Stakeholder voices

Supporting Workers and Families through a Pandemic: A Q&A with David Zammiello

Elisabeth JacobsDecember 30, 2020
David Zammiello

David Zammiello is a member of the WorkRise Leadership Board. He is the president and chief executive officer of Project QUEST, a nonprofit workforce development organization providing comprehensive support to help underemployed and unemployed adults achieve living-wage employment. Project QUEST has been commended for its positive outcomes long after graduates exit the program. In a nine-year study completed in April 2019, participants were shown to be earning $5,000 per year more than a nonparticipant control group.

As president and CEO, Zammiello is responsible for all aspects of QUEST program service delivery, including strategy. In 2016, Zammiello retired from the United Services Automobile Association (USAA) after 32 years, including more than 20 years of leading high-performing teams and implementing strategic business plans. While at USAA, he served in highly visible executive leadership roles within human resources related to recruiting, compensation, diversity, and employee relations. Zammiello holds an associate’s degree from San Antonio College, a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and a master’s degree from St. Mary’s University.

In a conversation with Elisabeth Jacobs, WorkRise’s acting executive director, Zammiello shares his perspective on supporting clients and jobseekers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Project QUEST’s emphasis on wraparound services, and strategies for coping with fiscal uncertainties.

Elisabeth Jacobs: Tell me a little bit about how the pandemic has affected the San Antonio region and your work at Project QUEST.

David Zammiello: San Antonio was one of the first communities to establish a stay-at-home order and really shut things down early in March, so we weathered it very well health-wise. But San Antonio’s economy is predominantly driven by hospitality, tourism, hotels, restaurants, and businesses, so large numbers of people in those industries have filed for unemployment. The unemployment rate was over 12 percent in May, but fortunately, that came down to 6.3 percent at the end of October—an improvement, but still higher than we would like it to be.

Project QUEST was immediately involved in an evaluation of the future of jobs after the COVID-19 pandemic in our three industries: health care, information technology, and manufacturing and trade. About two years ago, we were fortunate enough to win a $1 million grant from the Rockefeller Communities Thrive Challenge Grant, which allowed us to invest in new systems and technology to move toward a digital environment.

EJ: I’m curious to hear what moving Project QUEST online has meant for your clients. What do their lives look like right now?

DZ: Project QUEST is a workforce intermediary, so we work with training partners across the community to leverage current resources. We work with about 15 different organizations that have training capabilities serving about 1,000 participants. As you would imagine, there was a rapid conversion to online learning for our participants. And the people we serve have many barriers to economic security: an unstable family situation, living on the thresholds of poverty—at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For the underserved community, navigating daily life is already difficult, and now you couple that with kids at home, difficulties adjusting to online learning, and, generally, dealing with an elevated level of uncertainty.

Starting in March, our service involved a lot of checking in with our participants about their needs at that moment in time. There were concerns about paying rent or mortgages, buying groceries, and so on. We were able, through tools and our support services, to fully offer support and financial assistance to keep them engaged and moving through the process. Our goal was to make sure they didn’t quit, even under these types of circumstances.

Our model focuses on two things: a cohort meeting and one-on-one support with coaches who each work with about 100 to 120 participants. Reaching out to those participants and staying engaged with them via phone or Zoom was a lot of what we did in the first 90 days and what we have continued to do. We were operational and kept the financial streams open to provide funds where necessary, but there was a lot of listening and then pointing them to other resources to keep their families and situations intact.

We also had a subset of people who had finished training and were in job search mode. In those instances, we are advocating with employers and matching people with job opportunities.

EJ: How would you describe your clients? What are their characteristics?

DZ: Our clients are in search of a better life by improving their skills and obtaining meaningful work that pays family living wage. They seek pathways to true economic mobility. Project QUEST’s participants tend to be single, parents, mostly Hispanic/Latina or African American women. Their average age is 29. They tend to be people who did not have the access or opportunity to get a college education earlier in life. They now have a family of their own to raise and support and find themselves in low-wage jobs seeking to advance their careers and their quality of life.

