The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 22, 2018

A low unemployment rate doesn’t mean all workers have access to good jobs. Employer engagement strategies can help

May 22, 2018

The national unemployment rate grabbed headlines in April when it dropped to 3.9 percent, the lowest level since 2000. Low unemployment has brought increases in hiring and in the number of jobs added to the labor market. Employers across several sectors have reported labor shortages and greater demand for more workers, which has sparked optimism of a potential pickup in wages.

But low-income communities and people with barriers to employment are not seeing the same economic benefits. Chicago, for example, has an unemployment rate of 5 percent. But in North Lawndale, an economically distressed neighborhood on Chicago’s west side, the unemployment rate is 24 percent.

This is the reality for many distressed areas, as areas of concentrated poverty—often communities of color—are excluded from the growth benefiting adjacent areas.

US policymakers and businesses need to expand the narrative around jobs and identify areas where they can push for progress on employment and advancement for disadvantaged workers. Our new research explores employer engagement strategies of community-based organizations (CBOs) and tactics for helping program participants overcome barriers to employment.

The struggle to find good jobs

When vulnerable people are limited to low-wage work with little opportunity to advance, they are stuck in a constant cycle of instability and financial uncertainty.

From 2008 to 2016, 61.5 percent of New York City’s new private-sector jobs were low-wage positions. The United Way ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) project captured the implications of this trend in a recent study that found that even though the overall economy is thriving, 43 percent of US households (51 million) struggle to afford housing, food, health care, and transportation.

Several barriers—including a criminal record, limited transportation access, low job quality, low educational attainment, discrimination, and housing instability—inhibit job seekers from securing jobs that offer high wages, good benefits, and options for advancement.

How community-based organizations can help

Community-based organizations play a vital role in addressing barriers to employment and mobility. They provide direct support services and broad community programs that help people become self-sufficient and that advocate for systemic changes to address root causes of poverty.

Through this CBO support, communities gain access to resources—such as education and training, housing assistance, legal aid, food assistance, and public benefits—that help families become stable and economically mobile.

One prominent area of CBO focus is economic security through workforce development. Organizations use strategies that build employer partnerships to strengthen pathways to high-quality jobs and break through barriers that previously locked people out of jobs. By building employer partnerships, CBOs open job opportunities that might have been blocked because of stigma, mistranslated skills and experience, and lack of education and skills.

Through our research, we found the following employer engagement strategies that helped participants find good jobs:

  • In Fort Worth, Texas, Community Learning Center Inc. works with employers in an aerospace consortium to develop and adjust their curriculum according to industry standards and demand.
  • In Chicago, Cara Chicago intentionally partners with employers providing high-quality positions with pathways for advancement and offers high-touch services to best meet employer demands.
  • In New York City, Henry Street Settlement leverages the collective resources of the Lower East Side Employment Network to provide training options and support services that benefit job seekers and employers.

By rooting their approach in meeting an industry need and crafting services and curricula to employer specifications, CBOs offer a comparative advantage that their participants can leverage in the labor market. Emphasizing job quality and advancement as part of employer partnerships also minimizes the risk of program participants finding employment that does not meet their immediate and long-term needs.

A broad approach to address barriers to employment

Researchers and policymakers can take a broader approach to address areas of inequity that keep people trapped in cycles of low-wage work or joblessness. Progress requires both program strategies and systemic changes to our economy to address structural factors that put people at a stark disadvantage. This includes working with CBOs and communities in need to implement new investments and strategies to expand pathways to economic security and address inequality directly.

Karima Arnold participates in a workshop at the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative on December 14, 2017, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) has a hyper-local focus, with workers coming only from the area known as University City, and it trains workers for jobs that already exist in the area. Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP via Getty Images.

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