Posted January 4, 2022 by Mark Perna
Education with Purpose & Employment with Passion founder Mark C. Perna recently joined the Develop This! podcast host Dennis Fraise to talk about their progress in Lee County and how they worked through some unexpected challenges that were threatening to throw the entire project off course.
They talked about why educational organizations, economic development, and businesses are often so siloed and how to get everyone to see the forest rather than just their individual tree. Mark was honest about being thrown under the bus a couple times in the process! But the end result, where everyone fully bought into the vision, was well worth the effort.
Mark and Dennis also chatted about the hiring difficulties facing employers and how understanding the up-and-coming Generation Z is key to recruiting and retaining them.
Additionally, they touched on Mark’s mission of Education with Purpose & Employment with Passion and the exciting Call to Action livestream experience on March 9, 2022.
Catch the episode here:
Or check out the transcript below for the full conversation:
Well, welcome back to another edition of the Develop This! podcast. This is Dennis doing a solo show today, and the working title today is developing workforce strategies and solutions with education and business partners—or actually, what I would really call this is how to herd cats and impact your workforce challenges.
So with that, I want to welcome a good friend of the Develop This! podcast back to the show, and that’s Mark Perna, who is, in my opinion, kind of America’s thought leader on student engagement and this topic.
So, Mark, welcome back to Develop This!
Dennis, always great to see you and be here. So thank you so much for taking some time to continue our ongoing chats about how we continue to move our communities forward.
You bet. So Mark, what I want to talk about today is, if you’re a regular listener to this show, I’ve been leading my life out loud on a project that we’ve been working on, which is our Lee County Career Center.
That’s a career center in our county that would involve three public school districts, the community, college and economic development at roughly 20 industrial partners. And if you don’t remember the back story, our organization has purchased a building for $1,000,000, which for a smaller organization was a huge leap of faith on our part to make something happen. And, you know, I’ve shared the ups and downs of this project and frankly, my frustrations we’ve been charging pretty hard on workforce development for almost eight years now and trying to bring these different groups together. And frankly, just to be perfectly transparent, we brought Mark in as a consultant to help us get this project over the finish line because I have to tell you, if you have not tried to do this, it’s not for the faint of heart. This is really a difficult task, and frankly, I don’t know how we would get this over the line without Mark’s help.
So with that, Mark, you know, you work with organizations all over the country trying to get business, education, and economic development on the same page, speaking the same language. So help me give me some perspective because I’m in rural Iowa. But is this a common problem across the country or is it just me?
It’s a very common problem everywhere. You know, it’s there are a lot of organizations, and organizations can be educational organizations, and economic development. It could be employers, you know, everybody’s trying to do their thing, you know, and everybody kind of works in a silo. And so I think, far too many times across the country, you know, if I could use this kind of analogy, you know, you used herding cats and I thought that was great in building up to the title of this particular segment.
But I like to see it as everyone is inside the forest and they’re looking at their tree and they’re doing the best they can to have the best tree in the forest.
And I think one of the biggest challenges is getting people to see the forest, then through the trees and understand that the forest is a bigger picture, a bigger vision and how you connect people to that vision and continue to move them forward.
And so, in your particular set of circumstances there in Lee County, when we started working with the three school districts, and the community college and the employers and we had economic development at the table, my first goal was to get people to see a bigger picture than the one simply of what they’re doing in their local community, in their local organization. And how do you look at this in a larger swath so that people recognize that we can move things forward?
And so one of the things I’ve been very pleased with in the time that we’ve been working with Lee County is how people have come now to look at a very strategic way that the forest can be very valuable to young people and connecting the dots between education into employment and then ultimately to economic development, which will help Lee County thrive.
Because if the employers aren’t thriving, then economic development doesn’t thrive. We’re not bringing new opportunities into the region. And then also in education, we’re not connecting the dots to enough of a workforce that makes it viable for that economic development.
