Final Say: Joe Carbone
Joe Carbone, 62, is president and CEO of The WorkPlace, a not-for profit agency in Bridgeport that features Platform to Employment, a bold, new retraining program for that has been heralded nationally for its success. He is a lifelong resident of New Haven.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I consider myself a pretty lucky guy—I’ve never had a bad job. I’ve never had a job in my life that I was somewhat excited about, never had a job in my life that I didn’t feel challenged. The worst part of my life was a period when I was unemployed, interestingly enough because that’s what I’m doing a lot of these days. Frankly, I often tell people that I’m really blessed because I’ve learned something that has stuck with me from every job I’ve ever had in my life from my first job, which was to sell donuts when I was a kid in high school, because at that job, I was a clerk in a bakery—if you came in for a dozen donuts, I put the dozen donuts in a bag and got you cashed out—but I learned a lot about interaction with the public. I learned a lot about people. I only did it for a couple of years, but in that time, I learned a great number of things.
You mentioned that you were unemployed, what was that situation like?
I was unemployed for eight-and-a-half months back in 1990, and it was not a good period. The economy was nowhere as near sluggish as it is today, but at the same token, but I think I became victim of the emotional issues that occur with long-term unemployment in the sense that the longer I was out, I had less and less interest in being aggressive to secure a job and, frankly, one gets scared, you get worried about your ability to compete. My kids were little, my wife was working, we didn’t have much money back then, and so it took me several months to get to a point where I was in a mode to compete for work. And then once it happened—I was lucky enough to get a job, and I loved the job that I got.
How did you get to a job helping others get jobs?
I was working for the Textron Corporation, and I decided that I wanted to do something that was more interactive with people as opposed to what I was doing at Textron, which had to do with the Abrams battle tank business. So a headhunter whom I’d spoken to told me about this job, and I went through the process—it took about three months and they had like 90 candidates at that time, and I got the job. When I first came here, I didn’t quite have the sense just how challenging it would be. I came here in 1996, but by ’97, the economy was really beginning to get robust, and when it did, I found myself in a region where our challenge was not having jobs, our challenge was having more jobs than we had people. Thus, the challenge to me was ‘How do you equip people with the kinds of skills and credentials they need so that the great economy of lower Fairfield County could become the energy to move people to the middle class. It kind of presented with me with the opportunity for what could be significant social change, very positive social change, if we could build a workforce system that really gives people that opportunity not because it’s a nice thing to do but because business needs it that way. I really saw that as a unique opportunity.
It seems as though much of the battle for the long-term unemployed (the 99ers) is against their own damaged psyches—how do you help them regain their confidence?
The idea that we had here as part of Platform to Employment—that was the program that was featured on “60 Minutes”—it was clear to me that after 99 weeks of unemployment, everyone who was in that category, had lost their self-confidence. They had accumulated a number of emotional issues, and the whole dynamics of how a candidate would be interacting with an employer were changing. We sought out programs that we though could make a difference and I found a for-profit training provider named Career Team. They had a product called Career Edge, which was a five-week program, and people who were part of it would go to school four days a week, and it was all about helping oneself to get confidence back. It involved social media, networking, mock interviews, lots of discussion by the group, and I didn’t see anyone who went the five-week period that didn’t feel better about themselves once the program was over.
One of the things you mentioned in your “60 Minutes” piece was your outrage over the lack of interest in the long-term unemployed. Why do you think there isn’t as much outrage as there should be?
Because I think that today there’s a safety net—and it’s wonderful that there is one. It’s not a safety net that is transparent. We don’t see the depths of the hardship and suffering that these folks are going through. Unlike the Great Depression, when Americans had images of blocks and blocks of people lined up for a bowl of broth, that had to make Americans feel guilty that such a thing was occurring. We don’t see it here, and sometimes if you don’t see it, it’s not graphic; you don’t feel it. I think also that there’s an acknowledgement that this is not the kind of recession that we’ve had of a general nation since World War II—it was extraordinary, but it was not the Great Depression of 1929 by any means. It was probably the worst we’ve ever had in the memory of the folks who are living today, so I think there’s a sense that we gave everybody a pass—you know, it was bad, far worse for some than others, a kind of “That’s life.” I’m appalled at that.
I feel as an American like American are not living up to the most basic fundamental values of this nation. When we think of America, we think of freedom, we think of justice, we think of opportunity, and frankly, the way this unemployment issue is moving, there will be millions who, in essence, will be separated from the work force, will become a class of unemployable folks, not because they did anything wrong, not because they lack credentials, not because they’re lazy, but the length of their unemployment will become an impenetrable barrier to their ever making it back into the work force. In some respects, our economy has to transition from the pre-Recession to the post-Recession world, and what is most chilling or troubling to me—it’s almost something I find difficult to live with—is that the thought in the process of doing so, we are sacrificing millions of people to the structural change of the economy. We’re, in essence, really kind of giving them up—that we’ve got to shed from the economy X number of millions of people in order to keep the economy “competitive” and “lean” and “strong,” and these are the folks who are victims.
