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The Changing Landscape of Workforce Intermediaries: Insight Gained from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions

By Marlene Seltzer, Richard Kazis, and Fred Dedrick

The National Fund for Workforce Solutions is one of the nation’s most ambitious national philanthropic efforts to prepare lower-skilled adults for advancement through sector initiatives. Operating in 35 communities, and benefiting from several years of evaluation studies, the National Fund’s first five years offer some important lessons about what it takes to “connect people to jobs,” particularly individuals who lack significant job experience, workplace skills, and postsecondary credentials. Jobs for the Future’s Marlene Seltzer and Richard Kazis, along with philanthropic leaders Barbara Dyer and Bob Giloth, contributed a chapter to Connecting People to Work that highlights the most important of these lessons.

Most of the National Fund’s initial goals have been met or on a track to be achieved in the next year. More than 100 industry partnerships have served approximately 4,000 employers. By 2013, the National Fund collaboratives had served 54,000 individuals, assisting them in acquiring 37,000 credentials and degrees. Since 2007, more than 500 national, regional, and local funders have contributed $200 million to the 35 different regional funder collaboratives across the country.

These are major accomplishments. The landscape of workforce philanthropy—and of regional workforce partnerships—has changed dramatically. The National Fund is showing that, in a world where credentials are essential for access to better jobs, low-income and low-skilled adults can be trained, credentialed, and successfully linked to employment opportunities. And, in a relatively slack economy, employers will work with intermediaries that execute well and whose product they trust.

At the same time, the National Fund’s experience has raised important questions about scale, sustainability, and strategy:

  • The key to the National Fund strategy is to strike a sustainable balance between the two goals of sector initiatives: to meet employer demand for entry- and next-level employees, and help low-income, underprepared individuals secure jobs and advance in careers. At what point do employer interests and social welfare priorities diverge too far? And what can local intermediaries do to sustain and widen the zone of mutual benefit—by working with both employers and service providers to change behaviors and align expectations?
  • The most impressive National Fund sites have been engaged in sector strategies for a decade or more. Developing the requisite local trust and delivery track record takes time. Will funding partners, employers, and local political leaders have the patience to stay the course?
  • Ultimately, scale and sustainability will require much closer interaction between sector initiatives and the established regional education and training systems, community colleges, and public workforce infrastructure. This alignment and partnering has been uneven in National Fund communities. Can sector strategies provide sufficient benefit to these institutions that they change their routine business practices to tap and grow the value added from sector partnerships and services? Long-term institutionalization of these models will require better answers to this question.

The workforce intermediaries that knit sector efforts together and drive them forward at the local level have made huge strides in the last decade. Local progress will need to continue to deepen and mature. Vehicles like the National Fund are clearly important for accelerating learning and efficiencies across sites. At the same time, National Fund sites and leaders have also concluded from their first five years that local progress will also require public policy changes—and advocacy. State and national efforts to align public policy, resources, and incentives with local innovations will be necessary if sectoral strategies are to become the primary national approach to workforce development.

Read editor Maureen Conway of the Aspen Institute's blog about Connecting People to Work, also published on Huffington Post.