Upskilling as an Equalizer: A Q&A with Ray Mabus

In a storied career that included a stint as U.S. Secretary of the Navy, the board chair of InStride has always focused on education to fill skills gaps, promote workers and boost diversity.

November 23, 2021
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Upskilling as an Equalizer: A Q&A with Ray Mabus

​Businesses are struggling to find skilled workers, and Secretary Ray Mabus is on a mission to help them.

Mabus is the board chair of InStride, a company that works with organizations to provide tailored training and strategic education programs to its employees. InStride partners with numerous universities to create focused classes, pathways and degree programs. Mabus holds three degrees, including one from Harvard Law School. He understands the need for knowledgeable, adept workers. He served as governor of Mississippi from 1988 to 1992 and as Navy Secretary in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2017. His accomplishments include opening all Navy and Marine Corps jobs to women and developing the Gulf Coast Restoration Plan after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden under his watch.

Society for Human Resource Management President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, recently interviewed Mabus about the benefits of teaching workers in-demand skills and how that can help companies’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

What in your background triggered the appreciation for education being something that everyone should participate in?

Seeing how much potential was being wasted, seeing that people were not given the same access to education that I was. I went to a segregated school. I was a beneficiary of a better education simply because of the color of my skin, and there’s something so deeply and inherently wrong with that. Diversity is a strength. I used to say in the Navy that if you have a military force that all comes from the same background, all looks alike, all thinks alike, it becomes predictable—and a predictable force is defeatable. It’s the same thing in business. Diversity is something that will make you better, and education can help you address that.

‘If we’re going to be competitive as companies or states or as a nation, we have to reach the people who are already in the workforce.’


What drew you to InStride?

It’s the idea that we’ve got 36 million adults in this nation’s workforce with some college education. Because they didn’t finish, they are not living up to what they could be. They’re also holding companies back because the company has got to home-grow so much of its talent, and it’s got to make sure that its talent keeps up with this world that’s changing so fast. If we’re going to be competitive as companies or states or as a nation, we have to reach the people who are already in the workforce. That’s the whole reason for the name InStride—people are getting an education while they’re working.

People’s view of college has been declining. Why?

It’s so expensive. You have to be one of the haves to get in, or you have to borrow so much money. It takes an average of 20 years to pay off college loans.

What does InStride do differently from other training and educational programs?

First, we work with each company as an individual company; we don’t believe one size fits all. We see what their gaps are because 85 percent of CEOs say that they have gaps. Then we ask, “Where are your employees? And who can benefit from that training?”

The second thing is having the company pay the bill directly, so that the student is not out any money. Tuition reimbursement programs have not worked—participation is less than 2 percent.

Third is state-of-the-art technology. The student can go on a website, but they also have the support of their company and the support of their educational institution.

What should HR decision-makers consider when exploring the idea of offering educational programs to their employees?

Make sure you’re not just recruiting the haves—that you’re recruiting a diverse workforce. Most companies don’t have a hiring issue; they have a promotion issue.

Once again, find out where the gaps are. What sorts of things do those employees lack or need? It may be a high school diploma. It may be credentials. It may be finishing a college degree. It may be graduate school, or maybe a combination of those. What do they need to succeed, and what does your company need to succeed? You’re not just giving something of great value to that employee. You’re also helping that company tremendously. So it’s a win-win.

You instituted transformational changes to Navy human ­capital management practices. What would you say to other leaders who want to launch similar ­initiatives in their organizations?

Taking care of people is the most important thing you can do. Diversity is a strength. Ensure that the people you’re hiring are from diverse backgrounds, and ensure that the way you’re promoting is diverse. And today in business, you have to be agile. You have to be able to pivot.   

Interview by Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of SHRM.

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