There’s something about that scenario—and I’m a free-market guy, so don’t misunderstand what I’m saying—but there’s a sense on my part that we have a responsibility as Americans to never strip other Americans from opportunity, just like you wouldn’t do it from the standpoint of justice or freedom. The American work force system has to be the agent to ensure that in spite of whatever obstacles you have that there’s always services and tools to help people to keep their skills fresh, to take advantage of things that will make you a competitive candidate for employment, and participate in the system that will keep you optimistic about the future. We are failing to do that. So I’m appalled, yeah, but I’m shattered. We owe these folks something better, more than that, and the fact that there are many people who are willing to chalk it up to structural economic change and “You know, it’s too bad it happened, but it happened,” that just adds to my difficulties.
The Work Place’s motto is “Think It Forward”—how does the employment mindset need to change to evolving business environment?
You do have to adapt. But in between the state of the recession and how the economy adapts, and how the human resource function of the economy adapts, there’s also the question of ways and means in which we can help those who are inclined to want help to get prepared for employment. How to stay fresh and ready in the event that economic good times return and opportunity grows. You see, if we leave them along and that we have the mindset that we have to separate them [the long-term unemployed] from the labor force, and let them drift to the safety net—they’re no longer an employment issue, they’re a social service issue—if we do that, then they will never leave that state. The longer they’re out, they’ll eventually get themselves into a state where they just accept that they’re unemployable, and they’ll become wards of the safety net.
We have been complicit, if that’s the case, in stripping them of any sense of opportunity. I don’t believe for a moment that 80 percent of them are going to get jobs, I certainly understand the depth of the structural economic change, my concern is that we’re complicit in it if we accept as an irreversible force of which there is not a remedy to ensure that our citizenry have an opportunity. Then we are complicit in this. We can do better. We cannot make 80 percent of them get jobs, but we can do better to keep them hopeful. So the question is “Do we need to deny them any sense of hope in order to ensure that they don’t return to the work force?” That is unacceptable. That’s un-American as far as I’m concerned.
It seems as though there’s a lot of talk about job creators and tax breaks, but companies are still outsourcing jobs and laying off workers in the name of the bottom line. Does the free enterprise system need to be overhauled? Tweaked? Or should it be left unfettered in the hopes that it will ultimately correct itself?
It should be left unfettered and let the market correct itself. Let’s understand how different today’s economy is than the pre-Recession economy, and let’s also understand that when you’ve got a sustained period of protracted unemployment like we’ve been going through over the past four years, when you have all that, it’s a buyer’s market. So it’s in the interest of business to always be in shopping mode in terms of the quality of your work force. They’re in the position to hire people—well, there’s always a lot more job postings than there are jobs because a lot of companies will post a position hoping to get someone who is much more power-packed in terms of skills and credentials than the person that they have. If they find someone, okay, but if they don’t, then they keep what they have. But there’s this kind of mentality.
The second thing is that even companies that are experiencing growth, either in their market share or their goods and services, hiring someone has become a last resort, not a first. You always try to find ways to satisfy your needs short of making a hire because there’s a lot of imponderables about the cost of hiring. In some cases, through technology, there are other ways to grow productivity and you don’t need to hire people. That’s the new business world. That’s why, when one has been long-term unemployed and you have these issues of confidence and the emotional concerns come into the scenario, it makes it difficult for them to successfully compete in any process because the market is so strong with candidates who have perhaps not been out so long or which are not even unemployed or may see this as a way for a better job or a better opportunity, that they are completely frozen out. Now that’s the reality.
Now, it’s up to us to adapt to that. We’re not going to change that. Like I said, I’m a free enterprise guy—that’s how life works. Platform to Employment, the program that we created here (and was featured on “60 Minutes”), it contains all the component parts of what I think the American work force system should be addressing. This constituency of long-term unemployed is going to hit maybe 6 to 7 million by the end of this year—that makes it the largest single special population in the American work force. We—the nation, the U.S. Department of Labor, in particular—have not given adequate planning or thinking to the question of what are these specific tools and services that they need so that they can traverse our system and they can emerge where we’ve given them ways and means so that they can overcome some of their barriers and they can actually compete for work.
