The blog of the Urban Institute
November 14, 2019

How Atlanta’s Local Workforce System Helps Job Seekers Find Sustainable Employment

November 14, 2019

Although the national unemployment rate hit a 50-year low in September at 3.5 percent, it’s not 3.5 percent everywhere. Many workers are still struggling to find a job in a tight labor market or need a better job to make ends meet.

Local leaders in Atlanta are addressing this challenge by strengthening current local workforce systems to ensure residents have access to jobs with sustainable wages and to improve the efficiency of businesses with productive and well-trained workers. As explained in our online local workforce system guide, a local workforce system is a set of organizations and activities preparing people for employment, helping workers advance their careers, and building a skilled workforce to support employers and the local economy.

“The labor market changes so quickly that you have to look ahead to know what employers want and make sure the skills you’re teaching are the skills employers need,” explained Cinda Herndon-King, founder of Atlanta CareerRise (ACR), speaking on a recent episode of the Urban Institute’s podcast, Critical Value.

Managed by the United Way of Greater Atlanta, ACR is a funders’ collaborative that channels resources, provides technical assistance, and leads system-level collaboration among a range of workforce development stakeholders. These stakeholders then provide career, education, and training services to “meet employers’ needs for skilled workers and pave the way for frontline workers and the unemployed to advance to a career with financial stability.”

ACR recently launched a regional effort, supported by a grant from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, to address racial and economic inequities in access to workforce system services. Herndon-King explained how the process began with an evidence-based starting point. “We started looking at training services, the availability of those services, and overlaid that with the demographics of the region,” she said.

“With a lot of partners around the table, it allowed us to start working on some of the processes we see disproportionately affect individuals from underserved neighborhoods.”

The importance of evidence

Jennie Sparandara, head of workforce initiatives at JPMorgan Chase, echoed Herndon-King on the importance of evidence, metrics, and goal setting in boosting the effectiveness of local workforce systems. “We want to stoke our systems with a guiding vision for what success looks like,” she explained.

“That could be something specific, like the amount of people working in a community, or an increased labor market participation by x percent. This will help us know who is working, what kinds of jobs are out there, where disparities are, and why they are there.”

Urban provided ACR and other Atlanta stakeholders with strategic guidance and technical assistance in using data for goal setting, decisionmaking, progress tracking, and implementing policies and programs. To develop a more tailored approach, Urban drew from the guide and workforce systems change framework to shape and facilitate their support.

This helped develop initial indicators and realistic measures to set the stage for more advanced and equitable policies and programs to address racial and economic disparities in Atlanta.

In the future, ACR plans to conduct further discussion around strategic planning among local leaders, including how specific activities and outcomes, identified through Urban’s collaboration, could lead to measurable impact around equity and inclusion.

Local workforce systems can—and should—collaborate to create change

Herndon-King says working together can increase shared understanding of service disparities and racial inequity. For cities looking to create change via workforce systems, she points to the importance of coordination across all organizations involved in addressing the unique challenges facing their communities.

“You can’t lift something from another community and necessarily make it work in yours. Every locality is different,” she said. “The dynamics vary with the labor market, employment, economic development, and certainly with the leadership in your community.”

Regardless of this variation, Herndon-King says everyone can benefit from meaningful partnerships. “It's getting [private sector leaders and employers] to the table to set the community strategy and keeping them there. Workforce organizations sometimes underestimate how important that is, and how much time needs to be invested into relationship building.”

As a funder collaborative, ACR is able to work with public workforce boards, businesses, philanthropy, and community-based, nonprofit workforce service providers.

She added, “Since everyone listens to government agencies and civic leaders, building those relationships and having them advocate for you is how to change the system.”

Barriers still stand in the way of career success for many Americans, including structural racism and disparities in access to education, homeownership, transportation, and child care. Local workforce systems can collaborate to help communities understand and overcome these challenges by opening pathways to economic security.

Photo by John Wollwerth via Shutterstock.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.