Technology that advances productivity and increases automation is forcing a major evolution in the workforce. This is not your father’s economy; that loyal lapdog has been downsized by progress. All of which makes the work of Grace Powers, and the organization she leads, all the more indispensable.
The origin of the National Able Network can be traced to Operation ABLE (an acronym for Ability Based on Long Experience), formed in Chicago in 1977 to help older workers find meaningful employment positions. Nearly 40 years later, the organization has seen seismic changes, expanding its map of coverage as well as its scope of services for veterans, single mothers, non-native English speakers, and public-housing residents.
Powers had previously enjoyed two successful careers before being appointed CEO of the National Able Network in 2003. She served nine years as an officer in the United States Air Force, working as a missile design engineer and as a military jet and aircraft commander. She also co-founded a wireless software infrastructure firm, Auvo Technologies, which developed the world’s first software platform capable of delivering integrated voice, text, and graphics over wireless back in 2001.
“When you stop learning [new skills] and stop thinking you…will fall behind.”
Under her leadership, National Able Network revenues have grown from less than $5M to nearly $30M. Powers refers to clients struggling to find employment as her “shareholders” and wants to empower them and increase opportunities for a stronger professional foundation.
The Baltimore, Maryland native has an M.B.A. in Finance and Marketing from Stanford University and a B.S. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Cornell University. Before she took to the skies to serve her country, Powers recalls her first job as a piano teacher which informs her current perspective. “When you stop learning [new skills] and stop thinking you…will fall behind,” she says.
Working with unemployed veterans presents potential layers of complexity, but Powers is up for the challenge. After all, the Baltimore native excelled in the military, which doesn’t go out of its way to stack the deck in favor of the fairer sex. “Every obstacle you overcome teaches something about yourself that you can apply forward,” she says.
While military veterans possess a range of experience that could provide valuable to employers, many have a hard time articulating how their skills can transfer to the civilian world. As a result, Powers says veterans take jobs beneath their skill and pay levels. Many employers pledge to hire vets, but usually those are $9-an-hour jobs without benefits. Powers says the National Able Network is increasing its ongoing training sessions and webinars to try to help employers better understand military applicants.
“We need to make a stronger investment so that the skills of our citizenry keep pace. When you don’t do that, you see a widening skill gap and income gap.”
The National Able Network received stimulus dollars during the 2008 recession, helping the organization build significant infrastructure, which has, in turn, allowed the organization to acquire additional nonprofits.
Employing 125 full-time staff and serving six states on the East Coast and in the Midwest, in 2015 the National Able Network assisted 80,000 jobseekers looking for full-time employment. Powers believes this type of consolidation will allow the National Able Network to serve more people, more efficiently and for less cost.
Instead of fewer jobs, Powers says different jobs are now requiring substantial training and continual growth and development for workers to innovate. “We need to make a stronger investment so that the skills of our citizenry keep pace,” she says. “When you don’t do that, you see a widening skill gap and income gap.”