Five Questions with Secretary Steve Preston

Learn more about Kevin Sullivan.
Kevin Sullivan
Senior Advisor
George W. Bush Presidential Center

Sec. Steve Preston, who so capably led SBA post-Katrina and HUD during the financial crisis, has been CEO of Goodwill Industries International since January 2019. He joins us this month to offer his take on the rapidly changing workforce needs in our country and how to bridge the widening gap between good jobs and people who need those jobs. He also offers leadership lessons from times of crisis and remembers a favorite moment with President Bush.

Q:  How has the pandemic affected the mission of Goodwill to advance opportunities for people through employment?

This crisis hit the people we serve severely — people with limited education, people with lower paying jobs and people of color. Joblessness was higher, health outcomes were more severe, and financial stress was greater. In addition, nearly all of our stores and job centers closed at the height of the pandemic, affecting most of our 140,000 employees. Soon thereafter, these locations then needed to reopen under new health protocols.

To ensure continuity of service, many of our job centers pivoted to virtual services, providing training, counseling and job support that people could access from the safety of their own homes.  In some markets, we even provided drive-through career fairs for local employers who wanted to meet job applicants in person while maintaining a safe distance.  In addition, we provide online training to approximately 20 million people worldwide each year through one of our affiliates. We saw a very significant spike in the use of those services, especially among Spanish speaking populations.

However, providing online services is a mixed bag for many of the people we serve. On the one hand, they may have transportation or childcare needs that make it difficult to attend in-person services.  Virtual services can be a game changer for them. However, the digital divide is real and many people are shut out of access to online support because they lack broadband services. 

Q:  Workforce needs in America are changing rapidly.  How is Goodwill adapting to help fill those changing needs?

Today we see an abundance of opportunities that are going unrealized. On the one hand we have a large and growing number of good jobs requiring specific skills.  On the other, we have the millions of people who lack the skills to compete for those jobs. Companies need talent.  People need good jobs. This gap is highly addressable, but it has been growing for years and the structures are not in place to change the trend. 

It would be easy today to be lulled into thinking that things are fine in the current job market.  Thankfully, we see unemployment declining rapidly. Earnings for many lower-wage roles are improving and the financial markets are booming. However, underlying all of that is a trend we need to understand. In the decade prior to COVID, the majority of newly created jobs required medium to high level digital skills. Forecasters predicted a significant need to upskill existing employees and a major migration from lower skilled jobs to higher skilled jobs.  During COVID, companies have begun accelerating investments in automation, AI and digital platforms. As a result, the “future of work” transition is coming even faster and more forcefully that we thought. This trend can create opportunities for many people who need them. But, people need to be able to get the skills to compete for the jobs.  If they are unable to compete for those jobs, the gap between good jobs and people who need those jobs will widen.  That could have repercussions for our communities, for public policy and for the ability of our companies to compete in a global market where talent is essential.

So what is Goodwill doing?  We have been tooling our services to be able to provide training for relevant skills leading to real jobs in this transitioning market.  In 2017, supported by an investment from a corporate partner, we began expanding our digital skills training in a number of markets.  In the first three years, we provided some level of digital training to more than 1 million people, ranging from basic computer literacy skills to computer coding skills.  We continue to expand our capabilities through external funding and other forms of support.  Last year, we began expanding skills training for various jobs in the healthcare industry, and in many markets, we offer training and support in areas such as manufacturing, hospitality and building trades.  We also have partnerships with more than 140 community colleges to provide career coaching and other forms of support to increase completion rates for our participants in their programs. 

In addition, we are expanding our work with corporate partners who want to increase the impact they are having on society.  We launched a campaign called Rising Together™, which is assembling a constellation of corporate partners who are supporting our mission by supplying us with critical expertise, access to their internal capabilities as well as financial support. 

We believe that all of these efforts will increase the number of people we can serve and the quality and relevance of the support we give them.

Q:  What do you wish more people understood about Goodwill?

Goodwill is much more than the 3,300 stores that many of us donate to and shop at.  At its core, Goodwill exists to create pathways for human flourishing. For nearly 120 years, Goodwill has been helping people reach their potential in life by supporting them with training, job readiness skills and placement assistance, and other forms of support. Last year, Goodwill served more than 1 million people at more than 600 training and job centers, supporting them on the path to meaningful employment.  

