solution design look like for you? How do you approach effective solution design in developing programs?

00:08:53 Joel

Well, we've learned a lot over the years as you would expect us to, as we should, so that we're able to do it better every time we go out in the course of our almost 40 years of existence.

00:09:03 Joel

First of all, good solutions take time to get visible as things that the system should be doing as a norm. So, any innovation really does. And given my 19-year tenure at JFF and this innovation of early college schools and incorporating college and career into high school as an intervention, it has gotten a lot of momentum, but it is far from the norm of what we see in our systems still.

00:09:30 Joel

So, you have to be patient, got to stick to it. Doesn't mean you have to stay at the same organization the whole time, but it does take a number of years and it takes allies to do that well, in fact.

00:09:43 Joel

So, but in terms of design, what we emphasize is making sure that whatever you're doing, first of all, aligns to the needs of the labor market locally, taking advantage of increasingly sophisticated in realtime labor market information systems. But so many people kind of build programs that are based on just on relationships or what they know, and it really ought to be more systematic than that.

00:10:06 Joel

And then providing students with clearer connections to careers by integrating, learning, and work - those two things should go hand in hand. And try to develop solutions where you are reducing and accelerating time and helping students accelerate their path to a post-secondary credential, offering the credit for the knowledge and skills they acquire, not just the time they spend in class in a seat, help them build relational skills so that they know how to learn.

00:10:35 Joel

So, learning how to learn is really important because we don't know what jobs are going to look like 20 years from now, much less, 10 or 5. So, that is an important human skill to cultivate. That's unique that we can somewhat argue AI has it. I don't believe yet, not like humans can do.

00:10:51 Joel

So, we do have to foster that in students, especially in the face of increased automation and AI. They have to be able to do work computers cannot.

00:10:59 Joel

I would just add a couple of other things; opportunities within those designs to build social capital and extend their social capital to folks that they normally wouldn't have connections to: new people, new employers, resources.

00:11:12 Joel

And then making sure that their wraparound supports by making sure you leverage community partnerships, making sure that there's financial access to whatever opportunity young people have to make sure it's within reach and that they can get the support they need to succeed.

00:11:28 Salvatrice

And all of that has really kind of been turned upside down with the pandemic. We know that, right? We know that everything got turned upside down. And I wonder if those topics still exist - wraparound support, network, community of learning, et cetera.

00:11:42 Salvatrice

And I'm curious if your understanding of the learning system has changed because of the pandemic, and what have you uncovered during this time in working with academia and working with industry and through your role.

00:11:56 Joel

I would say maybe it's opened our eyes to new ways of doing some things, some of which might be better. We shouldn't be shy in the after-pandemic times to make bigger shifts in how we conceive of teaching and learning where it can happen.

00:12:12 Joel

I think we were quite limited in the before times of thinking about (with some exception) where you get "education." Go to a building for defined amount of seat time, receive knowledge, move through systems that kind of have these false divides between learning and working or technical knowledge - and yeah, barriers, real barriers for credit, not-for-credit, even between high school and college level learning.

00:12:37 Joel

There were so many students who stopped out. I hope we can get them back because they had to make a choice between learning and living. They didn't feel like they could afford the investment and time in learning. And we need to change that. The systems need to be designed so that they don't feel like they have to make that dire choice.

00:12:59 Joel

And I think what that looks like is we got to speed it up for them with support, with proper support. Don't slow it down. There's no time for that. We need learn and earn strategies, like apprenticeship, people are earning while learning and they don't have to stop one to do the other, necessarily: competency-based education, progression strategies, credit for prior learning.

00:13:19 Joel

Again, getting away from just you need to be in a seat for a certain number of hours to get the credit. Won't be surprised to hear me say this - early college experiences for high school students. There are innovations and like work-based courses, partnerships between employers and colleges.

00:13:36 Joel

So, again, that learn and earn theme. This is a little more radical, but I do think we do need to expand the ecosystem or systems, or institutions where people can do their learning and get their learning validated.

00:13:50 Salvatrice

How might that look like?