Now, we do this for other special populations—we do this veterans, and we should; we do it for people with disabilities, and we should; we do it with dislocated workers, and we should; we don’t do it for this group. We treat people who are unemployed basically the same way if you are unemployed three days or three years. I think the lessons of P2E are such that, on a national level, if we want to feel like we are doing our duty as Americans to help to preserve opportunity and hope for these unfortunate victims of this recession that has been a scourge on the American work force, then we have to address the challenges they have. That, too, is adapting. The way that we’re adapting to the changes that business is going through, we need to adapt to a new constituency who has different needs than we’ve ever been accustomed to.
So I think P2E is a structure and a form that is really the future of the American work force system and the success of it, that we have 71 percent employment, shows that it works. It makes a difference for people who are in this category and it gives them hope. Now on a national level, maybe 71 percent is not something that can be replicated, but even if you did 35 percent, or 40 percent, it’s a lot better than the number you have now, which is somewhere in the teens.
What are the challenges of getting local businesses to stay involved with P2E over the long-term?
Well, I think there’s a good angle that we have to this in some respects. When we send them a candidate, we have done the vetting. Many companies today, they don’t rely on their HR departments because if you post a job, you can get 300 applicants and they don’t have the capacity to analyze that number of applicants. Understand, we are acting like we’re a staffing entity: we have a candidate, and this candidate has come through the Platform to Employment program, we have dealt with the issues of self-confidence and the emotional problems. If you have a job open that is consistent with our candidate’s background of work, experience and education, we offer a wage subsidy—the person will be on the Work Place’s payroll, so business has nothing to lose under my scenario. They can cancel the contract after one day if they don’t like the candidate or run the full eight weeks. They’ve lost nothing, it didn’t cost them anything, and they can just say, “This person just isn’t my right candidate.”
Now my responsibility here is to only reach out to companies that I think are honorable corporate citizens, not entities that are going to use it for free labor, but people whom I can believe are trustworthy and that they will give my candidate a fair chance, and they have done that. So, it’s a case in they’re getting a service, too, because a lot of companies pay for this service—they pay headhunters, and they have to pay them a lot of money if they find a good candidate. I’m doing that, and I’m even offering continued assistance with training, if need be, after the person’s been hired, and it doesn’t cost them anything, and they have no risk. I think I have something that I can bring to the table as well. Even if you hire a headhunter, a headhunter brings you a candidate, you hire that candidate, so for some period of time, you’ve got responsibility for that candidate. I don’t even ask you to hire the candidate until that person has had an eight-week trial. That’s not so bad.
If you had unlimited funding to create a program to help unemployed young people get jobs, what would that look like?
I don’t think it would look much different than this. Generally, when kids graduate from college, they have the credentials. The unfortunate thing that’s happening now is that because they’re all walking into a bad economy and a very competitive economy, a lot of them don’t get jobs. They didn’t get jobs in 2010, and many are still unemployed, in 2011, many of them are still unemployed, and now they’re facing long-term unemployment. So even the 99 percenters, the folks who are protesting on Wall Street and other locations, a lot of them are kids who really didn’t want to be there but they were so angry that they were out of work for a year or two since they graduated and never got a job. So what do you say to young people if they’re graduating from college with a degree? The advice I would give them all is don’t go into the employment market with a sense of kind of authority about your degree, some sense of independence or taking excessive pride. Give your self a reasonable period of time to try and find a job that’s consistent with that degree, but avoid at all costs, long-term unemployment. If it means to take a job that is lesser stature and for lesser wages, and not what you’d think you’d be doing after you graduated from college, that you need to avoid the stigma of long-term unemployment because the longer you’re out, the more that’ll hurt you. You need to be on the payroll, employed, not unemployed.
Do you think a college education has become a bit of an empty promise, and that maybe it’s time for a vocational-technical school renaissance?
No, I don’t at all. I just think it’s a bad economy and that we’re not creating enough jobs to deal with the folks who are coming of age. When you have high unemployment, business is in the driver’s seat, it’s a buyer’s market, and these kids are coming out, they may have youth, they may be tech-savvy, but they’re lacking the kind of experience that sometimes workers who are in a different age category may have, and a lot of them come into the market where they don’t have any particular loyalty to a company. A lot of kids come out and they have these general degrees, like business administration or something that’s more generic, and they don’t have the specific expertise in any one thing, and they have great difficulties.
Well, do you think some of them may be better going to a vo-tech school rather than get a liberal arts college degree?