Our founder started a mission in Boston, collecting clothing and redistributing it to the poor.  Then he realized that we could provide jobs for those people to mend, clean and resell that clothing which in turn provided them the dignity and sustainability of employment. He was tireless in believing we should be dissatisfied until every person in our communities has reached their full potential for abundant living.

I believe the value of work goes well beyond the essential financial benefit to provide for ourselves and our families.  Work is where we find community.  It’s where we contribute our gifts. It provides us an opportunity to grow and to develop.  And it’s often the place where we find dignity, which for many of the people we serve, has been in short supply.

There is enormous potential in every individual, but millions of people, because of where they were born, their backgrounds or their histories have great difficulty in getting support to realize that potential.  We are working hard to ensure that more people are empowered to reach their potential.

Q:  What leadership lessons from your time leading SBA and HUD still serve you well today?

Both SBA and HUD were in the middle of crises when I served.  I came to SBA 10 months after Hurricane Katrina. Because of severe operational issues, very few people had received funding from their SBA loans to rebuild their homes and businesses. I came to HUD as the housing crisis was gathering steam.  Demand for FHA mortgages skyrocketed as the subprime market evaporated, and major housing legislation as well as the need to respond to the foreclosure crisis put extreme demands on the agency.  Both of these experiences served me well as I went back into the private sector leading two businesses, one of which was in severe crisis.

First, in a crisis or in times of great change, people need clear, decisive leadership that they trust.  They don’t expect all the answers and they don’t expect perfection, but they need to know their leader has his or her hands firmly on the wheel, is completely committed to the mission, and will be their advocate and supporter through the storm. It is also important to speak honestly about the severity of the issues to gain credibility and focus attention on solutions.

Second, you can’t make good leadership decisions unless you commit yourself to listening and seeking to understand the issues before you act.  At SBA, we dug deeply into operational data, analyzed process flows, interviewed customers, met with legislators and local officials, and very importantly, tapped into the knowledge and experiences of our team.  By doing so, we were able to paint a detailed picture of the problems we faced. I have always found that the best ideas are already among your employees, especially the front-line team. They talk with customers, use the technology, and understand the products.  If you to ask them the right questions, listen hard, and get their advice, many of the solutions will become clear.  In addition, engaging them in the process will enlist them in fixing the issues. 

Third, people want to be part of something great, and they will rise to the occasion if given the chance.  At SBA, the same team that led the broken process, with the right support, designed and implemented a new process that more than doubled our loan production and accelerated aid to people who needed to rebuild their homes and businesses.  By tapping into the ideas and energy of our people, we also launched a highly successful loan program to finance veteran-owned small businesses, and a separate program to help small businesses grow and succeed in underdeveloped urban centers.  At HUD, we were able to accelerate the rebuilding of mixed income neighborhoods in New Orleans and significantly expand medium-term housing for disaster victims. Most of these and other examples came from federal career employees who had the insights and the desire but needed sponsorship.

In both of my roles, I was blessed with coworkers who brought their best and accomplished great things.  So many Americans benefitted in profound ways because of their service. 

Q:  Can you leave us with a favorite story or moment from your time in the Administration?

There is one personal exchange that I had with the President on the day my HUD nomination was announced that was both humbling and characteristic of his ability to empower and elevate his team.  I had been asked to interview for the role only 19 days before the announcement, so the intervening weeks had been a crush of White House interviews, vetting, briefings and preparation.  With the housing crisis mushrooming, there had been much speculation on who the next secretary would be. I already felt the weight of the job.

Shortly before the announcement, I was in a briefing session and I got the word — the President is running ahead of schedule and wants to start early, i.e., no time to refine remarks and will my family arrive on time?  When I walked into the Roosevelt room filled with media, I saw my wife and five young children in the room with the boom mikes over their heads, and my mind was in a million places.  But then, the President stepped up to the podium. He firmly established his rationale for putting me in the role.  His comments about my accomplishments were incredibly gracious. As we were walking with my family toward the Oval, he turned to me and said with a smile, “It’s a great day for your family.”  Then he stopped and said, “and it’s a great day for the country,” after which he took my speech from me and wrote on it, “Thank you for serving, George W. Bush.”