I had the privilege to attend a really great event with our client – Invest Atlanta – a week ago last Friday. It reminded me anew, why I do what I do. From time to time, I think we all need such a reminder – amidst the distractions and challenges we all face in life and at work day to day.
The event brought Labor Secretary Tom Perez to Atlanta as part of his “Labor Day” cross-country tour, but also served as the platform for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to publicly announce his endorsement of a set of recommendations our team (working with a broad group of Atlanta’s community and business leaders) developed to re-invent the city’s workforce development system. That System has been criticized in an internal audit as ineffective, ridiculed in the press and is the subject of an on-going investigation by DOL’s Office of Inspector General. Our recommendations, which the Mayor has now embraced, aim to re-invent the City’s System around a focus on sectors, career pathways and improved engagement with business leaders in the City and regional economy. The Mayor’s strong, public endorsement, and acknowledgment of our Team’s work here, was a proud moment for me to witness.
But it wasn’t the Mayor’s “shout out” in his remarks that made this day special. It wasn’t event the chance to meet Secretary Perez and Congressman John Lewis (a legend in Atlanta and around the Nation) that renewed me personally.
The stars of this show were two members of the YouthBuild cohort from Atlanta, who had the chance to meet the dignitaries, talk about their experiences and gain recognition from the crowd of nearly 200 of Atlanta’s finest. They came to the day bright-eyed and confident – talking about their program and about their futures. They chatted with Secretary Perez about their career ambitions. One will become a veterinarian and the other plans a career in the Navy. (By the way, I predict she’ll make Admiral – she is quite a powerhouse!)
Atlanta’s inner city youth face a multitude of challenges. When we did our study of economic and workforce data, I was impressed how Atlanta represents truly a “tale of two Cities.” On the one hand, Atlanta boasts among the Nation’s highest educational attainment rates, yet, on the other hand, it has truly stunning rates of poverty and has a challenging lack of upward mobility for its underprivileged resident populations. Inner city youth do not rise up to middle-income futures very easily here.
If you were in Atlanta to see what I saw – two young people with a hopeful vision for their futures, confident in their abilities, focused on something better and believing it is possible – then you know how important what workforce professionals do everyday really is.
I watched as the Secretary talked to these kids. He was engaged. He talked of his own beginnings and asked questions about their future plans. He listened intently. It was fun to watch.
Then my eye caught the face of a woman standing just behind the YouthBuild children. She was close enough to join in, but she didn’t. She kept herself out of the pictures, out of the conversation. She watched and listened almost as a proud parent would. Her eyes gleaned, she smiled widely … silently soaking in the moment. She was the YouthBuild coordinator from the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency (AWDA), and I’m sorry to say I did not get her name.
She was not a proud parent, but you could see that she cared as if she were. I told AWDA’s new Executive Director, Michael Sterling, to look at her face. “Michael,” I said, “you can’t buy that kind of commitment.” He agreed.
She, and these two young people were the stars of the event. The rest of us were just there to witness to their story – and to be reminded why our work matters.
I definitely need to do this more often .. you should too!