If you want to engage the high-tech industry to help improve job readiness for the nation’s 36 million low-skilled adults, a good place to start is Silicon Valley.
That is just what the Wadhwani Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education did. In January, Wadhwani staff, led by Chief Executive Officer Ajay Kela, were joined by ED’s Brenda Dann-Messier, assistant secretary for career, technical, and adult education; Johan Uvin, deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives; and Cheryl Keenan, director of the Adult Education and Literacy Division, for a listening-and-working session at Cañada College, in Redwood City, Calif.
This engagement event, “Time for the U.S. to Reskill,” brought more than 50 San Francisco Bay Area adult-education stakeholders together, with representation from local workforce, community, and advocacy organizations. The welcome by Wadhwani’s Kela, ED’s Dann-Messier, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Regional Administrator Robert Garcia described the magnitude of the low-skilled-adults challenge. The speakers emphasized how a worker’s low skill level directly affects life beyond employment, starting with a person’s health.
The format was “to put people in a room who may not typically come into a room together and convene unlikely stakeholders,” said Gayatri Agnew, Wadhwani’s program director for Race to a Job – USA.
The immediate goal, Dann-Messier said, “is a national plan to improve the foundation skills of the 36 million low-skilled adults in this country.” She explained her imperative to travel to California and to be in the room. “I need to hear what the folks are saying regionally, what the challenges are, what the solutions are, and it’s very important for me to hear all of that first-hand, and not have it filtered.”
Agnew moderated a panel comprised of adult-education stakeholders, followed by general discussion. The participants then dispersed to a half-dozen small rooms for a working lunch and creating the start of solutions. Later, during a break, participants talked about their reasons for attending the session and assessed how things were going.
“We’re trying to serve an issue here of equality, access issues, in both the field of Latinos moving up in the corporate world and in social equity,” said Luis Chavez, chairman of the board, Latino Institute on Corporate Inclusion, and a senior director for the Career Ladders Project.
Silicon Valley employers gave their perspectives as well. Kris Stadelman, director of the Nova Workforce Investment Board, said, “In education – I hear this from employers – your product is supposed to be a trained, ready, educated, prepared workforce.” In this light, she said, the day’s program was on the right track. “It was really good to start out with evidence, with the data, to really quantify what it is we’re talking about. I think the questions were all the right ones.”
This engagement session was one of five ED nationwide sessions, with others held in Philadelphia, Chicago, rural Cleveland, Miss., and the greater Boston, Mass. area. While each session is unique, Dann-Messier sees the Silicon Valley session as different from the rest. “If you’ve got 36 million folks – and federally we’re only serving two million – traditional means aren’t going to work,” she said. “We have to really make sure that we utilize technology-enabled solutions.”
Joe Barison is the director of communications and outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.