The interview below is with Scott Jensen. Scott was Director of the Department of Labor and Training in Rhode Island under Secretary Raimondo during her tenure as Governor. Scott is currently the CEO at Research Improving People’s Lives. The text below is a transcription of a podcast interview which you can listen to HERE.
Can you tell us about what you’re doing now at Research Improving People’s Lives?
Research Improving People’s Lives (RIPL) is a tech for social good nonprofit. And I describe it in the following way. There are three main strengths at RIPL. One, we have a policy team that’s very good at listening to government partners, and what challenges they’re trying to solve for the public. Number two, we have a sharp group of computer engineers. So when, say, for example, there’s a cloud solution possible for one of these government problems. Our folks are really on the cutting edge of that. And third, and most important, is a scientific team, we have a lot of problems that can be solved by applications of artificial intelligence. But most artificial intelligence applications can’t. We have people, behavioral economists, and specifically, who write algorithms. So we have the capacity to actually listen to a problem, get a good engineering solution for it, but then also build algorithms that can make the most of some of the new technologies that are available in the databases that we can bring to bear. So kind of an interesting and unique effort, and we’re doing a lot.
That’s great. That sounds like a great fit for you, congratulations. Before we get started on Real Jobs Rhode Island, do you want to give some context to the importance in the difficulty of your former position as Director of the Department of Labor and Training in a state like Rhode Island, given its history of above average unemployment when you first arrived?
Rhode Island is one of the most innovative tight knit states in the country. And I think it was stuck in the mud, it had a flat tire. Let’s put it that way, when Governor Raimondo took office, she was bound and determined to make an economic corner turn. Rhode Island really hadn’t hadn’t recovered from the 1980s and 1990s switch of manufacturing, particularly jewelry manufacturing, to the new economy. And what was the leading edge of that failure, the switch to the new economy and to make adjustments, was job training of all things. You know, there were a lot of green shoots in the Rhode Island economy that were being stepped on by business owners not being able to find the talent that they needed to, so we needed to understand the new markets and do some innovative things to bridge the gap between businesses and talent. So that job once Governor Raimondo was elected, fell in large part of the Labor Department. And, as you know, she brought me in at the beginning of the administration to do something about it. And I have to say, Talia, because you were there, boy, was it fun to spend six years working with one of the smartest, most innovative, supportive people that you’ll ever see in a Governor’s administration. We took up the best practices of workforce development, and we made some progress on pushing some innovations in that context, as well. So it was really fun to do that in Rhode Island with Gina Rimando.
I know that you started your tenure in Rhode Island with the initiative Real Jobs RI. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Real Jobs Rhode Island is a grant Workforce Development Grant program. And what wasn’t new about it and still isn’t new about it is it’s a sector based Workforce Strategy. So what that means is, you find the most promising sectors of a regional economy, and you sit down with those businesses, and you really spend the time to listen to what they’re trying to accomplish, and what challenges they’re having in finding workers. And then you work backwards from that from those challenges into the network of folks, in this case in the state of Rhode Island. In any region, and we’re talking about community colleges, we’re talking about high schools, colleges and universities, we’re talking about training programs, nonprofits that support people, and you work backwards, and you figure out how to take the strengths that you have, and point them in the direction of demand and actually connect them to demand and fund only that work and fund that work generously. So that if there are holes in the network, you can fill them with the goal of having people who take those training programs, take those community college courses, actually get a job in a place where a company that’s growing, because it’s in one of Rhode Island’s sort of wheelhouse areas. And that’s what we did in Rhode Island. And I think what we did that was very innovative was, we were able to solve some of the problems that keep these efforts from scaling as a whole state. So a lot of that is good old fashioned government work of changing the structures of granting in the state data systems. So you could do performance management, some of those things, but what it comes to in the end, is you change the systems of the region and in Rhode Island’s case of the state and you bend those systems to actually supply the demand that’s actually there. And you can show palpable evidence that it’s helping the economy. The rate, the unemployment rate, before COVID hit was lower than it had ever been. And perhaps, most importantly, if you’re talking about a pulse from Rhode Island, you’re going to hear from people, if they’re not happy, and you’re going to hear from them quickly. We were hearing all the time from businesses, what they weren’t getting, and eventually we were able to give it to them. And we had a lot and still do have a lot of “screamingly happy reference customers” is how the Governor used to put it. She would say “Scott, I want screamingly happy reference customers” and if she didn’t get it, that phone would ring and we would fix the problem. It really worked. It really worked beautifully in Rhode Island.
I’m sure Real Jobs was a great foundation for tackling the unemployment issues after the pandemic hit. Do you want to talk about when Back to Work Rhode Island was formed? I know it was formed basically when the pandemic hit. And can you talk about how Rhode Island partnered with different companies to help lead this work?