00:13:51 Joel

There's just one example of this. There are now with Southern New Hampshire University and it's called LRNG. And it is a platform and more than just a platform, but a set of partnerships that are usually based in a community where partners can use their platform to develop credit-based learning experiences and might be community service projects, some kind of design experience.

00:14:18 Joel

I only have enough knowledge to be dangerous as they say. My understanding is then they figure out a way to credit that knowledge and that learning. It's pretty new, it's experimental, but they're trying something that I think really does embody the spirit of, we need to encourage learning in places where it can authentically happen best. And that is not always in the traditional classroom. So, we need to figure out ways to do that.

00:14:46 Joel

I also think we need to really rethink the gatekeepers that slow down unnecessarily students and limit their access to credit and opportunities. Like developmental education sequences, they were really long and we know that many students ended up being placed in them due to placement tests and they could have done well had they not been placed in those and just placed in credit-bearing courses.

00:15:08 Joel

So, it's an example just trying to make sure the inclination and bias is speeding things up with support, like through co-requisite courses. We need to continue down that road now more than ever in recovering from the pandemic here and trying to get young people and older people caught up.

00:15:26 Salvatrice

So, speaking of recovery, last November, from what I understand, Jobs for the Future issued out a set of policy recommendations for the Biden administration on equitable economic recovery. And one of the main recommendations was to revitalize regional economies in inclusive manner to produce sustainable growth for everyone.

00:15:51 Salvatrice

I want to talk about what that really means and how that really reflects on the San Gabriel Valley region. Specifically where I am in or we are in. It's a region of about 2 million with every industry you could possibly think of. Retail, restaurants, hospitality, manufacturing, et cetera - and pockets of innovation like JPL, Caltech, and large populations of Asian and Latinos in the demographics.

00:16:18 Salvatrice

I know that's a lot, but having said all that, what steps should we be considering to collectively create an economic development leadership in the region and drive really this equitable economic recovery for all?

00:16:33 Joel

Yeah, I really appreciate this question. And increasingly we're supporting communities and regions, especially in California, to grapple with these issues. I would say with the caveat that we're not helping in San Gabriel Valley, but I would also say we don't have all the answers here, but there would be a set of questions we would be asking of you, and other leaders and helping you to answer on this kind of journey.

00:16:57 Joel

And you said sorry, real complicated, long question. That's the way of the world. I mean, it's really tough, and these are the issues that we have to contend with. So, first, I would just say in our approach, inclusive outcomes cannot be achieved without an inclusive process in our view.

00:17:15 Joel

So, I would imagine in addition to the talented and resourceful employers, government officials, local government leaders, colleges and universities, who you'd typically would think are contributing to a regional economic recovery agenda anywhere, but I know you have a lot of those in the San Gabriel Valley.

00:17:33 Joel

At the table. Are there also various regional economic coalitions and partnerships? Are there the voices of the underrepresented there, like small businesses in some of the more distressed communities? Are there community-based organizations, and as a community leadership representation that engages in the larger discussions around plans and contributes to those?

00:17:57 Joel

Are you partnering with neighborhood advocates? You know, even giving them resources to come to the table - driving that has involved historically excluded groups in the design, the decision-making, and implementation of these strategies?

00:18:13 Joel

Because too often those economic development approaches have left communities behind, or even displaced, right? By gentrification, right? They've left them distrustful of these kind of efforts. So, you need to build that trust back up. So, that'd be one question and then just two more.

00:18:30 Joel

Well, this is a statement, not a question. We think that economic development really has to go hand in hand with community development and focus on the place-based conditions that impact economic mobility. It's not just about supply and demand in the labor market, creating jobs - it is about that, but it's also about communities and the communities in which employers and employees reside.

00:18:52 Joel

Inclusive plans, invest in local community assets like infrastructure, environment, housing, transportation, education - the benefits of investments in those areas accrue to job creators, the job seekers, and the multi-generational households that are part of the fabric of the community.

00:19:11 Joel

And it encourages neighborhood vibrancy and local economic growth. So, it's important, again, like in this vein to have public agencies and organizations that touch those place-based issues at the table when doing economic development plans like HUD, like health and human services, city planning departments, et cetera.

