Workforce Development Through Microskilling & Fair Trade Outsourcing

Mike Dershowitz
Nov 29 · 6 min read

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the full testimony delivered by Mr. Mike Dershowitz at the Public Hearing on November 26th held by the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development of the City Council of the City of Philadelphia. In his testimony, Mike talked about workforce modernization through microskilling and fair trade outsourcing as part of the Neighborhood Growth Project.

As business and civic leaders within our great city, we’re all well aware of the chronically high poverty rate with which almost 25% of our citizens suffer on a daily basis. In my view, all leaders have an obligation to use our skills and talents to alleviate this tragic condition for so many of our fellow citizens. I believe we have a humane obligation to do so.

In my work with Fair Trade Outsourcing, we specialize in using the outsourcing industry as an anti-poverty weapon. We use the humble call center job as not just a sustainable source of living wage or better employment — but as the start of a business career and a path to the true middle class.

In pursuit of our mission, we have studied the economics of the poor on three continents, including here in Philadelphia, where we are experimenting with having the formerly poor as employees (working in our Kensington Call Center), now earning a living wage or better. It is a very small number of folks, but it has taught us a lot.

First, some background on what these folks do. Think of the work we do as all business services that are not software development: customer service of all types and all channels, data augmentation, entry and research, help desk, and back office work: anything that requires a human, an internet connection, and a brain.

We are a skills-based employer. This means that we never look at the educational credentials someone brings into our call centers when making a hiring decision. You may think that makes no sense, especially considering the strong correlation between education and income, and education and employment.

But the reality of employing the poor and working poor, and getting them from poverty to the middle class, is much more complicated than we like to think. Both more complicated and more individualized.

I’m here to make two broad points about what it takes to successfully develop a workforce that combats this highly complicated poverty problem, a problem that, unfortunately, Philadelphia has at a much higher rate than any large city in the US.

First: It’s About Micro Skills

The reason we can be a skills based employer is that we no longer care about what a particular credential says about what skills a person possesses. Similarly, we have come to mostly ignore prior experience.

There are two reasons this is the case. First, it’s automation. Second, it’s specialization.

First, you see the bots are in fact coming for our jobs. But not in the way you think. They’re not coming for our whole jobs; they’re coming for the part of our jobs that are the most repeatable and predictable. The bots can do that way better than humans can.

So, automation is inherently creating more micro-skills that humans must learn and apply (if the micro-skills already exist) or create one if they don’t. And as these micro-skills proliferate, that will actually create more opportunities for humans to do the work that bots can’t, or that aren’t repeatable enough to warrant an investment to create a bot that can do it. This is actually why my business continues to grow, nor will it decline as a result of the bots.

Second, what makes us uniquely human is that we’re inferential thinkers — that’s what our brains are the best at. Making connections between things that don’t seem connected. This enables us to do specialized work. It’s the old adage of being able to deal with whatever comes at you. Adaptability, humans are good at that.

You may not realize it, but in the course of your day, you’re applying hundreds of microskills that help you do whatever it is you must do. You may think you’re Council members, but in reality, you’re communicators, logicians, managers, councilors, device operators, etc. And you have to apply all of these skills and many more, hundreds of times a day, in the right combination, to get something accomplished.

And that’s why at Fair Trade Outsourcing, we simply assess every person, regardless of their background, for the skills we know our clients will need in the particular job we’ll be putting them into. Typing, computer operation, speech, working memory, etc. Reach the minimum level of skills for that job, and boom, you’ve got it. No questions asked.

That’s why micro-skilling is so important in workforce development, especially when limited budgets mean we have a short amount of time to teach someone to be ready for a particular job.

Second: Getting Someone Out of Poverty is Not Binary

I know that we are all, as leaders, holding ourselves accountable to the city poverty rate number. I agree with that; it’s important that we have a way to measure our success or failure.

But what we can tell you from our work is that even under the best of conditions, poverty is not a binary condition reduced to a single percentage, and the path out of it is in no way a straight line. While I could sit here all day and talk about the economics of getting someone out of poverty, from a workforce perspective, we do need to change our thinking and focus.

If the path out of poverty is not a straight line, then the skills needed to ensure one doesn’t slide back into poverty, require a re-look at workforce development.

We can no longer assume that workforce development is a destination. It is a continuum. A person who may get trained in a handful of micro-skills in one workforce development program can settle into a job that pays the single person living wage in Philly of $12.20. Okay, good, we’ve gotten them that far.

Then, in order to level them up into a job that pays a family of two, a living wage job may require the acquisition of another set of micro-skills that build upon the first. May be some skills their employer teaches them, or they learn on the job, but they have to acquire that set of skills that they don’t possess in order to tip them over the line into being qualified for that next job. That’s the current reality of low-skill to mid-skill employment.

So as much as you can, I encourage you to stop thinking about workforce development monolithically. Jobs are no longer monolithic; they’re as dynamic as we’ve ever seen them in the history of human work, and they will continue to become more dynamic. Pardon the cliche, but we all must become life-long learners.

But what do we do about the poor and working poor? If we want to reverse poverty in the neighborhoods that really need the most help, the ones that are the subject of this hearing, like the part of Kensington we operate from, the simple answer is, we can’t stop, we have to recommit to creating a continuum of workforce development

Someone who needs help to get into regular work, may need additional opportunities to advance in their current company. Before, we expected employers to do this. In some cases, we can, but if we want to reduce poverty in the neighborhoods that are getting left behind, that we are discussing at this hearing on the Neighborhood Growth Project, we need better production out of the workforce development dollars we’re already spending. We need to change our workforce development organizations to align with this new reality of work, micro-skills, and the true path out of poverty for our fellow Philadelphians.

Mike Dershowitz
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