So all of these things have to be seen and understood. And the key is getting education to understand it within the silos that they’re even working in. Community colleges are in their own silo and school districts, K-12 school districts are in their silos. And how do we get them an academic, you know, teachers and administrators things in their silo and career and technical education teachers and administrators look at things in their silos. And so even with an education, trying to get them to see the larger picture of how everything connects in building the pipelines necessary for each region and community to thrive.
Yeah, you said some important things there, Mark, that I want to unpack a little bit. So again, full disclosure: of the schools we work with are community colleges, they’re great partners and they do great work in their own right. And I want to be careful to not make this sound like I’m just picking on them.
And the other challenge I have, if you work on economic development, I think you’re probably aware of this unless you’re in a dark corner somewhere. We’ve got a workforce crisis right now. I mean, there are not enough people participating in the workforce right now at every employer in our area, and I deal mostly with our larger industrial employers, are struggling to fill positions.
We’ve had a couple plant expansions over the past 18 months that are really causing some challenges, though. On one hand, I have my industries on my left here saying to me, we have to go faster. We’ve got a crisis right now. This is happening today in real time because I could hear it at my plant managers’ voices. I can hear the stress. And on the other side, we have education: great folks, but they’re moving at a completely different pace and they’re there, sometimes trying to, they’re doing really good work. But like you said, Mark, we have to connect what they’re doing to what our employers need. I think that’s I think that’s where my frustration comes in because we’re trying to bring these groups together and everyone agrees on the big vision here, where we need to be, but it’s how we get there. How do you build it?
And so how can we, as economic development professionals in our type of organizations, provide leadership or try to help this there? Because, you know, you got to be careful here. And I’ve learned this the hard way that people will think you’re trying to take over their turf, their education turf or whatever turf they have. And we’re all that way. So you have to be really careful. So Mark, you deal with lots of educators and organizations, so give us, drop some wisdom on me here, man.
OK, wisdom on the way! So I agree with you, Dennis. Just quickly, before I drop some of the alleged wisdom that you’re requesting, is you have an amazing team. The group of people that we pulled together are all extremely bright and savvy and thoughtful and intentional in what they’re doing. Again, but they’re very focused on their particular organization or school district or community college, which they should be. You know, I mean, there’s nothing unusual about that. Every organization works to try to better that organization and try to get the accomplishments, the goals and objectives achieved for the organization.
And they all are doing that. In fact, they’re all doing a very good job of that. And so, to me, the unifying principle in all of it, and in the very first time we got together when I presented, you know, here’s what’s possible, here’s the generation, here’s what Generation Z thinks, which goes from, you know, six to 24 years old who are now all in our our homes, as our kids. They’re in our classrooms, across the board, in education.
They’re also now out in the workforce. And most people, employers, educators and parents don’t understand what they think, what makes them tick. And so when we started with the team, we started with that very simple conversation, which is here’s what they think, here’s what makes them tick. And here’s how we unleash their passion, purpose and performance, which is critical for everyone to understand on the same common ground.
So my first job when we started doing this was I had to get everybody standing on the same common ground.
I have to get everybody to stop looking necessarily just as an organization, but as a larger county. And how do we take the bigger picture, the forest through the trees approach? And that started with a unifying principle that everyone bought into upfront, which was that every decision we make as a group is going to be for the betterment of students. And I mean, all students, I don’t mean some of the students. I don’t mean the students who can’t do something else that now they can go into manufacturing or they can work for a certain employer or agriculture or whatever it happens to be.
No, it’s every student. Every student in the community has an opportunity for lots of different pathways that are possible, some through a four-year university or two-year community college certifications, licensure, apprenticeships, the military and so on.
And so that the unifying principle has to be that we make decisions based on what’s in the best interests of students first and then our organizations. And that’s sometimes, for me, is the part that I have to get instilled first in these conversations, because if most organizations make organizational decisions first and then for the betterment of students as the second principle, then it doesn’t work nearly as well as if you can get everybody to understand, what do they think, what makes them tick, and they are the number-one driving decision-making choice. And if we do what’s in the best interest of all students, no matter where they sit today, that creates the common ground that allows us to push forward.
