Scaling Innovative Workforce Training: J.D. LaRock of Commonwealth Corporation Shares How Education and Economic Development Go Hand in Hand
As thousands continue to enter the workforce each day, many wonder how their skills and knowledge will stack up against the competition. At the same time, employers need to find workers that are ready and prepared to do the job that needs to be done.
According to J.D. LaRock, President and CEO of Commonwealth Corporation, when employers utilize Workforce Training Fund grants to develop meaningful relationships with their workers, every party involved wins. Commonwealth Corporation is mostly known for their work with workforce development, but LaRock considers the public private corporation to be at an “intersection” between workforce, education, and economic development.
J.D. believes that just because Massachusetts is currently the leader in the education sector, the state cannot take its leadership for granted.
“Whether it’s the Governor’s commission, other innovative projects here at Commonwealth Corporation, or just the day-to-day activities of the workforce training fund, we hope to utilize all of these things to extend and maintain Massachusetts leadership in the domains where we’re first,” he says.
One of the main initiatives of the Commonwealth Corporation, says J.D., is to dramatically increase educational and training opportunities for Massachusetts residents; especially for those that need to continue to learn while they work.
“What we’re doing is shining a spotlight on innovative practices that we think hold promise to be scaled further,” he says. “Things like online competency-based education, experiential-learning, credit for prior learning, soft-skills and essential skills curricula.”
Listen in to our interview with J.D. LaRock to learn more about the programs, funds, and initiatives Commonwealth Corporation is taking on to combat the skills gap.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech Times, and today we’re speaking with J.D. LaRock of the Commonwealth Corporation. J.D. is a featured speaker at the EdTech Times Work+Edu event, and I would love if you could introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your organization, J.D.
J.D. LaRock: Hi Hester, thanks for giving me this opportunity to talk together. So, Commonwealth Corporation is a public private corporation in the state of Massachusetts. We are known mostly for our work in workforce development, but we really work at the intersection of workforce and education and economic development. So we do a lot of work with businesses and companies in the state. We also support workers in the state directly. And we also work with thousands and thousands of young people in the state to help them get job training skills.
Hester Tinti-Kane: We did have the pleasure of interviewing you at the learn launch conference back in February. And we have an extended interview there for people who want to learn more about Commonwealth Corporation.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So first of all, it would be great to hear a little bit about the history of the Commonwealth Corporation. How did this organization come about and why was it established?
J.D. LaRock: Well, we were originally established in 1981 as the Bay State Skills Corporation. And that gives a good sense of our mission because fundamentally Commonwealth Corporation works to narrow the skills gap. What makes us unique as an organization is that we work with governments on behalf of government. But we also have all the powers under the law of a private corporation, so we can do interesting innovative and entrepreneurial things.
J.D. LaRock: We also are launching a new digital platform for workforce training that we hope to unveil sometime in 2019. Our organization really takes advantage of the way we’re set up as a company to be able to do things that serve the public and serve the state, but also do things that would allow us to function more like a private entity too.
Hester Tinti-Kane: We are looking forward to your keynote, the lunch keynote at Work+Edu, so maybe you could tell us a little bit about what you’re going to be talking about there.
J.D. LaRock: So Governor Baker has given Commonwealth Corporation the opportunity to lead his new Commission on Digital Innovation and Lifelong Learning, and that’s what I’m going to be talking about at the event. It launched in the spring. And we have a really distinguished group of 20 people from academia, college presidents, representatives from companies like General Electric and MassMutual and Partners HealthCare. And really we’re asking tough questions at the intersection of the future of higher education and future of work dialogues.
J.D. LaRock: And what we’d like to do is find ways to dramatically increase educational and training opportunities for many, many more Massachusetts residents, particularly those who need to learn while working. So, what we’re doing is shining a spotlight on innovative practices that we think hold promise to be scaled further. Things like online competency based education, experiential learning, credit for prior learning, soft skills, and essential skills curricula, and coaching and support models that we think, when put together, have the opportunity to come together in a way that is unique, effective, and something like a new and innovative 21st century college experience. Our goal as a commission is to come up with an action plan that has concrete steps for what Massachusetts should do. And I’m going to be giving an early view into some of the commission’s work at the work+EDU conference.
Hester Tinti-Kane: It’s really interesting as you were talking about launching your own digital platform for education — this digital innovation and lifelong learning. It seems like there’s a nice dovetailing of those two initiatives.
J.D. LaRock: Yes, absolutely. So again, you know Commonwealth Corporation is nicely situated to be able to lead this work because we we work in an innovative ways around here, across all of the things that we do. Whether it’s our sector strategies program, which is putting together the online training platform. Or our Youth Pathways Program, which is the place that houses our signal success curriculum. Or the organization as a whole, which is now trying to chart these new paths for governor Baker and Massachusetts education.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, let’s dive into some of the funds that you have. So you have the workforce training fund. Can you tell us a little bit about the goal of the fund and also who’s leveraging the fund right now? And then how are they leveraging it?
