Mar 14, 2023
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
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.
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.
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?
Hi, I'm Salvatrice Cummo, Vice President of Economic
and Workforce Development at Pasadena City College and host of this
And I'm Christina Barsi, producer and co-host of this
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
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
We believe change happens when we work together, and
it all starts with having a conversation. I'm Christina Barsi.
And I'm Salvatrice Cummo, and this is the Future of
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.
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.
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.
Thanks, Salvatrice, it's a pleasure to be here.
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?
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.
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.
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
Also, one of my duties is to oversee much of our
published content. And if you go to our website (www.jff.org)
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
We just keep showing up.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
I get you, yeah.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How might that look like?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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?"
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Yeah, and I'd love to have you back and talk about
I would love to come back.
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.
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.
If our listener would like to get in touch with you,
how can they do so?
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, and then our website
is www.jff.org where you can also find me and learn more about our
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.
Thanks. You have a good day too, Salvatrice, thanks
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.
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.