Yeah, good question. Absolutely. So I don’t think people fully realize the fallout of the pandemic from the economy. We’re all focused on, as we should be, our families and our health, and getting that first shot. But in the coming months, we’re going to see the scars left by the pandemic, from an economic perspective, we shut down the hospitality industry, across the board. Retail was already having a hard time and is not going to come back in the same way but it will come back in a way nut it’s not going to come back in the same way. So then you look at what that means from the perspective of people. We have a lot of folks who are going to have to change careers. And the problem is those career changers are in all of the demographic groups, of course, that we’ve always underserved. So women, hispanic folks, and African Americans are more likely to be displaced by the pandemic than white people. And here’s the one part that’s new and even more scary. Younger people are more likely to be displaced than older people. So we are in a situation right now, where we could possibly dislocate a whole group of folks who are younger from the labor market for a very long time. And we can’t do that. And we can’t do that, because the growing parts of the economy really need people and they really need talented people. And they need talented people with broadly construed technological skills, because there’s a lot of innovation that is going to need to happen in the coming months and coming years for companies to compete globally. So that’s all the bad news. The good news is 66%, which is really high of the folks who are currently on unemployment insurance, according to Pew, are seriously looking at a new career. And so Back to Work Rhode Island was designed to address just that problem, and just that opportunity. So we take in Rhode Island the underpinnings of the infrastructure laid by the Real Jobs Rhode Island grant program. So all together there are 43 sector partnerships in Rhode Island, who are used to spending in the order of $20 million a year on an array of all kinds of workforce development programs, tied in in many, many ways with the community, with the community college and so on. So we had that, in what Back to Work Rhode Island does is supercharge that effort by doing a couple of things. Number one, doubling down on technological innovation, to connect people to new careers and new jobs and number two, people will really need support coming out of the pandemic, especially if they have the guts to switch careers. So, just like in business, you want to do just in time inventory, we at Back to Work Rhode Island are doing just in time support services. So for example, if you don’t have a laptop, you are not going to do very well, in the post pandemic economy. And if you don’t have broadband internet somewhere, or even if you have a laptop, you’re not going to be doing very well in the post pandemic economy. So if you’ve got the wherewithal to get a job that week, and get some training that requires you to be in one of these fields, where you need a laptop and internet access, it would be silly of us in government not to fund you, meaning get you off the ground with an internet provider. So you have broadband at your house and we buy you a $200 laptop because the dividends and the ROI for someone you know with a good job in the labor market is so overwhelming that an investment like that might not normally be one that the government would make but it would be wise to. So that’s what Back to Work Rhode Island is up to, it is a remarkable feat that in three or four months really those sector partnerships, were able to create $45 million worth of projects that are all going to be tracked to the minute by performance data so that the folks at the DLT and the Governor’s office in the legislature are going to be able to really track that Cares Act dollars were spent well and achieved the kind of results everybody is hoping for and if not the data infrastructures there to make an adjustment right away. So by month four, we’re not just throwing money down a black hole. So really, really, really innovative, good stuff. And I think we’re all excited about seeing great things out of the back to work Rhode Island program as time goes forward.
And you talked a little bit about this, but can you tell us more about the AI technology in the program. How did you come up with that idea?
I have to give credit where credit is due. When I came to Rhode Island I wanted to set up a sector program. There’s so much government work that has to happen to make that actually work and I wanted there to be a technological solution. And when the pandemic hit, there, it was very clear that parts of Rhode Island’s technological infrastructure at the Department of Labor, couldn’t handle it. And we were doing some work with RIPL and we were doing some work on ROI measures for Real Jobs. I think that probably a week before the pandemic hit I sat down with the RIPL people, and they demonstrated the ROI measures for Real Jobs and the outcomes were great. And they were able to do something very cool. They were able to find a control group. So we looked at the people that went through Real Jobs that got certain salaries and those people did great compared to a control group who didn’t get into a Real Jobs program. Usually, you have to set up some bizarre social experiment to figure that stuff out. Like you literally have to recruit a bunch of people, send some of them through a training program, and then hold back the training from other ones, which I simply won’t do. I think it’s unethical. But in what RIPL was able to do using the administrative data from unemployment insurance, was to use statistics, and find control groups, among people who didn’t go through training programs that were statistically valid, so you can compare and I thought, that was really smart. And I kind of can imagine the amount of data crunching that you need to do to do something like that. And it was mind boggling. I said, in response to this ROI they showed me that it was really great and hugely beneficial. But I think the Governor is going to be interested in knowing how the women in the program did. And can you guys do that? They said, yes and I thought it would take a month or two to recalculate. They did it on the fly. And it was the first time I understood that cloud computing is a quantum improvement. It’s a game changer. So when the pandemic hit, we went on the cloud and we did so with RIPL. And we got really used to working together on some of our big databases and what we could do with those databases on the cloud, and it became clear that the following was possible. You could mine 10 or 15 years worth of UI wage records. And you could develop 1000s of models of successful career switches, because you could see people throughout the longitude of their interaction with the labor market. And you could notice things like when somebody is in healthcare, and they make a switch to technology, they do tend to do well, statistically. And they think about the real world and you think, well, there is a lot of Applied Technology in the healthcare field. And so when those folks make a transition, it works great. Once you have data about that, and that’s actually causal and science. And typically validated, then when somebody who doesn’t have a job, but has a profile, like I have been in the labor market for a number of years, and I can come and look for a job that machine learning can compare my profile to profiles of others in the labor market. What we’re calling it is like a Netflix for careers, people did these kinds of switches and then if you want to learn more about what kind of switches they did, you can. And then we have a really good front end user experience led by Skipper the bot, who can help you with the intelligence and it’s like real economists doing kind of bespoke research with untapped government data to guide you through in a data driven way, what you might do with a job switch now, you still need help to work with a human being and a job coach. But this is a great tool to hear everybody’s experience in the labor market for an individual Rhode Islander, who’s looking for a career switch.