J.D. LaRock: The Workforce Training Fund is a 20 million dollar trust fund. And every year Commonwealth Corporation awards $20 million plus in grants to businesses large and small throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to enable businesses to upscale their employees and engage in job creation activities. We work across all the sectors of Massachusetts economy. So, whether you’re a business that works in manufacturing, or healthcare, or retail, whatever it is you are eligible to participate in the fund.
J.D. LaRock: And one of the things we’re working on right now is to make our grant recipients more diverse. We’ve done a good job in awarding funds to businesses throughout the state. Businesses of different sizes. But we know the Massachusetts economy and the Massachusetts workforce is changing. It’s getting much more diverse, the Latino population in particular is rapidly increasing in our workforce. And we’re very interested in awarding workforce training fund grants to companies that employ diverse workforces, and are specifically looking to help those workers.
J.D. LaRock: So, if there are any companies that are listening to this podcast and do employ diverse workforces, contact us, because we have money to help you and help your workers and expand your businesses.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s great to know that the funds are available out there for organizations. And it sounds like it’s beneficial to the organizations as they want to upscale employees and stretch their businesses in new directions so that they can remain competitive and grow.
J.D. LaRock: Yeah, absolutely. We work in partnership with the employers so that what we seek to award funds to are companies that have a real serious interest in developing their workforces and having their employees be with them for the long haul. When employers utilize Workforce Training Fund grants to develop those deep and lasting relationships with their workers by upskilling them, everybody wins.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s true. And the state of Massachusetts wins too, right? Because we’re upskilling our workforce overall.
J.D. LaRock: We are the leader in education in Massachusetts. We are the leader, I’d say, in many ways, in workforce training. And we want to stay that way. And the truth is Hester, there are a lot of states that are doing interesting and different things in the education and workforce spheres.
J.D. LaRock: So, we can’t take our leadership for granted. And so whether it’s the governor’s commission, other innovative projects here at Commonwealth Corporation, or just the day to day activities of the workforce training fund, we hope to utilize all of these things to extend and maintain Massachusetts leadership in the domains where we’re first.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, speaking of domains where we’re first, there is a lot of healthcare that happens here in the state of Massachusetts. And I know you have a special fund for that, the Healthcare Transformation Fund. So, tell us a little bit about that fund in particular and some of the organizations maybe who are using it?
J.D. LaRock: One of the interesting — most interesting projects to come out of that fund was a partnership that we fostered between Partners Healthcare, which is a very large healthcare employer, and the College for America program, which is an online competency-based program to create a healthcare management fundamentals certificate that workers and learners and employees of Partners HealthCare can can take advantage of while they are employees of the company.
J.D. LaRock: It’s been a huge success. Several hundred people and partners have gone through the program, successfully completed the certificate. A number of them have gone on to continue with College for America to get their associates degrees and even some have gotten their bachelor’s degrees. All funded in part through tuition benefits that Partners HealthCare offers, as well as federal student aid that is available for this particular program.
J.D. LaRock: It’s one of the strategies that is the lynchpin of our thinking in the context of the Governor’s Commission on Digital Innovation. Because what that Healthcare Transformation Trust Fund enabled us to do was pilot an innovation and competency-based education. Four years later we’ve seen that it is very successful. And we’re hopeful that we can now expand it further as well as other innovative methodologies.
Hester Tinti-Kane: I’m glad that you told that story because we will be having an interview with Partners HealthCare and Southern New Hampshire University in a future episode of this series. So our audience will be able to hear all of the details of that story. Let’s talk a little bit about youth employment and some of the programs that you have to serve, you know, new workers in the space. I know that there’s one in particular called Youth Works. So, can you tell us a bit about that program?
J.D. LaRock: Youth Works is a state program. It is under the aegis of the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. And so we administer it in partnership with the state’s Workforce Investment Boards on behalf of the state government. And every year it provides several million dollars to allow young people to get their first summer job experience. And there’s also a year round component of the program, so young people can have a year round experience too.
J.D. LaRock: The program is targeted at young people who perhaps wouldn’t have opportunities to get jobs in the communities where they live because those opportunities are not as available as they are in other places. Or because the young people don’t have the networks that other people do to help them get jobs.
J.D. LaRock: One of the things that we’re hoping to do in the future with Youth Works is increase the number of private sector job placements in the program. We have a wide range of wonderful employers who take part in the program, including some private employers, as well as municipal employers, summer camps, and a whole range of entities. Looking at where the Massachusetts economy is going, and seeing the expansion of jobs in private sector domains such as healthcare and tech, finance, we’d like to do more to provide those types of opportunities to an increasing share of young people and Youth Works. So, with Secretary Acosta, our state’s Workforce Secretary, and our colleagues here at Commonwealth Corporation, we are working to amplify the number of private sector placements in the program.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, there are a couple of other programs and one of them you mentioned earlier in our conversation here called Signal Success. So tell us a little bit more about Signal Success.