Yeah, I think that’s so true, Mark, I know we’ve been working with you, gosh, it’s hard to imagine, it’s probably about three or four months now and meeting a couple of times a month. And I think where we started, like you said, was you helping us get to that common ground. But we have probably—and let me know if you think I’m wrong here—we have probably gone down a couple of different paths of backed up and gone down another path.
As someone said at our last meeting, and I thought it was pretty prophetic, we’re going to go slower for a while, so we go faster later. And I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned from you is that we have run some things up the flagpole that are not working. So we got to go back to square one. And we’ve done that a couple of times. And that’s where I think it’s so important to have someone like you on board because I can’t do that with these groups because I’m not an outside expert.
You know, they talk about any time you’re more than 100 miles from home, you’re an expert, right? And you truly are an expert. But I guess I came to realize that in my role, which we do a lot of convening of organizations and groups and educators, et cetera. But I can only take the group so far because like you said, Mark, people we all look at through the lens of our organization and really take someone like you, you know, who’s, seriously, you’ve written a book on this topic, you know, and you speak our country.
So when you talk about putting the kids first, I think there’s a lot more credibility than just economic developers saying that. So, you know, talk just a little bit about that. That process of helping people, getting them on the same page. What are some of the big challenges you see, not just with our group, but I mean, everywhere. Because in theory it sounds great: we’re going to do what’s best for the kids. But in reality, that’s hard. I mean, because we all are trying to protect our turf at the end of the day. Is that a fair statement?
It is a fair statement, but I have found in my experience is that, if I can instill in every organization or group or team, like we’ve done at the Lee County team, is if I can help everyone—and everyone wants to do what’s in the best interest of students—I mean, it’s everyone’s resting pulse, in every one of the people that are on our Lee County team. They’re extraordinary individuals and professionals, and I love working with all of them. And as their resting pulse is that each one of them wants to do what’s in the best interest of students. Not one person has ever said that they don’t want to do what’s in the best interest of students.
But from an organizational dynamic perspective, most organizations just naturally tend to make decisions like this. The decision-making process starts with “What can we do as an organization?” and then, “What’s left for the students?”
And sometimes it’s in that perspective that becomes very difficult and that becomes challenging. I think once we set and everyone agrees and we went through a process of me getting to that point with the team, once we get everybody to agree that that’s our resting pulse is that we make decisions for students first and then we figure out organizationally how we make it work and how we connect the dots, and we create that as the thread through everything we do.
Once we did that, we could go through the issues and challenges that we went through, and we’ve been through issues and challenges in these last three or four months within Lee County. We had it, it was locked, we were ready to move forward and then there was a wrench in the works. You know, there’s always a wrench in the works! And we had to pivot and we had to adapt, but we pivoted and adapted with the group with again, the unifying principle that we’re going to make decisions based on what’s in the best interests of students.
And we had to try some different things on and we had to work through, what is it we’re trying to get to? And I believe after two or three meetings, that may have been a little uncomfortable. It may have been a little bit outside the norm. You know, we didn’t just go from point A to point F in a linear kind of way and get where we wanted to an F. But I think we are at F and we went a little bit of a roundabout way to move people through this process.
And now I believe we’re sitting in a really good spot. I think we’re sitting in a spot where I think we’ve brought people together that allow us now to move a little bit faster as we continue to help this unfold because I think everybody is now completely on the same page of what we’re doing for every single student and what every student has an opportunity to avail themselves up and how we use the Lee County Career Center there as a pivotal part of what is now going to be a much larger county feeder system into employment.
And I think we are we are literally in a better place today than we would have been had we gone A to F a month and a half ago.
Yeah, I agree. And we certainly had some really uncomfortable meetings. I mean, we sat through a couple of meetings that were very, very difficult for my perspective, and we had—
Dennis, can I just simply tell the audience?—that you threw me under the bus at least twice in these meetings. And I mean that with all due respect and love for you. But when I say threw me under the bus, I don’t mean in a bad way. I just mean that, we were at a point where even you were a little bit challenged with what we were dealing with and some of the wrenches that were being thrown into the works. And you were more than willing to share them with me and allow us to figure out, all right, what’s the next step? And we figured it out, though. We adapted and we pivoted together because you make a great team leader and my ability to look from a national perspective and being a generational expert, to find and then again create the common ground that allows us to move forward.