That’s, that’s great. And it’s really innovative work. I’m sure other states will use your work as a model to help their workforce as well. So switching gears a little bit, I want to talk about the skills gap. And how did your work with Secretary Rimando help bridge the skill skills gap in Rhode Island? And what industries in Rhode Island are most affected by the skills gap?
The skills gap is one of those metaphors, that tends to throw people into confusion. Because everybody continually mistakes the part for the hole. And let me explain what that means. So when you say skills gap, you think to yourself, oh, wow, there’s one of these jobs, and people have some skills, and you need 20 of them for the job. And if there’s a gap, that means there’s like, eight skills that somebody needs to get themselves up to that 20 number, and then they will be great for the job. It’s not as simple as that. Yes, that’s part of it. People do need tangible skills in order to do the jobs of today. But there’s also some very basic inefficiencies in the labor market, that keep connections from being made. So for example, recruiting is difficult and expensive. And most times, there’s just not enough other innovation or effort or investment placed in recruiting. So one of the things we did, we did two things in Rhode Island. One is we started a new nonprofit in the state of Rhode Island called Skills for Rhode Island’s Future. It is a nonprofit headhunting company. Basically it’s the first expansion of Skills for Chicago’s Ruture. And what it does is it connects people by good old fashioned hard work with open jobs. And for example it allows a company in Rhode Island or Chicago looking for a person to fill a role with specific skills will go talk to the talk to the company, really learn what that role is, and then they’re going to reach deeply into the community and not just the usual suspects, but use really good working relationships with nonprofits and others to dig deep into the communities so that zip code doesn’t determine who gets an interview and who and who gets the job. So that kind of work is really amazing and important, and then the other one is using technology again, so the next phase of Skipper the bot in Rhode Island is going to be an employer facing part of that system. So that when you are an employer and you have a job, we are going to mind your roles. What is it going to take to find somebody? What kind of characteristics do they have, if they’re going to fill the role that your company has open. And then we’re going to mine UI data to find people who match that kind of role. And so we’re going to take a Netflix for jobs interface for people. But we’ll also have a, if you will, a Tinder for jobs, kind of application as well, where if a person is looking for a job, and a company’s looking for a job, we can shrink the distance using technology between those two actors, and get people in to work quicker. We’re super excited about that work, because it’s a relatively straightforward application of artificial intelligence. But it’s one that is really powerful. If we can we can get people to use it. Because that’s amazing.
It’s no secret that the restaurant industry, hospitality industry, and small businesses have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. How does Back to Work Rhode Island and Real Jobs Rhode Island help those industries and small businesses specifically?