If you went to a vo-tech school, you have to have an interest in one of those professions that they offer. It’s up to the individual, I guess. But if you go to a school like that, they can give you the training for a pathway into certain vocations, everything from being a carpenter to being an auto mechanic and things of that sort. But I don’t necessarily think it’s a great fit that way. I will tell you that some folk with college degrees who have had difficulty gaining occupations in their field of study have become folks who went to school to do things in health care. Nursing, as an example. There’s a lot of candidates at every nursing school, every program you can see in Connecticut, and that’s because the frequent openings in Connecticut, and the fact that it’s the oldest occupation in the state, I believe, in terms of when they do the average age of each of the employment disciplines. So that means, in time, there could be thousands of jobs in our state as nurses. I think health care is probably a better transition, if you were to move from your college degree that is not producing a job to something else. The vocational side of things may be a stretch.
Is there any job you wouldn’t ever want to do?
I’ve never really thought about that. Like I said, I’ve been blessed throughout my life—I’ve done things in government, I’ve done things in the private sector, and now here, the Work Place is an old Fairfield County not-for-profit, but we’re an economic work force think tank with a network that is nation-wide. So although our main offices are right here in Connecticut, we’ve got a unit of the Work Place that does work for not-for-profits all over the country. We’ve done work in Central America as well. So, from the standpoint of this place, it can’t be more exciting than it is. I’m happy being here.
Would you say any job is a good job?
I wouldn’t quite say it that way. I would say it’s important to be working. There is no shame in someone working two part-time jobs, even if it were to mean that you would tell a future prospective employer in a job interview, “Yeah, I did. I worked here for eight hours a week, and over here for 22 hours a week,” and to anticipate the question, your answer would be very simple: “I needed to work. I wanted to earn money.” These are times when I think there’s respect for folks who make the choice of working either one or two part-time jobs just so that they’re on the payroll, they’re employed and making some money. So that’s my advice to anyone who’s coming into the market who reaches a point where you can’t find employment in the field of study that you came from. Take a job.
Do you think Platform to Employment’s model is sustainable in the long-term?
I do, I do. Let’s not look at the outcomes we’ve had here in Connecticut, but what does it take for the American Workforce System, which has about 3,000 offices coast-to-coast—it’s called the one-stops, and it was a creation under the Work Force Investment Act in the mid-1990s and the intention was to put all the services that could help people be successful at work and careers under one roof so that people could take advantage of the myriad government and private-sector programs that are there to help people with this—what would it take for the U.S. Department of Labor to order local districts that run these one-stops to have access to programs that deal with self-confidence? Not just an occasional person to come in and talk about it, but acceptable and professional programs that are recognized for their achievement that deal with the restoration of self confidence. If they were to acknowledge that emotional issues develop that would inhibit one being successful . . . frankly, for folks who have disabilities, if you came to one of my one-stops, in particular the one here in Bridgeport, we are equipped to help people with disabilities to be able to traverse American work force system in spite of their disabilities. Well, that’s part of adapting to a population that we have so that they can take advantage of this. So what would it take for the U.S. Department of Labor to say, you must have programs that deal with the issue of self confidence, and you must provide the kind of emotional support that is needed for people who have unemployment of a year or longer.
I think in terms of order to do it, it’s the right thing to do, but the second part of it is that there would be a cost but let’s understand that when people drift to the safety net, there’s a cost on that side, too. I said before either we can work hard to having access to a system that offers some probability that at some point they will be employed, and thus, they are an employment issue, or we simply not just allow them to drift, but push them into the abyss until finally they are wards of the safety net? Any by the way, who pays for that safety net? We pay. So we’re going to pay one way or another. Not only does it behoove us because if they work, they pay taxes to do, but it’s that moral question about preserving that right to opportunity that’s satisfied. If they never get a job, even if they never successfully compete for work, we have kept opportunity and hope alive for them, and I cannot imagine a world where that’s not always a priority, and I can’t imagine an America where we would think of any American who’d we willingly, knowingly move away from a point of opportunity and hope.
What do you see as the growing fields in the next few years?
Beside health care, which is the biggest mover—it’s been the only sector of the employment market that has consistently grown every month throughout the eduction—education. Not just public education, but private education and training operation. The bigger schools, like a Phoenix University and things of that sort, the state universities, the private universities, the employment is growing in education. There’s a market in some respects in manufacturing, where we’re experiencing some growth in Connecticut, not necessarily in my region so much because it’s a fairly expensive part of the state to do business in, but there does appear to be some revival of manufacturing, but it’s high-tech, high-precision manufacturing, so you’re talking about a person with diverse skills, education background and knowledge, not like the shops of years ago. To some degree there’s some life in the environmental field, not necessarily green jobs alone, but there is in the issue of housing audits, brownfield remediation programs and other kinds of compliance-type positions in environmental security and safety issues. There appears to be some growth there as well. So those are three or four of the sectors that look reasonably promising.