What are the best workforce strategies today for Californians with greatest employment barriers–ex-offenders, ex-addicts, workers with physical or neurological disabilities or mental illnesses?  Beyond the current minimum wage debates, what of workers who can’t even get minimum wage jobs?

Ms. Carla Javits, the President & CEO of REDF, has thought about these questions since she was a program analyst in state government in the late 1980s. Even after nearly thirty years in the social welfare and workforce fields she continues to struggle with them. In 2014, she is moving in new intellectual and program directions, worth noting by California’s policy community.

CarlaJavits_TeamProfileMs. Javits received her BA and Master’s in Public Policy from UC Berkeley. Her first position was with the Office of the Legislative Analyst in Sacramento in the late 1980s, followed by a stint as Director of Policy and planning for the San Francisco Department of Social Services. Beginning in 1992, she served for sixteen years as President and CEO of the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), an organization focused on housing and supportive services for the homeless. In 2006, she moved to REDF as the President and CEO.

REDF is due mainly to the generosity of one person, George R. Roberts, a founder of the private equity investment firm KKR & Co. Roberts, whose office is in Menlo Park, started REDF in 1997 to foster the growth of “social enterprises”. By social enterprises, he envisioned businesses with two main goals: providing a good or service that others would purchase, and employing persons having greatest difficulty in finding any employment.

REDF has grown under Ms. Javits’ leadership, providing capital, relationship building and marketing/strategy assistance to a range of social enterprises throughout California. Currently, REDF’s portfolio includes a range of social enterprises throughout the state, including:

The Center for Employment Opportunities targeting ex-offenders in San Bernardino, Oakland  and San Diego and operating a business of  maintenance, grounds keeping, and janitorial services.

Weingart Center Association/360 Degree Solutions targeting homeless individuals in Los Angeles and operating a pest management business.

Goodwill of Silicon Valley targeting ex-addicts, ex-offenders and the homeless in San Jose and operating businesses in assembling and packaging, landscaping services, and mattress recycling.

Among California’s job training system, businesses such as the ones noted above, have been tried over the past four decades. I was involved in several in the 1980s at the San Francisco Renaissance Center   and in 1984 wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review (“New Ventures for Antipoverty Agencies”) touting the value of these businesses. Over the years I have moved away from what I wrote, and today believe that such businesses are the right workforce strategy only in select conditions.

Ms. Javits still believes in the social enterprise approach, but she is concerned about the limited numbers employed and the tremendous effort needed for each business. That is why in 2014 she is seeking to expand the REDF approach to a broader corporate initiative of contracting and employment.  Her goal is a nationwide program of contracting by major private sector firms with social enterprises, providing a more sustainable market for the goods and services of these enterprises, and abetting the hiring of workers from the social enterprises into these firms.

The federal government since the 1970s has had a program, AbilityOne, that promotes federal agency purchasing from social enterprises that employ workers seen as having greatest barriers to employment—about a third of the these workers are people with mental illness issues, the other two-thirds have physical  and neurological challenges or substance abuse challenges. AbilityOne has grown over the years and today social enterprises sell an estimated $2 billion of goods and services to the federal government.

The federal program actually was authored by her father, the late Senator Jacob Javits. Ms. Javits seeks to take the federal approach into the private sector. Currently, with the assistance of Mr. Roberts and an introduction to the KKR portfolio of companies, she and her staff are researching the possible structures and incentives that might convince major private sector firms to participate.

Most California workforce professionals I worked with in the 1970s and 1980s are gone now: retired, or given up on these difficult (intractable) workforce issues. Ms. Javits, though, continues her journey; and bids us all to join her.