00:19:30 Joel

Just the final thing I'll say because I think this gives you a flavor of our approach here - there're major economic drivers in any region, definitely in this region. Things like Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Lab, how are those being connected with investments in local entrepreneurship?

00:19:46 Joel

You know, ensuring that their vehicles to increase access to capital through vehicles like community development and financial institutions, connecting angel investors and business incubators, I think asked around - I think I know, but some an organization called Pasadena Angels and Venture Launch, they focus on inclusive entrepreneurship. That's the idea.

00:20:08 Joel

Making more resources available to more people and accessible for all kinds of businesses and entrepreneurs, enlisting organizations like the Hispanic Chamber to target resources to groups that need access to this kind of capital. That's the kind of approach, as I say, the questions we would be asking you and helping you to answer in developing the plan and executing.

00:20:31 Salvatrice

Through your discovery, is there anyone kind of doing this work that you're speaking of, of the connectivity that really excites you that you think, "Hey Salvatrice, like you really ought to pay attention to this organization or this person who's doing this work and perhaps influences your work as well?"

00:20:47 Joel

Well, first of all, I mean JFF does this kind of work. So, shameless self-promotion moment. If you think we can be helpful, we always ...

00:20:55 Joel

But one of the things we say to folks when we come and work with them is our job is not to stay there forever. It's to be a catalyst and actually to help the community leaders develop their own sustained partnerships to carry on this kind of work. Because at the end of the day, that's what needs to happen in order to ... these kinds of changes just take a long time.

00:21:19 Joel

And so, you can't count on any single convener per se, especially someone who's saying, "We don't live there. I mean, we're in Oakland, but that's a ways away." And I think any good intermediary organization like ours or who convenes, facilitates, their role ought to be as a catalyst and in capacity building.

00:21:41 Joel

So, like building your capacity, your organization, you as a leader of that organization, your partner organizations and their leaders to do this kind of cross-sector work, and you don't necessarily need one organization to make that happen. The answer is yourselves. Sometimes we understand it helps to have a helper. What a good thing.

00:22:05 Salvatrice

To facilitate dialogue and sometimes, connecting the dots because we're so close to it that more likely than not, it is wonderful to have a facilitator really kind of look at it through their lens to connect the dots around what you just shared about community development, talent development, angel investors, the programming that's happening around the entrepreneurship, this ecosystem that we're in here in Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley area.

00:22:30 Salvatrice

So, I find tremendous value in it and I'm thankful that you're sharing that, because it's one thing to really say yes. You know, the folks here on the ground need to really kind of connect and do it together and map it out. But it's another thing where you have someone kind of navigating the dialogue and that's incredibly helpful.

00:22:48 Joel

Yes, we agree. So, it has to be both. And just to mention something else that might be of interest to you and others who are listening, is we sponsor something called the California Future Ready Network, and it is cross-sector network of leaders who are focused on these very set of issues and they come from education, workforce, business, community-based organizations, increasingly economic development leaders from the state of California and from localities, a little bit of HUD here and there.

00:23:21 Joel

The thought is that you all can learn from each other even if you are in different regions. In some ways what unifies your work is focus on economic advancement, economic mobility, inclusion, and growth. Really feeling like you can do all those things at the same time and developing those cross-sector leadership skills in sharing experiences. So, we convene that group, I'd encourage folks to check that out.

00:23:48 Salvatrice

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. We do have work to do. Just in your findings, in your conversations, in your network, what do you think the world really of post-secondary education might look like for us?

00:24:03 Joel

I think we shouldn't let go of some of the things that worked out well during the pandemic. For our Future Ready Network, we did a little podcast series of our own, Salvatrice, and interviewed as part of that, some community college students from the California Community college system and I think all of them sort of said it wasn't perfect, but there were lots of things that I surprisingly liked about the online learning modality.

00:24:28 Joel

It allowed them to rewind and make sure they really understood concepts, which they can do when it's asynchronous. They even said like, "I don't necessarily want to go back to being on campus all the time. I don't want to be online all the time either."

