The best thing about living in Washington D.C. (besides family and cherry blossoms) is the unfettered access.

What do I mean?

OMG—on any given day, if you are plugged in, you can attend programming from think tanks, policymakers, industry insiders, visionaries, current and past office holders, influencers, pundits, media celebrities and more. I must confess that when I attend these events I seem to absorb more when I have that closer proximity than I do from reading papers or watching the tube. Observing firsthand a speaker’s passion, commitment, innuendo, and caution, bespeaks their truth. I find I gain a deeper understanding of their issues and I listen more intently. Case in Point:

Most recently (March 7), I trekked down to 4th Street NW and attended a “Mind the Skills Gap” panel led by Axios’ Managing Editor, Kim Hart, who interviewed three dynamic speakers. I only could stay for two, but they were fascinating because they represented opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the skills gap: first, from the lens of a national corporation and second, from the head of the teachers union. The following are a few highlights; I hope you enjoy.

Corporate Lens: Rob Falzon, Vice Chair, Prudential Financial

Exactly what is Prudential doing to focus on the skills gap? Plenty.

Learning Academies

Mr. Falzon suggested that internally, he first looks at the existing pool of his own workforce including 25,000 employees in the US. He strategically analyzes and identifies gaps between technology, skills, and employee output. He asks, “Exactly how is work changing?” He offered that training is in Prudential’s DNA—and that Learning Academies have been developed to continue to educate the existing employees to address these pending changes.


Indeed, he commented on the value of mobility. Every four years he likes to move his workforce around to new jobs and provides internal mentorship to go hand in hand with new positions.  You can call this On-the-Job Training or Apprenticeships—but it’s a wonderful way to retain talent.  Of course, there are differing reactions to this. Some of the baby boomers are more resistant to change while the millennials welcome the disruption.

Hiring Role

Prudential’s Vice Chair offered that the role of his hiring managers is expanding. In the past, they might have just recruited and placed candidates, but today this is no longer enough. Their work is not complete unless the newly hired candidates are also trained—whereby a new hire is prepared and knows Prudential’s expectations and culture.

Building Pathways

Externally, Prudential works closely with schools in the regions where they reside. They collaborate in a variety of capacities including scholarships, hack-a-thons, case challenges, curriculum development and recruiting. An example he gave was helping to develop a pathway for youth from high school math—up through the university level in Texas. Their teams help educators develop an actuarial curriculum and teach students risk management abilities. These pipelines guarantee the company’s future candidates who are more prone to acclimate and be successful, particularly as they have gained a knowledge that Prudential needs. All considering, this becomes strategic and essential when you consider there are 1000 open positions at Prudential today (and future projections of that number growing to 1500 annually).

Artificial Intelligence

Lastly, Mr. Falzon discussed the threat of Artificial Intelligence and how he thinks about it: “The value of technology and automation is ‘critical’ in that it can lower costs, allow for outsourcing, and expansion of technology.”  On the other hand, artificial intelligence is a “pivotal” opportunity to shift resources, to increase profits, and to grow the skills of your teams.  Leadership needs to recognize the unique talents that individuals bring to the table, above and beyond technology. Clearly, in five to ten years the nature of work is destined to keep changing—and to an organization like Prudential, he said, “ we are doing our part to stay ahead of the curve.”

Sector Responsibility

In addressing the Skills Gap, Mr. Falzon offered that the Government, Education, and Corporate Sectors each need to take on responsibilities and work together; it is clearly a universal issue and the onus does not fall to any one sector, singularly.

Education Lens: Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

“Back in the day, it was called vocational education,” Ms. Weingarten said. “But today there are apprenticeships, career academies, career technology education centers, internships that are building skills. She proclaimed, “There is a need for greater alignment between education and employers. This linkage is indeed a challenge.”

She highlighted new innovations such as IBM’s p-tec program that brings in youth to intern for two years. The programs are effective because students experience true work environments, become educated in technology, receive school credits, and the outcomes speak to the effectiveness. Ms. Weingarten shared that high school graduation rates were higher for youth in these programs and that college attendance had reached 90%.

It is not a possibility to privatize all K-12 education or community colleges, and the government can do more in this arena. At the end of the day, there is a war on unions and a war on education. Her sentiments seemed to identify the issues, and express a willingness to collaborate and broaden participation from other sectors. This was particularly relevant following the first interview with Prudential.

Ms. Weingarten went on to say that teachers may not be trained well enough in all the new technologies, but she expressed four clear goals that the Federation focuses on and lives by. In paraphrasing, she said they:

  • Support educators with the priority that all students have the opportunity to dream and thrive;
  • Encourage a mindset whereby educators focus on each individual student’s well being and an ability to meet each student where they are;
  • Offer the ability to provide engaging instructors; and
  • Continue to provide each teacher with the knowledge and education that they need to do their job to build community with peer educators, neighboring businesses and with parents.

Her vision and hope—in working with the business community—is to work together to develop a thoughtful catalytic pathway, using schools at the center to better teach critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Indeed, that youth need to understand fact from fiction and carefully calibrate social media’s influence in our age of automation. And with participation from the community to better prepare youth with essential soft skills such as:

  • Being on time
  • Completing assignments
  • Building relationships and networks
  • Gaining confidence
  • Writing a clear sentence—with a goal for youth to be able to enjoy full participation within their communities.

Ms. Weingarten touched on two Federal Policies: No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, that shifted schools’ focus, forced many educators to be fired, and forced the closure of countless schools.

Listening to these two leaders, it is clear that the corporate CEO has flexibility, is thinking ahead of the curve, has resources and is strategically planning for the future. Indeed Ms. Weingarten must reside in a more responsive role. She is responding to policies, federal mandates, other departmental agencies, and a vast membership—her hands are tied—she’s at the helm of a slow-moving machine filled with bureaucracy and systems.

It is also clear that both Mr. Falzon and Ms. Weingarten recognize the preeminent issues that the skills gap raises: they are willing to work across sectors; they are thinking creatively on next steps. I find that these interviews serve to elucidate but they also serve to raise many more questions:

  • How can the academic communities work more closely with the business communities?
  • What are the best skills to be teaching to prepare youth?
  • What is the inventory of skills businesses need, by priority, or by profession?
  • How is automation changing the workforce?
  • How can educators be better trained to keep up?

Stay tuned for my next blog—and learn what Denver Public Schools are doing to answer these same questions.

And, as always, please check out Teach to Work, and learn more how Project Based Mentorship can be an important catalyst in the academic and corporate sector relationship.