In The Arena with Helen Young Hayes

Helen Young Hayes is the Founder and CEO of ActivateWork. She is also the Founder and Chair of the Colorado Inclusive Economy Movement.

August, 2022

Helen Hayes

Your personal story is remarkable; what is something that has shaped your mindset as a leader?

One of my strengths is I just don’t quit. Indomitable persistence was modeled by both of my parents who were Chinese refugees. Having fled China to escape World War II, they ultimately settled in the US where they found physical safety, political freedom, and economic security. Having lost everything, they rebuilt their lives with courage, hope, and tenacity. Their struggle and never-quit optimism shaped me as a leader.

You’ve made a significant career pivot, from managing over $50 billion in assets for Janus Capital to helping create economic freedom through the dignity of work at ActivateWork. What lessons from the world of finance have you brought to workforce development, and what inspired the pivot? 

I’ll answer the second question first. I am a firm believer in the American dream and am myself a poster child! As the daughter of immigrants who came to this country empty-handed, I’ve achieved more success than I ever imagined. However, inequity of opportunity and income persists for people of color and low wage-earning communities. I believe that persistent inequity is our most pressing societal problem, and I started ActivateWork to launch careers and economic mobility because I want to be a solution. 

What I bring from my Wall Street days into workforce development is my belief that business is the key to unlocking economic opportunity by creating jobs, income, and wealth. ActivateWork provides IT skills training and access to employer networks to people often underrepresented in tech. Thus, we catalyze business to its highest purpose—helping people achieve economic freedom through the dignity of work.

What do you wish the legislature and your fellow business leaders understood about the talent pipeline and workforce development?

We have a skilled talent crisis in our state and in our nation. The pandemic accelerated trends in artificial intelligence, automation, and remote work–the digital age is upon us. The demand for skilled jobs has increased, while demand for lower-skill jobs has and will continue to drop–with troubling implications for income and employment inequity.  

We are in a knowledge-based economy, and we are leaving too many Coloradans behind. Colorado’s economy ranks 12th overall, but 37th out of 50 states for racial disparities. 65% of the thriving-wage jobs in Colorado require post-secondary degrees or credentials, yet less than half of our workforce has these advanced degrees. What are we going to do to bridge that gap? 

We must close the learning gap, especially for low-income individuals and communities of color. Education must equitably equip people with the skills that employers demand, like strong communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and learning skills.

Higher ed alone is not bridging the gap for a skilled workforce. Less than half of Coloradans have a bachelors or associates degree, while 27% of Blacks and 17% of Latinos have a college degree. We must expand beyond college degrees to develop alternative forms of credentialing like vocational training and apprenticeship. These alternative educational pathways are underutilized in our race to develop a skilled workforce earning family-sustaining wages. 

What advice do you have for CEOs hiring in a labor shortage? 

In addition to founding ActiveWork, I founded the Colorado Inclusive Economy Movement, where we bring CEOs together to discuss these issues. We dig into leaky talent pipelines and workplace culture to make Colorado the most inclusive economy in the nation. 

First, we need to recognize that traditional ways of looking at talent have become obsolete. For example, requiring a four-year college degree with almost any role is automatically screening out a large percentage of the population who might indeed possess the skills, experience, and knowledge necessary for a job. In the face of a labor shortage, employers need to bring in as many qualified individuals as possible. 

Instead of degree requirements, companies should shift to skills-based hiring. Screening in for transferable skills and experiences brings in a wider, more diverse talent pool. Employers should also eliminate bias in recruiting and hiring through informed diversity, equity and inclusion practices.

Employees want an employer that cares about their well-being and provides opportunities for learning and career advancement. That means flexible work hours and remote work options, as well as development training and intentional career-pathing and mentorship.  

Building a healthy culture with loyal and engaged workers is hard work. Employees want to feel individually connected to your mission and to see that differences are valued.  Leaders and managers should express both recognition, for what an employee does, and appreciation, for who an employee is. 

What are the biggest opportunities you see for the state?

I would like to see Colorado take the lead in apprenticeship as a strategic workforce and talent development initiative.

Colorado is the fourth largest employer of technology talent in the nation and has become a destination for tech companies. Unfortunately, we’re not producing enough local tech talent. We have a tremendous shortage. For example, there are 30,000 open cybersecurity and technology jobs in the state, representing a lost earnings opportunity of $3 billion annually. We’ve been importing college-educated talent from other states, but we need to widen our talent pool with home-grown talent. 

If we could develop our own tech talent, especially from populations historically underrepresented in technology, we could meet the local demand for tech workers and launch pathways to economic mobility. We could build a skilled workforce for the 21st century that would drive change, not fall victim to it. We could bridge the 1.2-million-person IT talent shortage in the US.

That’s precisely what we’re doing at ActivateWork with our tuition-free IT training program. We widen access to valuable tech careers by providing credentialing and employment to people often underrepresented in IT. Individuals from all backgrounds can reposition themselves for a an IT career, debt-free and on-the-job, while employers develop their own long-term strategic, diverse technology workforce for today and tomorrow.

Rapid Fire Round:

  • Who inspires you? My mom, she is endlessly optimistic and never quits. She has a PhD in Chemical Physics and worked full time while raising five kids. Now she has a chi gong video on YouTube that has 6 million views and 71,000 subscribers. She’s still transforming lives in her mid-80s. 
  • What is your favorite place in Colorado? Crested Butte
  • What are you reading? Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu. It’s a novel about a Chinese family that became refugees during World War II. It feels largely autobiographical to my family. It talks about the loss, the trauma, the strength, and the courage of the Chinese immigrant experience.
  • What is your favorite restaurant? Barolo Grill