Sheila Maguire has few rivals in the world of workforce development. In a career spanning over four decades, she has worked on three continents and created employment training leadership programs across North America. Her work in developing job programs has improved the lives of welfare recipients, people returning from prison, and marginalized young adults. A senior fellow at the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program and now, as the lead facilitator of the Toronto Sector Skills Academy (TSSA), Sheila brings her unique insights and strategic capacities to the Metcalf Foundation. The first of its kind in Canada, the TSSA is a 10-month fellowship devoted to building the capacity of leaders in the workforce development sector. Founded in 2016 as a partnership between the Aspen Institute and the Metcalf Foundation, the TSSA is based on the pedagogy developed through the Institute’s work on its own national Sector Skills Academy. The curriculum has been modified and adapted for the Canadian environment, while also drawing upon American case studies and research. Metcalf and the Institute’s close collaboration means that upon completion, TSSA participants become Aspen Institute Economic Opportunity Fellows.
Sheila spoke to us earlier this year from her office in New York City.
Metcalf: Is there a typical TSSA participant?
Sheila: If you look at the Toronto Academy, there is a wide variety of participants. They come from all parts of the workforce development sector – from community-based organizations to post-secondary institutions to city agencies such as the departments of social service. We have people who are engaged in connecting job seekers to employers, especially in hard-to-reach communities that traditionally have less access to the labour market. Though they come with many different perspectives, they are unified by a desire to start breaking down silos. We recognize that more collaboration is needed to organize the sector, which is what we are trying to do with the TSSA.
Metcalf: What would you say to people who are thinking about applying for the 2018 program?
Sheila: I think the fellowship aspect of the TSSA is really strong. Participants connect with other people who are dealing with similar issues in the U.S. and Canada. If you are at a moment in your career where you’ve got great new ideas, where you are thinking that you want to understand how you can work more effectively with other partners in the system, you should apply. If you want to innovate, then join with a group of folks who are working together to improve the field. It’s the relationships that are forged such as those in the TSSA that will ultimately make the system work well.
Metcalf: Will the idea that to have truly effective workforce development, you need to bring people together from across the system be key to your work with the TSSA?
Sheila: At the operational level, yes. But you also have to change the system that rewards certain behaviour. For example, right now in the U.S., people who work in job placement are measured on how many jobs they place people in and they are rewarded on job placement and if the job seekers they placed stay in a job for 90 days. If that is what you reward, then the goal becomes to place people in any job. It doesn’t matter if it is a well-paid job, permanent or part time, or if the job provides the job seeker a ladder out of poverty. So, you can see how, in this system, it becomes difficult to step back and ask the big questions. And then there is the issue of who gets the credit for successful job placement or creation. If you are asking people to collaborate across institutions, it’s very important to deal with this. The Canadian system contains some of these issues as well. Last year, the Toronto participants were able to look at workforce development from organizational and strategic perspectives, and also through the lenses of diversity, race, gender, and class.
Metcalf: Was there any reticence to discuss this?
Sheila: Maybe a little. At the first retreat, there was a feeling of “why are we in the same room together?” and “do we belong together?’’ But by the end of the 10-month program, you have people freely and energetically discussing ideas together in the same room on how to make the system better. I find there’s a hunger amongst leadership to work together. They don’t get many opportunities to do the kinds of thoughtful professional development that people in many other fields like education, the college system and community college do.
Metcalf: What surprised you most about your work in leadership development?
Sheila: How powerful it is for people to develop their practice together. You know, it’s a very difficult role that many people are playing as a bridge between potential and current workers and employers. It is really valuable for them to have the opportunity to talk through strategies and teach each other. When people come together, they are able to think about and relate to the other parts of the system. Those connections and that learning is incredible.
Metcalf: What led you to this kind of work?
Sheila: I’d like to say I pursued it, but like many people in the field, I just kind of fell into it. You don’t grow up wanting to be a workforce development professional! I came to the U.S. in the mid 1980s. Somebody recruited me to establish a chapter of a workforce development program, then known as an employment training program, in Newark, New Jersey. I ended up spending about 13 years running training, working with employers and students there. The poverty in a city like Newark—particularly as it is in such a very wealthy state—and the change in people’s lives when you can connect them to meaningful employment is very powerful.
Metcalf: What gives you the most hope?
Sheila: What inspires me is the passion of people. It captures your heart. Facilitating that kind of energy and conversation, witnessing the resilience of people, what they do and see every day – these kinds of things are very hopeful.