5 min read

Now Is the Time to Build a Better, More Equitable Workforce Development System

At SXSW EDU in March, JFF brought dozens of innovators and thought leaders together to share ideas about transforming U.S. education and workforce systems.

That conversation will continue at Horizons in June. Horizons is a national platform for transforming the education and workforce systems. Available via a variety of channels, the Horizons platform gives Jobs for the Future (JFF) a way to share ideas, thought leadership, and solutions and bring leaders together to focus on building a future that works and achieves equitable economic advancement for all.

We’re excited to introduce a new content series to the Horizons platform. In addition to the podcasts, the web program Horizons: On The Record, and our annual summit, Horizons, we will periodically feature blog posts in which JFF partners and key stakeholders share further insights about the opportunities and challenges of our collective work.

First up, Horizons 2022 speaker Stephen Goldsmithand Kate Markin Coleman, authors of Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

Noting that, even at current employment levels, today’s workforce development system leaves too many individuals underemployed or ill-prepared for jobs that pay family-supporting wages, Goldsmith and Coleman draw on findings from their research to propose reforms to the current system that would enable greater workforce participation, build on innovative approaches, and overcome fragmentation, inadequate information, and outdated practices.

In one of his most important—yet in its brevity most overlooked—lines in the 2022 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden talked about the importance of “giving workers a fair shot” and vowed that his administration would support initiatives to “hire them based on skills, not just their degrees.”  

 In a fact sheet issued prior to the March 1 address, the White House tied the president’s goal of expanding skills-based hiring to, among other things, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Good Jobs Challenge—a $500 million initiative whose goal is to catalyze investment in place-based regional workforce strategies and improve skills training for people from communities that historically have been underserved by public and private institutions. Despite the connection to this forward-looking program, the president’s remarks didn’t elicit much of a response.

 We believe this is a missed opportunity to amplify a critically crucial point: Our country’s workforce development system is broken, and now is the time to fix it.

Fragmented, Overlapping Programs

While job openings stand at near-record highs and unemployment hovers at near-record lows, millions of unemployed or underemployed Americans can’t find work that pays a family-supporting wage. Yet the country still addresses workforce issues much as it did 30 years ago. Dozens of overlapping federal, state, and local programs with thousands of pages of discretion-limiting rules make it difficult for aspiring workers to navigate a path to economic advancement.

 The workforce development efforts in most cities and states are fragmented and don’t function as cohesive regional systems. They focus largely on employment, less on mobility and even less on those who, for reasons of birth, exposure to trauma, lack of access, and structural barriers, are poorly served by the current K–12 pipeline. Too often, employers lean on two- and four-year degrees as proxies for the skills that prospective employees can effectively acquire through training and on-the-job experience.

 It doesn’t have to be this way. Beginning shortly before the start of the pandemic and continuing once the situation had stabilized, we set out to identify policies and programs that help aspiring workers on the path to greater economic mobility. For our book Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development, we spoke to hundreds of individuals in the public, private, and social sectors. From our conversations, we developed 10 principles for architecting a more effective and more equitable workforce development system. The principles fall into three categories: those that apply to the diverse skills needs of the populations the system serves, those that distinguish high-performing programs, and those that apply to the system overall.

Weaving these principles into a cohesive whole begins with an understanding of varying needs, skill-specific and otherwise, of a region’s labor force. We must think expansively about what constitutes training to include occupational and sectoral training, career readiness, and executive skills functioning.

Personalized Interventions, Contextualized Learning

While the content of training programs varies, high-performing workforce organizations share similar characteristics. They personalize their interventions to respond to the unique circumstances of the individuals they serve. They contextualize learning, often combining occupational or sectoral training with adult basic education, courses for English learners, and/or career readiness training. They also provide coaching and wraparound services or referrals to other providers that offer such services in recognition of the personal challenges and family caregiving responsibilities aspiring workers frequently face. And they offer bridges or on-ramps to employment in partnership with employers through internships, apprenticeships, and sectoral initiatives.

The complexity of regional economies compounded by the barriers facing workers requires the country to build a system that is focused on equity and opportunity and is coordinated across sectors. Workforce development partnerships should be organized regionally and delivered collaboratively, and they should rest on a foundation of skills. Labor market analytics using real-time data from public and private sources allow partners to profile current and projected skill needs in their regions and align training options with those needs. Further, these analytics provide a framework for developing coordinated employment pathways for aspiring workers. Formal collaborative structures that include social and public-sector actors in addition to employers ensure active participation by support organizations and municipal agencies that provide the wraparound services necessary to sustain program participation, completion, and employment.

In the two years we spent interviewing employers, employees, aspiring workers, and municipal, nonprofit, and postsecondary officials, we found many impressive programs but only a handful of truly effective regionally coordinated cross-sector initiatives. But if replicated across the country, the exemplary collaborations we observed could produce breakthroughs at scale.

Model Programs in Texas and California

Two of the best examples are underway in Texas and California, where Upskill Houston and the San Diego Workforce Partnership bring together multiple organizations across sectors in coordinated efforts to train aspiring workers.

In each case, a respected local organization coordinates policy and influences operations. These coordinating intermediaries have the authority to shape the array of local services offerings. Houston and San Diego augment traditional Bureau of Labor Statistics data with real-time regional data to identify current and projected demand for skills to fill existing gaps and support the growth of competitive clusters. Data is made available to participating organizations, allowing training intermediaries and community colleges to align their offerings with regional skills needs. Interlocking relationships between employers, community-based organizations (CBO), school districts and community colleges facilitate outreach, experiential learning, and the provision of critical wraparound and counseling services.

Which brings us back to the Good Jobs Challenge. We believe this initiative represents an important step in the right direction. It asks for multisector systems development under the auspices of a backbone organization and program design and implementation that includes skills training, wraparound services, and efforts to connect workers to jobs. In March, the U.S. Department of Commerce began evaluating responses to this grant program.

The question for those of us directly or adjacently engaged in workforce development is whether we leverage the federal government’s investment to change the current assemblage of disconnected workforce programs, which cost upwards of $18 billion annually. In the near term, we must apply the principles of successful models to local workforce development efforts. And if collaborations that emerge from the Good Jobs Challenge produce positive results, as we expect they will, we must be prepared to make substantial changes to workforce funding, whether the money comes from a federal department, such as Labor, Commerce, or Health and Human Services, social services organizations, or the private sector.

There were more than 500 applications for Good Jobs Challenge grants, reflecting widescale interest in changing the delivery system. This promising start can produce the momentum we need to transform workforce development.

If we are ever to rebuild the missing rungs on the economic mobility ladder, now is the time. Let’s not waste the moment.

If you’re joining us at Horizons in New Orleans, the insights that Goldsmith and Coleman shared in this blog will help set the stage for the rich exchange of ideas that you’ll be part of in June. If you haven’t decided, there’s still time to register. If you’re unable to join us, this blog and all of the other content you can find on the Horizons platform will provide inspiration that keeps you motivated to drive change throughout the year.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he directs Data-Smart City Solutions. He previously served as mayor of Indianapolis, deputy mayor of New York City, and chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service. He will be speaking at JFF’s Horizons summit, which takes place in New Orleans June 7-8.

Kate Markin Coleman is a principal of IAS Advising LLC and former executive vice president and chief strategy and advancement officer of YMCA of the USA. She previously served as executive vice president of the YMCA of Metro Chicago and held leadership positions in the financial technology and financial services sectors.