By Steve Lee
Let me share a story. It’s 2014, about six years after the Great Recession. I was working in philanthropy at the time, at the Robin Hood Foundation. At an event, one of my favorite nonprofit leaders said, “Steve, I love Robin Hood, but the reality is that what you’re really doing is helping people live better in poverty.”
Hmm. Live better in poverty. Think about that for a second. And then look at the data. She is right. This country was built on the notion of “The American Dream.” But for many that dream is far out of reach even with trillions in government and philanthropic help. For the first time in U.S. history, half of 30 year-olds Americans are worse off than their parents were when they were 30. What we’re good at — whether through government intervention, policy mandates, or philanthropic giving — is a top-down approach that keeps people on the cusp of poverty rather than giving them the information, tools, and resources to permanently get out of poverty for themselves, and more importantly, for future generations. And we are perpetuating the major fault line of our time: rising income inequality and intergenerational poverty that has major adverse economic, social, and political consequences.
How are we solving for that?
Good question. About six years after the conversation with my nonprofit hero, I joined SkillUp because its whole reason for being is to change the ineluctable forces of intergenerational poverty, and to tip the scales in the other direction. Our mission is to take those on the downward slope of the K-shaped economy and put them on the upward slope; to measurably and sustainably lift families out of poverty via quality, living-wage jobs and promising career growth. If we do that, maybe we have a chance to improve the lives of families, their children, and their children’s children.
SkillUp is a nonprofit, coalition driven, technology platform that endeavors to upskill millions of Americans into in-demand jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. We help workers leverage their talents and define their futures through proactive outreach, personalized career exploration, and training and employer connections. If you had to boil it all down, SkillUp is built around three concepts: Choice, Voice, and Data.
First, choice. People are inundated with choices and tradeoffs on a regular basis. What we want to offer is choice, informed and simplified. Rather than a laundry list of career options, our technology curates selected pathways that fit each individual job seeker. Then it provides options and information on programs that can train someone for that job, or job openings within that particular pathway. Each job seeker is different. We don’t tell them what to do, but we do offer simple guidelines and tools for job seekers to make the most informed choice for themselves and their families.
Second, voice. I’ve always believed that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. The power of participant voice is crucial for the work we do. SkillUp centers the worker in every decision we make, from product and marketing design, to storytelling, to partner and resource selection. At the governance level, we have both worker and employer advisory boards that are instrumental in shaping everything we do, including the features on the site and our strategic priorities. We have a survey panel of more than 400 SkillUp users who share their stories, their successes, and their challenges with us. By centering on participant voice, we offer solutions specifically tailored to that audience. And by doing so, we hope to engender trust with our core audience, to let them explore with confidence, to help them “doubt their own self-doubt.”
And third, data. At my old job, one of the four core values was to be Data Driven, Heart Led. We have lots of data. How do we use this data to inform the services job seekers really need? How do we use our data to inform policymakers to scale proven solutions that truly benefit the families we are trying to help? How do we collect data and outcomes at scale, across multiple providers, to show the world what we’re doing actually works? Data is at the core of how we learn and improve.
Choice, Voice, and Data Driven/Heart Led. It’s at the center of what we do.
The journey of a job seeker to obtain a high-demand, family sustaining wage can be long, arduous, and expensive. SkillUp can’t solve all the problems. Employers have to play a role too, and so do policymakers and philanthropists. SkillUp partners with each of these systems for collective impact — to ensure that when a job seeker makes a choice it is the right one for themselves and their families.
Many workers need to overcome their doubt and, perhaps, frustrations of the past. Our goal at SkillUp is to de-risk some of the barriers that may prevent job seekers from making that choice. By doing so, we will shift the tides of intergenerational poverty and make sure our children’s children are better off than we are.
Steve Lee has spent years working with New York City nonprofits fighting poverty. He currently is executive director of SkillUp, a nonprofit coalition made up of more than 75 world-class training and education providers, tech firms, employers, and philanthropies dedicated to helping workers get rehired for high-growth jobs.
This viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, Driving Transformation. In this series, we amplify the voices of a diverse group of scholars, nonprofit leaders, and advocates who offer unique perspectives on the intersection of work and learning.