00:24:48 Joel

And we know that from the research, there can be drawbacks of that, especially for populations who need more support in the human touch. But I'm surprised I'm even saying this, it's just there are - you heard it from students themselves, as I said, it's just not losing the opportunity to incorporate the positive lessons and some of the jerry-rigged systems that grew out of the crisis.

00:25:09 Salvatrice

As we close here, thank you so much. This has been such a great healthy conversation around your role, around your findings and your discoveries. What is next for Joel? What's Joel working on as far as programming that our listener might be interested in?

00:25:25 Joel

Thank you for asking the question. There's several things that I'm excited about. I'll just pick two just kind of randomly, but one, because viscerally I'm here in the state of California, so ... and I miss my teammates who are usually in the same office with me down in downtown Oakland.

00:25:43 Joel

And we support work around inclusive regional economic development. As I described earlier, given the invitation by you to do some thought experimentation in San Gabriel Valley and about its economic recovery efforts. So, that work, it's pretty new for us. Really, really important. And the organization as a whole, it's a new direction for us, and one we're really excited about.

00:26:08 Joel

For various reasons, the culture of California, the leadership right now in California, the assets in California is just a great place to try it out. We hope that it is something that has applicability to other regions throughout the country.

00:26:22 Joel

So, this old dog learning some new tricks, but fortunately, I have a, team that really understands this stuff and is out there really trying to support communities and learning from it and capturing that and applying in other places.

00:26:35 Joel

The other thing, it hearkens back to this thread of work that I've done on early college experiences and early career experiences, is we're doing some research right now which has entailed over 60 interviews with folks around the country about shifts we're seeing in what the end of high school looks like, and its relationship to careers and to college. Like really at some scale.

00:26:59 Joel

Yeah, it's really interesting to see and I think it's born out of a sense of sort of disappointment with too many students who kind of leave even really high-performing high schools and kind of stumble either being admitted to a college but never actually getting going, or starting and not doing well, and then taking on some loan debt and not really having clear career goals to drive their college experience, or enough of a career connection to really understand what they might want to do in their future and how to create plans that lead them on that path.

00:27:38 Joel

So, how do we design a system that automatically helps young people to navigate as a part of high school through their next steps by structuring it, and structuring our education systems differently than they are now, getting them out of the silos, creating new kinds of institutions potentially that would re-envision the way we put grade levels together and structure young people's learning so that they have more of a natural connection to college and career.

00:28:10 Salvatrice

Yeah, and I'd love to have you back and talk about your findings.

00:28:14 Joel

I would love to come back.

00:28:15 Salvatrice

That's very intriguing work, especially for me too. And I know our listener out there who is in the world of academia, who's in industry, who is a student, this is how we really kind of create workforce systems at work, is when we get to do a deeper dive and also, just really uncovering possibilities, re-imagining pathways, re-imagining systems as a whole, and doing some design thinking around that is super intriguing to me, and I know that our listener is intrigued by it too.

00:28:44 Salvatrice

But thank you so much, Joel. This has been wonderful. I will take you up on that invitation to have you back on the show because I'm definitely interested in hearing more about the findings and your continued work in this space, I think is amazing. It's been wonderful.

00:29:00 Salvatrice

If our listener would like to get in touch with you, how can they do so?

00:29:05 Joel

Yes, please. First of all, thank you so much, Salvatrice. I really enjoyed our conversation and best of luck on your podcast here. Sounds really great. Like you have a great slate of folks to talk to, so it's a privilege to be among them. Thanks for the invitation.

00:29:19 Joel

And if folks want to be in touch with me, please feel free to share my email address and can share it in the after show materials as well. But it's, and then our website is where you can also find me and learn more about our work.

00:29:44 Salvatrice

Fantastic. We'll be sure to have those in the show notes. Thank you so much, Joel. Have a great day. I know you're off doing wonderful things and we will catch you soon.

00:29:52 Joel

Thanks. You have a good day too, Salvatrice, thanks again.

00:29:56 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.

00:30:05 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.