In 1996, Joseph M. Carbone left his job as a government relations executive for Textron Corp., a multi-industry conglomerate, to become president and CEO of The WorkPlace Inc., a Bridgeport-headquartered not-for-profit workforce development agency. In the 22 years since taking the reins at The WorkPlace, Carbone and his organization have played a dramatic role in helping countless individuals expand their educational and occupational credentials in order to become active participants in the workforce.
In this Suite Talk interview, Business Journal reporter Phil Hall gives Carbone the spotlight to detail The WorkPlace’s mission in the midst of an evolving business environment.
For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with your organization, what is The WorkPlace all about?
“We are about opportunity. We administer workforce-related programs, be they federal or state, in southwestern Connecticut, and we have other programs that we do statewide, as well as a number of programs in different states around the country. Our role as an economic workforce think-tank has grown over the years. A number years ago, we had 20 employees. Now, we have 100. We have evolved.”
Who can make use of your programs and services?
“Anyone can make use of them. In this district, we manage the American Job Centers. We have a comprehensive center in Bridgeport and we have satellite centers in Stamford, Derby and Ansonia, and a 39-foot-long Winnebago that is, for all intents and purposes, a high-tech American Job Center that’s on the road every day.
We work with people who are unemployed, underemployed and very much employed but want to keep track of how their career is moving. We can service everybody.”
So, The WorkPlace is for everyone and not just people in certain economic demographics?
“Yes, absolutely. When I first came here, our customer base was almost entirely coming from nonwhite-collar jobs. But the Great Recession changed that in many, many different ways.”
Connecticut’s unemployment rate is above the national average. How has that impacted your work?
“Our problems in Connecticut are a lot greater than that. We are a little bit higher than the national rate of unemployment — but there is no greater lie on this earth than the national rate of unemployment. It is, by design, an index that hides large sectors of the workforce that are not counted as unemployed: people who are underemployed, who are working part time because they can’t find full-time work, and others who have left the workforce because their skills no longer have any use in this new economy.”
What is the jobs environment like today?
“It’s been nine years since the Great Recession ended, but it’s continuing to evolve in a structural way and it is bringing new challenges. What’s occurring out there are changes in the whole nature of human capital. As employers look at their future needs, employee skills are going to change. Employers are moving into a position where they are largely hiring people who are critical thinkers. And competition for critical thinkers is enormous — as a result, every major business is looking for people who are thinking at their work and not just following a common routine course.
Employers want people who are in touch with their careers all of the time. It’s not like any one certificate or one degree can secure you for life — change is moving rapidly.”
But, not everyone can easily find work — especially those with criminal records. The WorkPlace recently received a $1.49 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to help Bridgeport residents exiting the prison system and returning to the workforce. Can you please tell us more about this endeavor?
“We have been doing a number of programs like that over the years. This was a federal competitive grant and they had several hundred applicants and we were one of 41 that were issued.
It’s a grant that will target folks who have been moved from prison to halfway houses or some kind of a residential facility to complete the remainder of their sentence. They are all within six months to a year of release and this is to get them ready for the challenge upon release. This is one of the smartest things to happen in years — it used to be that you began to service them upon their release, but too often they could either only find day work or no work at all. It gives us a fairly significant period to work with them, so when they get that release and come out into the world, hopefully they have credentials and a case worker to help them re-enter the workforce.”
The WorkPlace has also helped women who have sought to escape from violent domestic environments with the help of Bridgeport’s Center for Family Justice. What have been the challenges of that project?
“It is difficult. In many cases, the women are trying to keep their identity as much to themselves as possible. They go to the center and get security there, but at some point they have to go to work.
Very often, women will tolerate the abuse because of the economics of life — they need to be supported. The way to break that is by skill-building and gaining employment. We’ve got tons of cases where we have been successful with people who’ve had terribly abusive relationships but have recovered. And many will tell you that the element of the process that was most enabling, in terms of their reaching their terms of independence, was a job that they could rely upon and to be as close to career oriented as possible.
The WorkPlace also recently celebrated a milestone related to helping those impacted with the collapse of the housing bubble.
On July 16, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Mortgage Crisis Job Training Program. It is a statewide program and we administer it for the state — and we created it. It was a way of helping people who were all going through foreclosure and we had an idea: What if the head of household has greater potential to expand their credential base or education base? And we know that your income will increase once you do that. Therefore, shouldn’t it be a factor that is considered in the foreclosure process.
The State of Connecticut bought it, and we have helped over 2,000 people in Connecticut gain additional educational credentials or certification in some field. Over 90 percent of all clients were able to avoid foreclosure.”
What is a typical week like for you?
“I am working hard to maintain the connections in different districts of the nation, as well as testing ideas on people whose opinions I respect. When I leave at the end of the day, I ask myself: What did I do today and what did I gain in terms of growing The WorkPlace? Because the more we grow, the more we can do.
Our footprint is now all over the nation. Yesterday, I spent the day in Rhode Island and last week I was in Massachusetts. Next week, I am going to Newport News, Virginia, where we won a contract to manage the American Job Center there. I know that every one of those efforts will lead to growing opportunities for people. It would be wrong if growth was only for the sake of growth.”
What do you see as the future of workforce development?
“Ten years from now, you’re going to see virtually all of the money in workforce development not coming from government, but from the private sector. Not because they are going to be better corporate citizens. But because of self-interest — they are going to need to have a razor-sharp workforce, and they are not going to wait for government to do it for them. Government doesn’t move that fast and there is too much bureaucracy and bidding. That will change the whole nature of opportunity, and it will truly mean it is promise for all.”
Ultimately, what do you see as The WorkPlace’s greatest accomplishment?
“We have truly been an agent for change. We have found the remedy in many different areas to help people keep their dignity and find ways to get beyond where they are.”