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Q&A: JOIN's Jennie Sparandara

JOIN's Jennie Sparandara

Before becoming director of the Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN), Jennie Sparandara spent four years in Mayor Nutter's administration tackling city policy.

"Over time, it became clear that there was a constellation of policy issues -- including anti-poverty efforts, adult education and literacy, re-entry and workforce development -- that were all connected under the umbrella of 'human capital,'" she recalls. 

The Mayor eventually asked Sparandara to zero in on these issues, helping more Philadelphians acquire the skills they needed to compete for good jobs. It was through that work that she first connected with JOIN.

When JOIN's director moved to Chicago, he asked her to take over. 

"I was eager to continue working on these issues, but from a different vantage point" recalls Sparandara, "swapping the public sector for the philanthropic and social sectors."

Flying Kite: Did you always have an interest in workforce issues? Were there any experiences in particular that helped you engage with this challenge?

Jennie Sparandara: Absolutely not. In fact, I still don't consider myself a "workforce person." What most attracts me to this work is that it poses such an interesting, thorny and layered set of questions and problems to tackle. If we can chip away at some of the reasons so many people are out of work in Greater Philadelphia, we'll really have something. 

I was raised by public school teachers and the idea that you work hard, you get a good education, and you find your own brand of success was drilled into me from a very early age. It bothers me that these ladders of opportunity no longer include certain rungs. No matter where I work or what I do in the future, I'm pretty sure it will be connected to this idea that we all do better -- as individuals, as a community, as a region -- when opportunity and prosperity are shared. 

Can you talk about some of the initiatives you've been involved with at JOIN? Can you note a particular success? 

Our primary work is as a funder -- we fund workforce partnerships that bring together employers, community organizations, educational institutions and others to develop job training programs for people in need -- but JOIN also has a research agenda that we work hard to keep cutting-edge. 

One of the projects that I think was really ahead of the curve was the Return-on-Investment study we released a couple of years ago, ROI 360. ROI analyses have become more common since then, but at the time we were doing something pretty novel. 

We worked with an amazing consultant who took all of her private sector experience and translated it into a very usable clear study for us. And the results really validated the work -- our partnership training was found to have clear, tangible returns for employers and workers. I'm thrilled that so many other organizations are working to understand and articulate their impact via ROI analyses and that JOIN was able to contribute to that evolution. 

How about a program that didn't go as planned? In retrospect, what have you learned from ideas that didn't quite work?

Honestly, all sorts of things haven't gone as planned with regards to our partnerships -- sometimes in better than expected ways, other times in less fruitful ways. The unique thing about JOIN's approach is that we provide a learning lab; failures or unexpected results (and non-results as my scientist spouse would call them) all serve as data points from which we learn and evolve our work. 

To give you one specific example, we've learned quite a bit about how to more effectively connect with employers on emerging occupations. We're now exploring new ways to partner with economic development stakeholders so that we can actively support the region's growth in new and emerging industries.

Can you talk about the Social Innovation Fund? What is JOIN's role? 

The creation of the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) is rooted in the federal government's effort to invest in programs in a new way. SIF requires a dollar-for-dollar match of public funds with private, non-governmental funds at the local level. Pretty clever. The challenge of course is that not all good ideas are funded -- something you learn pretty quickly in the nonprofit world. Fortunately for JOIN, we were started by philanthropic funders, so we were very well situated for this kind of opportunity. 

JOIN is a subgrantee of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. NFWS received SIF funds to expand their model of employer-driven workforce partnerships. The exciting thing for us is the ability to amplify our work through the grant's match requirements. Federal dollars are matched by the NFWS, which are matched again by JOIN, and again by grantees. To date we've trained more than 3,100 workers and jobseekers with our four years of Social Innovation Funding, and that number is still ticking up.

Tell me about the Funder's Challenge.

JOIN works as a catalyst: We test and model partnerships that better prepare people for jobs and job advancement. The Funders Challenge is an effort to spark and support new ideas in job training. Over the past six years, we've learned critically important lessons for what contributes to successful job training. 

We need to push ourselves, as a community of practitioners and funders, to continue to learn, and to support the wider adoption of best practices. We're going to try and do both of those things by providing guidelines for the elements we'd like to see in a new workforce partnership, and also by providing the space to test new ideas. We'll pair those grants with evaluation support so that we can understand what works and what doesn't, which we will use to inform our convening agenda, JOIN(t) Action.  

Flying Kite has been working with you on JOIN(t) Action. How did you conceptualize this program? 

JOIN(t) Action developed out of our desire to engage the region in an ongoing, productive, action-oriented dialogue about human capital and talent. JOIN's Investor Committee, which serves as our board and leadership, pushed us to think about putting more energy behind our convening agenda, and so JOIN's events have moved from "one-offs" to a systematic effort which we've dubbed "JOIN(t) Action." 

With these events, we're trying to spread insightful labor market information, increase the supply of effective job training programs, and help leaders from private, public and social sectors identify concrete ways that they can support the growth of our region's talent. 

What did you learn from the first gathering? What comes next?

I was blown away by the attendance and energy of the folks who came together for our first JOIN(t) Action event in October at Drexel's ExCite! Center. It was very clear that people want to engage with each other and uncover new opportunities for increasing the number of good jobs, and the number of people available to fill them. 

A couple of clear next steps emerged based on feedback we received during the meeting. For example, we heard loud and clear that employers need to be more engaged and take more visible roles in this discussion. This spring, we're hosting a series of labor market briefings specifically for employers. We're going to use these conversations to queue up a meeting in the fall in which we drill down on entry-level job requirements, skills, certifications, credentials, etc. 

All of this is because we want to help employers make better matches with employees -- particularly those who are entry-level -- and cultivate employers who partner with the community to help jobseekers thrive. It's not rocket science, but it does require a more sophisticated discussion between employers, educators and job trainers that goes beyond "I just need someone who will come to work on time" sound bites. That's just not true. I require a lot more of the people who work for me -- and I assume the same is true for most major regional employers. 

Lastly, can you talk a little about Philadelphia's specific workforce challenges? What are our weaknesses? Our strengths? 

Too many people in our region are not working, are not looking for work and lack the core skills they need to be successful in our economy. At the same time, we've got incredible economic activity -- employers who are growing and educational institutions that attract and educate lots of talented people to the region. How we square these things and work together to get more people employed will be key to Greater Philadelphia's continued revitalization. 

We're not the only city working through this challenge, of course, but we are unique in terms of the scope and severity of our challenges related to poverty and education. So, in my mind, Greater Philadelphia is the perfect place to incubate scalable solutions. 

What are your major hopes for the region's economic ecosystem in the next five years?

Labor market growth at all levels -- entry level, middle skilled and high level jobs. I'm confident we can align the stars to prepare people for work, but we need that strong job demand to ensure that our efforts are well placed. 

LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite.

The Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) has partnered with Flying Kite to explore how good jobs are created and filled in Greater Philadelphia.

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