Final Say: Joe Carbone
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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.