So three ways. The first way is this is the beauty of aggregating things in a sector approach. There are, as you know, this is a technical term, Talia, a gazillion, amazingly good family owned small restaurants in the state of Rhode Island, for instance. And by the way, the best food in the country is in Rhode Island, just absolutely. I’m living in Maryland now so I can say that objectively. But there are so many small restaurants that you’re never going to be able to get to each of them one by one. However, the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, who is also a Real Jobs Rhode Island partnership, is able to do that at scale. And that’s why you need a sector program. Because Dale Venturini of the RI Hospitality Association, in this instance, and her team, have connections to restaurants, that government just cannot match and shouldn’t match. So you have to partner. And that’s exactly what happens with the sector program. Now, first and foremost, we have a huge timing problem in the restaurant industry for workers. I was a waiter, anybody who’s any good at any job, hopefully was at one point in food service it is such a tough job. And it’s so great. And there are all kinds of people in it, there are people in it temporarily, there are people who make a career of it, and there are a wide variety of positions. The thing is that hospitality can be kind of a transient industry. And when it shuts down, there are a lot of people who use it temporarily or as a side career. But it’s gone right now. So we have an immediate problem of people in the hospitality industry who are in that boat. We have to find them other jobs, and we have to do it quickly. So that’s really the second thing and Back to Work is meant to do. There was a great story on PBS recently, with an extremely dashing former Secretary of our Director of Labor and Training in Rhode Island, featured prominently in it. Talking about a guy who was a catering manager at a great hotel in Newport, who didn’t go to college, but happened to be really good at chemistry and science. Through the Back to Work Program he is now working in biotech at Amgen with just an eight week training program that’s done at the Westerly, Rhode Island Higher Education Center that was put together by Real Jobs, and then supercharged and Back to Work Rhode Island. So that is a great example of the kind of thing you have to do and then find, then once demand starts to come back, you need a training program that is a connection and recruitment effort to help restaurants find the people they need. That should be a much more efficient connection to unemployment insurance, a lot of people will go off of unemployment insurance, if it’s easier for them to find a job. And if we make it easier for them, they’ll do it. So part of this artificial intelligence application is again called Skipper, Skipper is the personification of it. If we can connect Skipper with the unemployment insurance program, in Rhode Island, what you’re going to see is around 10%, more efficiency which is enough to make all the difference in the world. We’re not talking about perfection, we’re talking about improvement. And if we can do that the comeback will be a lot less painful than it would otherwise.
It sounds like using a mix of new technology and, some of the things that have been used for a long time is going to be like you said, the comeback hopefully for the economy. Lastly, I’m sure you’ve seen Secretary Rimando has been doing some press promoting President Biden’s American Jobs Plan. Do you have any initial thoughts on the initiative? I saw some plans to include investments in our care economy, which is great, and prioritize the manufacturing sector.
Yes, totally. And this won’t surprise you. I’m a Kool Aid drinker, Talia, a Gina Raimondo Kool Aid drinker! I think she’s doing an amazing job. I saw her at the recent press conference, she’s so good and talented and I can’t wait to see what she does with her new position. But I also happen to agree with what the President’s perspective is here. And I think it’s smart. The care economy is gigantic. It is, and people don’t realize this, the biggest source of jobs in any economy, all over the country, rural, urban, everybody has a proportionally gigantic care sector economy. It’s a source of great opportunity that can spread throughout the regional economy. There are increasingly many kinds of careers in that sector; you don’t need a four year college degree to do many of them. And if they’re done well, you’ll drive down the cost of health care, so that everybody wins, taxpayers when the cost is less, people will live longer and be more healthy, and others will have great job opportunities. So focusing on that is great and smart, Manufacturing is personally one of my favorite sectors, because I think it’s a little bit misunderstood. We are never anywhere in the world, going to see the number of people working in manufacturing than we saw in the 40s 50s and 60s. That’s because of innovation. So entire cities are not going to be working at a giant steel plant. It’s just not the nature of manufacturing anymore. However, there are going to be a lot of manufacturing jobs. And those manufacturing jobs are really two things. One, they pay really well, easily $80, $90 or $100,000 annually, once you’re experienced, and second, they’re really creative and technical. And by technical I don’t mean coding, you don’t have to be a Silicon Valley genius to work at a manufacturing company. But to operate a CNC machine you need some serious math skills and you need good mechanical aptitude. You also need to be very comfortable with technology. And you’re not going to be a cog in that manufacturing company’s machine, you’re going to be a partner and an integral part of developing products and making things more efficient and doing things better. When you meet the young people who are now working in manufacturing, they strike you as very artistic and smart, and they’re doing really great stuff. And they’re also diverse. It’s just an exciting sector. And it’s exciting how, in how we manufacture goods in the 21st century, it’s not your grandfather’s manufacturing, and anybody who has a chance to take a look, take a peek inside of any manufacturing firm that’s in your neighborhood. If there’s manufacturing anywhere near you and if you have the chance to get a tour, do it, because they’re going to blow you away with how they make things these days. So focusing on that is, I think, super important. Secretary Raimondo, of course, intrinsically gets that a big, big part of economic development is developing the workforce. She talks about it every time she talks in terms of Back to Work. It makes me very proud when she brings up or others bring up the Back to Work Rhode Island program, because creating that with her was without a doubt a highlight of my career.
That’s great. Thank you so much, Scott! This was so informative. And I just want to thank you for all the work you did in Rhode Island and the work you continue to do at RIPL. And I’m excited to see what you continue to do at that organization. So thank you so much.