Our clients are in search of a better life by improving their skills and obtaining meaningful work that pays family living wage. They seek pathways to true economic mobility. They tend to be people who did not have the access or opportunity to get a college education earlier in life. They now have a family of their own to raise and support and find themselves in low-wage jobs seeking to advance their careers and their quality of life.

EJ: Project QUEST is a workforce intermediary. Could you explain what that means in the context of San Antonio’s workforce and training ecosystem?

DZ: Project QUEST was founded at a time when a lot of the manufacturing plants closed in San Antonio, so there was a massive amount of unemployment. And there was no strategy for job retraining, no way for people to move into middle-skill occupations. The grassroots organization COPS/Metro (formerly Communities Organized for Public Service and Metro Alliance) was forcing discussions with business leaders, city government, and the mayor, and then Project QUEST was born as a workforce project. As an intermediary, we focus on three goals: create an outreach component to the community so people and employees are aware of training resources and the workforce we are training, leverage existing training resources, and bring employers together and match them with our clients. Generally, we look at the demand for occupations in the community, and as an intermediary, we manage a pathway process.

In working with service providers, we are able to identify people in difficult life situations, assess their needs, interests, and capabilities, and match them to the right training institution or organization. Then, we stay with them and advocate for them at completion, working with employers to find them a job. Part of the participant’s agreement is that they’re coming to us with the intention of finding a job. It’s about employment, but also about job readiness skills, from resume writing and interview preparation. Then we track them to make sure they’re placed and that they persist in the job for at least 18 months.

EJ: Project QUEST excels at providing supportive services essential for helping people get a foothold in the labor market and experience long-term success. What has made your program so successful?

DZ: At Project QUEST, we define our services as “wraparound services.” We support participants from the intake process through the whole continuum of their experience until they graduate. And we collaborate with the other partners and say, “What are you doing? What are we working on?” At the end of the day, we understand the needs of the underserved community and how to coach them through, and that’s why we have a 90 percent job placement rate.

EJ: Project QUEST has benefited from having a line item in the city budget for funding. Looking ahead toward the hole the COVID-19 pandemic has created in local government budgets, how are you seeing your model work in a time of fiscal uncertainty?

DZ: The hard work of COPS/Metro created the original opportunity for Project QUEST to become a line item in the city budget. The uncertainty is real right now, and having a line item in the budget certainly creates the opportunity for funding stability. This past year, it was $2.5 million, but we are always in an evaluation space with the city as they get the amount approved.

In June, we started having a serious conversation with our workforce partners in the ecosystem and with our city council about a forward-looking strategy for workforce development. We had 200,000 people who were displaced in March, and we needed a game plan to help them. The city and county, like most municipalities in the country, received about $350 million of CARES Act funds, with about $83 million to help with workforce recovery. So QUEST, city and the county leaders, community colleges, and other workforce organizations have all been working on what we’re calling the Stronger Together Workforce Recovery Plan. Our role has been primarily to support the outreach efforts to workers who have been dislocated.

The November elections provided an opportunity for San Antonio residents to vote on a long-term comprehensive workforce recovery strategy. A current sales tax, projected at $154 million, was repurposed to support a five-year workforce recovery effort, of which the CARES Act–funded training was phase one. San Antonio has seen the depth of economic inequity through the COVID-19 pandemic, and Project QUEST intends to be part of the collective response to offer workforce development programs and services.

EJ: What research questions on the topics of skills, workforce, and economic mobility are top of mind for you? What answers are you seeking to help you do your job better?

DZ: To me, these are the burning questions:

  • What aspects of the current economy will be lost and won’t return in the new economy moving forward? What aspects of the current economy will be gained as a result of the pandemic’s influence on workforce development?
  • How will the pandemic change the infrastructure of the education and training providers and employer partners? What data points need to be collected to learn how to better navigate another situation in the future?
  • How can wraparound service providers evolve to meet the demands for skilled workforce in an increasingly digital economy over the next 10 to 20 years? How will we measure, track, record, and report the pandemic’s direct impact on economic mobility, and how will we track the transformation undertaken by many groups and organizations to remain viable, relevant, and self-sustaining?