Yeah, you don’t like being thrown under the bus, Mark? I mean, come on.
You know, I don’t mind it. I think it’s fine. It’s a challenge. It makes it interesting. But in the real world these kinds of things happen. You know, you cannot spend—you guys have spent six or seven years trying to get to this point—and you can’t go through that kind of maturation process and not have people who still question or go a different way or want to change things because you have to get administration, plus the critical support staff members, and everyone in the organization to agree on what the direction is.
And again, they’re all looking at it from an organizational perspective. And I was looking at it from a county perspective. You were looking at it from a county perspective and what do we do to truly build the pipelines that are necessary in education into workforce, into employment?
And then ultimately, how does that connect them to the economic development, which is the driving engine of bringing in new employers and taking care of the ones that are there so that we have a vital system within our counties and our communities?
Yeah. And the result was talking about all this, we had a couple of meetings where our project just frankly went off the rails. I mean, I’ll just be very transparent with you. I won’t say exactly what happened, but we had some situations where some partners just were totally not in step with the rest of the group. And unfortunately for Mark, you know, we’d do a little bit of pre-Zoom meeting and I’m like, Hey, Mark, this thing just blew up last couple of days. Can you help us out today?
So he on the fly was able to facilitate a very, very difficult meeting, and I appreciate Mark’s expertise in doing that. So I tell you folks, this is not for the faint of heart. I mean, we had some really, I call them tense meetings, but I think we peeled back the layers of the onion, and we got to some honesty. And I think that’s what we had to get to. And sometimes that’s difficult.
And if you don’t know, I pride myself on being good facilitator, but if you don’t have world-class facilitator skills in your repertoire and I’m OK, but I’m not, let’s just say I’m not Mark Perna, you need to be connected to someone who has those skills because I have to tell you, the couple of meetings we went through could have just totally blown up the project if we wouldn’t have had Mark’s leadership there. And so, I have to tell you how difficult this project has been. And again, I want to talk to Mark just a little bit about this.
What are your thoughts? Like our employers right now, the stress they’re under to try to hire—and we see it with our educators, too, they can’t hire enough teachers—but you know, we’ve got plans for these multi-billion dollar facilities that are struggling and they’re getting a lot of pressure from these global companies. Their headquarters might be in Europe, and they’re getting a lot of pressure from their leadership. And so, Mark, how can we help our industries right now? Because one thing they’ve come to realize is that they’ve got to do a better job.
They’ve been so cloistered that nobody knows really what they’re doing there, but suddenly they’re kind of like, well, we have to be much more transparent. We have to help people. So do you have any thoughts on that? It’s a broad topic, but how do we help our industries right now to give them some hope that we can get these kind of things over the finish line?
Well, I think step one is you have to understand that young people today are different than they were five years ago and ten years ago. You know, Gen Z is very different than millennials and we spend all this time over the last ten, 15 years trying to learn how do we deal with millennials? And, you know, and what do they think and what makes them tick?
And Gen Z is different. So it starts from understanding, how are they different and how do we connect, engage and answer why for them? They require a vision. They require the ability for every organization to connect with them.
There’s three questions that every Gen Z is thinking of out there: Do you see me? Do you hear me? And do I matter? That should be a unifying principle in every organization right now, because what you do through your H.R. and what you do through everything from onboarding to upskilling and reskilling and doing all of the different kinds of things that you’re doing within your organization. And big or small, every organization is going to have to review and see, how do we do all of these things? Because 20% of people at this point, Gen Z, 20% will leave during the first 45 days of onboarding.
20%—that’s a revolving door. You have to close the door and you have to recognize that something as simple as even onboarding is more about social acceptance and is more about building and getting them accustomed to the culture than it is the paperwork involved with onboarding.
