Making Workforce Development Work for All: Five Themes from Our Panel Discussion

Kimberly DuMont

The U.S. education and workforce pipeline is broken. Our schools, higher education, and workforce development systems fail to equip too many of our students and workers with the knowledge and skills they need to access livable-wage jobs and thrive in growing industry sectors that offer strong career pathways for mobility out of poverty. And, the best-in-class nonprofit and community-based programs that work to overcome education and workforce inequities do not have the scale or the resources to lift up all the people who need them.

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That is one of the key themes from Bridges Toward Equity: Making Workforce Development Work for All, the roundtable discussion held Sept. 28 to kick off the launch of the AIR Equity Initiative, our $100+ million five-year investment to advance equity in several important areas: workforce development, education, public safety and policing, and eventually, health.

During the roundtable event, a panel of AIR and community experts shared how stakeholders can work together to pursue an agenda to increase economic mobility and prosperity for the many Americans who are currently being left behind. Here are some additional themes from the discussion:

1. We can improve the education to workforce pipeline by expanding effective pathways to well-paying jobs.

“Equity appears where you have pathways, and multiple pathways, accessibility into those pathways, and support for students on those pathways,” said Mark Potter, provost and chief academic officer of City Colleges of Chicago.

Using the City Colleges of Chicago’s work as an example, Potter said career pathways must be relevant and lead to good-paying jobs. “To achieve equity in the workforce, we need to connect students to employers, and reach into and resonate with communities and vulnerable populations that are in need of pathways into employment,” he added.

Potter said it is important for anyone in workforce development to understand the needs of communities, noting that many students he works with want to feel a sense of belonging and support in future jobs.

Career pathways also should not be predetermined by what residents of one neighborhood have access to versus residents of another neighborhood, Potter added.

2. Inequities in other systems, such as the criminal justice system, have to be addressed in tandem with efforts to boost workforce equity.

Van Ton Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health, a California nonprofit that is building a network of allied health care workers, told a story of a young man who went through a workforce training program and yet was unable to secure employment because of his criminal record. He illegally caught a fish that was too small when he was 15 years old, leading to a ticket. When he didn’t pay the ticket, his charge became a felony that ended up on his record. With a proactive workforce development strategy, Quinlivan said, the local workforce development board was able to expunge his record, and he got a job.

“This an example of unintentional friction in the process” of workforce development, Quinlivan said. “That’s why all of us need to work together [across sectors and systems] to do what we do best to move communities at scale into good jobs.”

3. Community colleges are among the best positioned institutions in our nation to connect workers to opportunity.

Potter shared that community colleges, such as City Colleges of Chicago, have many programs to assist individuals whom the system may leave behind, such as those who have been in prison, displaced workers, youth who are not in school or in the workforce, and English language learners. These services include adult basic and secondary education, English as a second language courses (which often are free), and “bridge” programs that help people build basic skills while also connecting them to employment opportunities.

“What we need to do better is operate [these programs] at scale and bring them to more people,” Potter said. “And this is where the AIR Equity Initiative can bring some real tangible results, by partnering” with colleges.

4. Schools have a role to play.

The panelists noted that K-12 education plays an important role in workforce development.

Irma Perez-Johnson, an AIR vice president, noted that K-12 education systems need to better prepare all students for postsecondary success and for lifelong learning. Education also needs to better reflect the ongoing influence of technology, automation, and globalization in all aspects of our lives, including jobs and the labor market. Perez-Johnson noted promising approaches such as partnerships between school districts and local colleges or universities to offer early college high school or dual enrollment programs and pre-apprenticeships or youth apprenticeships that lead directly into apprenticeships.

5. Employers also have a role to play.

Employers can support frontline and entry-level workers’ advancement more equitably by tweaking traditional programs, such as tuition reimbursement, Quinlivan said. Offering tuition support, rather than expecting employees to pay upfront and then be reimbursed, can make continuing education accessible to more people.

In addition, employers can proactively work to prevent workers from losing out when technological advances change the workplace.

“One of the things the literature clearly shows is that workers are much better off when we can prevent displacement,” Perez-Johnson said. So, it’s important for organizations to help employers see the cost-benefit of supporting workers likely to be affected by technology to upgrade their skills or enable them to move to different jobs.

Kimberly DuMont, AIR vice president and managing director of the AIR Equity Initiative, said that is some of the important work that the AIR Equity Initiative will do.

“We’re going to work across different systems,” DuMont said. “Multiple skillsets and expertise can benefit the work we’re trying to do. And partnered with researchers, program implementers can have even more impact.”