J.D. LaRock: Well, Signal Success is a soft skills, essential skills employability curriculum. It is an attempt by Commonwealth Corporation to respond to what we hear from every employer: that young people in addition to needing to know the content that they need to know for their job, the specific job related content, also need skills like communication and problem solving, teamwork, the ability to advocate for oneself, the ability to ask questions when they have a question on the job. As well as, you know, we see a need among the learners we work with, and young people we work with, to provide more information on what a job is, what work looks like, what types of careers are open to them, either in their communities or across the state.
J.D. LaRock: So Signal Success seeks to do both categories of things: provide some soft skills development, but also to provide, for the young person, a way to explore the world of work and the range of jobs and think about that in the context of who they are. We embed the signal success curriculum in the Youth Works program. So when a young person enrolls in Youth Works they will get that curriculum as a part of participating in that program.
J.D. LaRock: And as I mentioned, we also sell it across the country. The city of Phoenix, Arizona uses Signal Success. We recently signed a deal with the city of Providence. It’s being used in several school districts in Massachusetts as well. And we think that there is a big market and a lot of interest for what we have to offer because of very high quality curriculum.
Hester Tinti-Kane: And tell me again how is this curriculum delivered. Or is it delivered in more than one modality?
J.D. LaRock: It’s mainly delivered in person in a high touch way. And in many ways that’s intentional, because we find that that is successful, particularly when you’re dealing with young people who don’t have a previous experience with employment. We also have various versions of Signal Success geared towards specific populations. So, we have one that’s geared toward younger learners. One that’s geared toward slightly older learners. We have a version that’s geared toward individuals who have been involved in the justice system and are kind of in a job re-entry situation. We also have one geared toward students receiving special education. So we have a variety of customized versions of the curriculum that we utilize.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Is the curriculum available B to C at all? Or is it through other organizations. Like let’s just say you know I’m a parent of a child with special needs would I, as a parent, be able to access that or my child be able to access it? Or is it just through systems and cities?
J.D. LaRock: At the moment it’s mainly through systems and cities. But we’re actively looking we’re actively exploring ways that we can expand the audience that we reach.
Hester Tinti-Kane: There is another really interesting youth employment program that’s mentioned on your web site called “Exclusive Ts” and it sounds kind of cool. So tell us a little bit about that one.
J.D. LaRock: Yeah, well, Exclusive Ts is related to the work that we do with the state’s juvenile justice system. We work with one of the educational collaboratives in the state to provide education for the Department of Youth Services, which is the organizational name for the state’s juvenile justice facilities. And Exclusive Ts is a workforce development initiative that takes place within the context of DYS facilities.
J.D. LaRock: In addition to providing good basic skills and a solid educational and academic foundation, we also need to help young people develop workforce skills. So that when they are through their experience in the DYS system, they are able to transition out of that system into college or into work successfully.
J.D. LaRock: And so Exclusive Ts is a is an entrepreneurial initiative where young people who are involved in this system participate in the running of a T-shirt business. They take orders. They manufacture the t-shirts. They help manage an online platform for that business. They do all the profit and loss, the financial accounting. And they they manage the enterprise. And so we think it is a great way to build a whole range of skills in this setting.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Certainly, and encourage the entrepreneurism, right, in these individuals which could be really an exciting way for them to build confidence, and think about how they might make their own way in the world.
J.D. LaRock: Absolutely. I think many of the young people who have been a part of Exclusive Ts tell us that it’s the type of thing that help them realize that they had skills that they didn’t know they had. And that it does build their confidence, as well as some very, very relevant hard skills that could serve them well. For example, if they wanted to set up a business of their own, or go to work for a business once they’re once they’re back in their communities.
J.D. LaRock: The platform economy just continues to grow. And so looking ahead, it’s not a bad place for us to be focusing our efforts in terms of youth development and where jobs are going.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Is there anything else that you wanted to share with our audience about Commonwealth Corporation?
J.D. LaRock: Commonwealth Corporation is really excited to not only continue to be working with our traditional constituencies: the workforce community, workforce investment boards, Massachusetts state governments, the youth and juvenile justice system. But also branching out into some new territory. We’re tremendously excited about the governor’s commission and the role we’re playing in potentially helping to chart where higher education and training are going in America in the next couple of decades.
J.D. LaRock: People have been questioning the value proposition of higher education more and more as colleges costs go up. And so we feel quite privileged and honored to be able to help lead a conversation here in the state of Massachusetts about what to do. And to be able to mine our experience with businesses and companies, as well as education entities, to promote some new ideas and maybe come up with some new ways of doing things for the future.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Well, thank you very much for your time today, J.D. It’s been great talking with you.
J.D. LaRock: Always a pleasure Hester, thank you.
For more interviews with speakers and highlights from work+EDU, visit our event page.
Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.