The COVID-19 pandemic has created significant economic shocks to workers and employers. More than two in five adults reported that their families suffered a job or income loss because of the economic impact of COVID-19—losses which have disproportionately affected Black and Latinx adults and have led to greater challenges in meeting basic needs like rent. Employers, especially in the hospitality and retail sectors, have also been hit hard, and local workforce systems are still adapting to the pandemic landscape.
Although the causes of the 2007 Great Recession are very different from the current recession, the US is at risk of another inequitable recovery. Workers suffering the greatest economic harm in both economic crises have been low-wage workers, people with lower education levels, and people of color (PDF), who are most likely to be clustered in low-wage jobs because of occupational segregation. Applying a racial and economic equity lens (PDF) is crucial for workforce development programs that want to help reduce racial disparities during the pandemic recovery.
At the US Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods National Network Conference in December, hosted by the Urban Institute, national experts and local practitioners shared how the workforce development field is responding to new challenges and opportunities and what practices and lessons have worked in their communities. These lessons can help community-based organizations and other stakeholders consider new strategies and partnerships to alleviate the effects of the pandemic and ensure an equitable economic recovery.
Benefits of a place-based approach to workforce development
Place-based approaches tailor programs to the needs and strengths of a specific community and location, and they aim to address the structural and systemic barriers preventing students and their families from achieving financial security.
The Promise Neighborhoods program is a competitive grant program from the US Department of Education that brings communities place-based supports from cradle to career. Promise Neighborhood communities exemplify the benefits of place-based partnerships in workforce development programming. These programs have shown that beyond employers and employees, local leaders—such as regional employers or industries, county or city executive staff, and community college representatives—play a critical role in disseminating and coordinating partnerships that prioritize the employment needs of families in communities.
As Antoinette Fugee, manager of the Pathways to Success workforce development programs for the Center for Family Services and Camden Promise Neighborhood, explained at the conference, many new employees often need nonjudgmental coaching and conflict mediation to navigate unfamiliar expectations and systems in a new job. When this support is provided by a local nonprofit, it takes the brunt off the business and employer. “We need to elevate candidates and educate employers so that there is better understanding of the expectations and challenges on both sides, which leads to retention and the longevity of a career,” Fugee said.
According to the organization’s most recent annual report, 86 percent of graduates in the Center for Family Services’ workforce development programs transitioned to employment, secondary education, or national service through programs like PowerCorps and InDemand.
Strategies for an equitable workforce recovery
Strengthening and building cross-sector partnerships, which leverage the ongoing work of community organizations and school districts, can allow regional employers or industries to plug place-based approaches into their workforce development programs.
“We were observing concentrations of equity gaps [exacerbated by COVID-19] in specific neighborhoods and places,” said Ana Gutierrez, senior director at JFF. “Supporting regional economies and cross-sector leaders allows the whole gamut of folks that need to be a part of the solutions addressing place-based conditions.”
Gutierrez leads JFF’s regional economic development unit in California and studies ways to better understand how cities and regions can establish equitable systems that lead to economic mobility. She works with partners across sectors at the state, regional, and local levels, supporting their efforts to transform systems so they can succeed in the new economy. This way, systems can address challenges families experience when securing long-term employment—such as transportation, housing, and training—in coordination, rather than in silos.
When employers and workforce development programs adopt people- and community-focused frameworks, they can also invest in upskilling workers to meet COVID-19-related demand for technical and IT-specific training. Gutierrez said a California employer recently trained more than 20,000 new workers in middle-wage and middle-skilled jobs—prioritizing people without a college degree—with the support of schools and community-based organizations. Upskilling programs that provide technical training to people of color can also reduce occupational segregation.
José Muñoz, national director of the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership, also emphasized the value of cross-sector partnerships, especially in connecting workers to existing and new work.
“In Albuquerque, New Mexico, we began using Community Schools to fund and coordinate the relationships between schools and business engagement with desired work from families,” he said. “Basically, we took the concept of a workforce regional hub and multiplied it in neighborhoods, increasing communication of new opportunities from local businesses.”
This effort, which included support from the state’s workforce agency, provided new work opportunities for parents in their communities and helped improve retention and performance at local high schools.
Ultimately, earnings and employment rate measures do not give a full picture of the advances the workforce development field needs for an equitable pandemic recovery. Rather, the strength of local cross-sector partnerships between educators, nonprofit organizations, and employers will determine whether systemic inequities in employment and financial security will be maintained or disrupted.