For many organizations, it’s a paperwork funnel. I’m just giving us as an example, but understanding, Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I matter? If that becomes part of your organizational resting pulse, that this is what they think walking in the front door (and I could go on and on about all the different kinds of things in ways that, Gen Z thinks because those are my hour-long or two-hour-long presentations and things like that). But in a quick hit to answer your question, Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I matter? Which means they have to have some control. They want to have some voice, they have to have certain things in the relationships that they have moving forward.
So I think every organization needs to understand this generation. They need to understand how Gen Z is different so that they can appeal in a larger way. Diversity is important. Mental health is important. You need to have these kinds of resources and support functions available to young people today because that’s what they’re asking for. That’s what they need. And 90% of them want flexibility. They want flexibility to the best to the best of the ability of the organization to give it.
Yeah, that’s good stuff, Mark. I appreciate you talking about that because I know for us, this has been such a challenge trying to get this movement on track. What I tell people with our project is that we purchased a 30,000-square-foot modern manufacturing building and I see it as a blank canvas. I think we should paint a masterpiece in there. It should be something that looks nothing like what we’re doing right now, but that’s been a bit of a challenge.
Do you see this, trying to just think a little differently because we started out with just a high school career center, but now this has morphed into a really exciting (which you had alluded to earlier), kind of a countywide look at what’s everybody doing, how can we do it better together?
And that’s what I’m really excited about. But I guess when I look and see this, I walk out every day of this building and I see this big open space. I just think it should be—I’m a seventies guy—so for me, it should be really cool. It should be something that doesn’t look like high school. That it looks like it’s built for our young people today. Is that a fair thing to wish for?
Absolutely, and I think where we’ve gotten to with the county team that we’ve assembled and that we’re working with on an ongoing basis is the ability to do something very cool, extraordinary, experiential, and so on within that facility. Certainly getting business and industry involved and local manufacturers and agriculture and so on to really demonstrate some really extraordinary things.
And then using that career center model as a center point in the thread that has to go throughout each of those three districts and the community college so that students are leveraging what’s going on in each of the high schools, but also within the center.
The center cannot be just another high school experience. It has to be something bigger. It has to be something cooler. It has to be (sorry because of my age. I use the word cooler, others might use different words), but something cooler, more experiential, more aha, this is awesome kind of stuff.
And the key is then, where does that fit in to each of the district plans? Which is where I love where we’ve gotten this process with everyone that’s at the table, is now everyone’s looking at all of the components, what they’re currently doing within each district and the community college, as well as what could go on at the center. And how do all of these things work together harmoniously so that every student, through middle school into high school and then beyond, has the same opportunities to have something extraordinary happen in their journey, so that we’re connecting all these dots?
Yeah. From your lips to God’s ears, right? That’s the way it should work. And you know, just again, I’ve been pretty transparent. So what I did recently was I got a number of our plant managers and our folks together and just gave them an update on this project because they’re very excited about it.
But the progress has been, by my standards, very, very slow. And so I got them together, had a good discussion, just to keep them abreast of what’s going on because in my world, I want them to be part of this process.
I think it’s a big swing and a miss if they’re not at the table. And I think as providers, sometimes we have this tendency to go to our industries and say, here’s the solution, we didn’t involve you in it, but you’re going to like it. And I think sometimes that’s a problem, not just recognizing developers, but you know, there are so many people working in this space right now trying to solve this problem that it feels like we’ve got everybody throwing stuff at the wall right now seeing what sticks.
And I think this is what our challenge has been. Again, just being very transparent while we brought Mark on board because, I think if you’re going to do this by yourself, good luck. I think you need to have someone like a Mark Perna out there helping you with that.
So Mark, I can’t thank you enough for that. So let’s just segueway as we close this up. A couple of things I want to talk to you about. You had your call to action, which was a couple-hour online webinar that you did, which involved educators and industries and economic developers and everybody else. I’m just curious, what was your feedback from that? Any good takeaways after that was over? What did you hear from people?
Yeah. I mean, the takeaways were extraordinary. You know, kind of beyond what I thought we would hear. So it was two hours, I think it was October 21st, as I recall, two to 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time. And we did it live with a multi-camera shoot. And it was a pretty elaborate live stream experience that, you know, really kind of brought everything together.
