Jack A. Litzenberg reflects on workforce development

For nearly three decades, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation Senior Program Officer Jack A. Litzenberg helped lead the Foundation’s efforts to provide low-income, low-skilled people with the employment tools and opportunities to succeed in the country’s changing labor market.

His work was recognized in 1994 with the Council on Foundation’s Robert W. Scrivner Award for innovation and creativity in grantmaking, the highest award made by the council to a grantmaker. In 2010, Litzenberg’s efforts related to the creation of regional skills alliances in Michigan were acknowledged by state officials, who presented him with a certificate of recognition.

As he prepared to retire on January 31, 2012, from the Foundation, Litzenberg sat down with Communications Officer Duane Elling to share his thoughts about workforce development and his 28 years in the field.

Mott: What notable trends are you seeing in workforce development?

Jack Litzenberg

Jack Litzenberg (JL): One of the most exciting is that so many states are adopting sectoral employment strategies. By helping lower-income people receive the job training and credentials that employers are looking for, sectoral embraces the employer community. Employers embrace it back by hiring and promoting those workers, and putting them on career pathways, which can mean economic stability for families. We have a growing body of evidence that the model works, which has really sparked interest in it as a strategy.

What concerns me most about the future of workforce development is federal workforce policy, especially cuts in funding for job training. We know that training works, that it matters, and that a trained and skilled workforce is essential to the country’s economic future. Cutting federal support for that training means that fewer people will be ready to meet the needs of employers and more will be at risk of falling into poverty.

Mott: Much of your recent grantmaking at Mott has linked workforce development with community colleges. How is that work helping to shape the field?

JL: What I like about community colleges is that as educational institutions, they grant recognized credentials to people who complete the required coursework and the training. Because they have a local focus, they’re in a position to tailor that coursework and training to meet the unique needs of local employers. Community colleges are also suited to working closely with neighborhood-based organizations to provide the life and social supports that lower-income people may need to complete their education and earn their certification.

Exploring and strengthening the roles of educational institutions in workforce development will be very important to the field’s future, because education is the tool that lifts people out of poverty — it has been a major theme of our anti-poverty grantmaking at Mott.

What is the role of philanthropy in advancing the field of workforce development?

JL: I think that research and design is our most important role. We can try out different ideas and strategies, see what works and what doesn’t, and use those findings to develop new models.

Sectoral employment is a good example of this. Mott helped develop the model, test, prove it and share it with others. As a result, sectoral is now more widely understood and embraced as an effective way to meet the needs of workers and employers.

What philanthropy cannot do is take the place of government. If every foundation put all its money for workforce development into a single pot, we still wouldn’t have enough resources to make effective programs available to every person who needs them. Government needs to stay in the business of supporting job training, which, as I noted before, is something I’m very concerned about.

What has been the greatest satisfaction from your 28 years in the field?

JL: Without question, it’s been supporting Mott’s grantees as they’ve developed and provided programs that helped low-income people escape poverty. It’s knowing that we’re helping to create lasting change for those families, keeping kids out of poverty and helping to stabilize their communities. It’s knowing that you’re benefiting people in the future based on the work that you do today. Doing this type of work is the best job in the world.

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