What I loved about what we did was that, not only did we have superintendents and all kinds of educational folks, we had tons of employers, people who run ports and airports and large employers, small employers, small businesses, chambers of commerce, economic development and people from all over the country, which was pretty extraordinary. We did probably two to three times the number of people on the thing that we had originally planned and hoped for. So it was an extraordinary success.
But we heard, people understood what we were trying to accomplish, which was, as a national call to action, that something has to change. We have to connect the dots between education, workforce development and economic development. These things can no longer continue to be siloed, and the skills gap is growing and people need to recognize that it’s growing out of control at this point, with 10.9 million open jobs in America, and we have to do something to start recognizing that we have to put on the table for every young person today, every possible onramp to success. It cannot just be a four-year university, go, go, go. Because too many are falling out and they’re paying the high price and burden of college debt for the rest of their lives.
We have to start showing young people today that there’s lots of ways to be successful in America, and I think the more we do it—and we’re starting to gain traction on that in the Education with Purpose leading to Employment with Passion movement—and how we connect all of these dots. It was so successful that we’re doing it again on March 9th, and I’m very excited to do it. It’s not a replay. We’re going to be doing it live again because, a lot of the information I shared will be updated because of course, the world continues to change, Dennis, as we move forward.
So, it was extremely successful. So I’ve made it my vision and my mission with my company and all the people that support what I do to start shifting the paradigm and getting people to think differently: students, parents, community leaders, communities in general as we continue to move forward.
Great stuff, Mark. Get March 9th on your calendar. The other thing you’re doing, Mark, is on September 21st, 2022. You’re doing an Education with Purpose Take Action conference that’s actually going to be in-person in Cleveland, I believe.
Right, right. We’re going to do two days. It’s a facilitated planning conference. I wanted to do something different. There’s lots of conferences out there where you go, you sit, you listen to speakers. And I thought, I want to do something different.
I want people to bring teams to Cleveland, Ohio. We’re doing it downtown at the brand-new (it’s about four years old) Hilton Hotel, right down the street from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And we’re doing two full days of facilitated strategic planning. I’m the facilitator
And we’re getting teams and organizations to bring their key stakeholders together. And how do we start the process of planning to shift the paradigm in each community? I think if we wait for the federal government to do things, that’s never going to happen. If we wait for state governments, it may never happen.
But I think in a grassroots community by community, I think we can start pulling things together and allowing organizations to start planning for their transformation with systemic change to connect education, workforce, and economic development.
So I’m very proud of what we’re doing on that. Those two days, September 21st and 22nd in 2022.
Yeah, I love that it’s a Take Action conference because I’m all about action. I think most people in economic development are, so in the coming months, I’m going to have Mark on to keep our listeners updated on what’s going on with our project. Like I said, I’ve been pretty transparent about this. I lead my life out loud on a podcast. I guess that’s good or bad, that you have a microphone that you get to share that kind of thing.
So. Mark, good stuff, as always. And if people want to learn more about you and your company, what’s the best way for them to connect with you?
They can look at my website at MarkCPerna.com. They can also reach out to me via email at email@example.com.
So Mark, thank you so much again for sharing your insight and allowing us to pull back the curtain on what we’re actually doing. Because sometimes I think as economic developers, we share a lot of these same problems. And so I just want to make sure everyone understands that, gosh, my life sometimes is as frustrating as everyone else’s. Thank you again for your willingness to be candid about this.
Dennis, it’s absolutely my pleasure. And it’s always fun to sit down and talk about the things that we’re doing. So I love your transparency and all the things you’re doing to try to get things changed, how to shift the paradigm yourself. So I will support you any way I can.
Well, thanks again, Mark. And to our listeners, as you know, we wouldn’t be here without you and your continued support. Keep fighting the good fight. This workforce thing is going to get harder and harder over the next few years, but we’re uniquely positioned, I think, to be the catalyst our communities. So keep fighting that good fight and we’ll talk to you soon.