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6 Ways States Should Use New Federal Grant to Jump-Start Economic Recovery

August 3, 2020

At a Glance

The Reimagine Workforce Preparation grants give states an opportunity to design creative strategies for recovering from the pandemic-driven economic crisis.

Lexi Barrett
Practices & Centers Topics

The Reimagine Workforce Preparation grant program allows states to compete for funds aimed at helping individuals build new skills and supporting local economies. This competition will award each winning state an estimated $15 million to implement reforms focused on two priorities: 1) developing or expanding short-term, industry-aligned education and training programs, and 2) establishing small business incubators on college campuses.

The federal government has launched a competitive grant program that encourages states to come up with new ways to help workers and local economies recover from the public health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

JFF urges states to seize this opportunity to design new solutions to recent and ongoing workforce disruption, regardless of whether they win this particular grant. To help states get started and ensure recovery efforts are equitable, JFF offers these six big ideas:

  1. Short-term education and training programs that lead to stackable credentials for in-demand careers.
  2. A statewide skills-based approach to talent development.
  3. An apprenticeship innovation network.
  4. A comprehensive upskilling and reskilling program.
  5. A small business innovation network focused on good jobs.
  6. Positioning community colleges as cross-sector catalysts for entrepreneurial innovation in the age of COVID-19.

The U.S. Department of Education expects to award eight or nine grants worth about $15 million each. The new Reimagine Workforce Preparation (RWP) initiative uses funds from the CARES Act—one of the stimulus bills Congress passed in the spring.

Interested states should submit proposals focused on one of these two priorities: 1) developing or expanding short-term, industry-aligned education and training programs that help workers gain skills they will need to return to work in the post-COVID economy, and 2) establishing small business incubators on college campuses.

The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated inequities that are deeply ingrained in American society, and this grant program offers states a unique opportunity to propose plans designed to build an equitable economic recovery. At this unprecedented time, we all need to think differently. It isn’t a time to focus on getting back to normal—back to systems and institutions that were failing too many people. States, and the country as a whole, must engineer a recovery that transforms systems while fostering community revitalization.

Reimagining workforce preparation is an imperative for all states.

As is clear from its name, the goal of the RWP grant opportunity is to compel state leaders to reimagine their workforce training and education systems. And while the grant competition provides an opportunity for states to access federal funds to support such efforts, reimagining workforce preparation is an imperative for all states—whether they succeed in claiming a grant or not.

JFF’s six big ideas for reimagining workforce development offer innovative and practical steps that any state (or local workforce system) should consider when pivoting to respond to the challenges our new economy presents.

Here are six ways states can use the new RWP grants (or pursue other funding) to achieve this:

1. Design or scale short-term education and training programs that lead to stackable credentials for in-demand careers—especially those involving skills that will prove to be most valuable in the post-COVID era.

In today’s economy, students, workers, and jobseekers need rapid routes to credentials of value. To make this easier, states could create short-term education or training programs that circumvent longer career pathways and offer accessible on-ramps to rewarding careers in the COVID and post-COVID economies. People who complete these programs would receive skills-based transcripts that help employers find them, driving competency-based hiring across the state.

2. Create a statewide skills-based approach to talent development.

Earning a traditional postsecondary degree no longer adequately prepares students to succeed in the modern economy. A confluence of transformational factors—automation, the evolution of the labor market, COVID-19, and global economic pressures—has wildly accelerated the pace of change, and traditional educational models lack the flexibility to adapt to employers’ evolving challenges and priorities. States should launch skills-based approaches to talent development that prioritize specific, high-demand skills individuals have, regardless of where or how they obtained them.

As part of this effort, states could take steps to support individuals, education providers, and employers. For example, officials could screen unemployed people and award them credit and credentials for the skills they possess and any prior learning they have attained, focusing on skills that are transferable to multiple sectors and skills that will be highly valued in emerging career paths.

To help education providers, states could develop new competency-focused credentialing programs and shift to competency-based transcripts of learning. And finally, they could conduct outreach to employers to ensure that they understand the benefits of skills-based hiring.

3. Launch a statewide apprenticeship innovation network.

By developing new apprenticeship programs, state leaders can provide individual workers who lost their jobs during this economic downturn with an opportunity to get back to work quickly while also building a more skilled workforce and establishing permanent pathways to good jobs. Apprenticeship is a proven model that combines paid on-the-job training with classroom instruction, enabling apprentices to launch high-wage careers while completing required training.

The RWP grant program offers an opportunity to improve on that model by building flexible arrangements, such as virtual work-based learning programs. As part of this effort, states could engage small businesses, develop programs focused on growing sectors of the economy, and recruit participants from underrepresented communities.

4. Deploy a comprehensive and scalable upskilling and reskilling program.

To get unemployed people back into the workforce, states could develop comprehensive job awareness and reskilling platforms. They would be a resource for workers who are trying to 1) determine the skills they have; 2) find jobs that require those skills—or jobs that they could qualify for with the right training; 3) identify training providers from a vetted list; 4) pursue training; and 5) find employment. The platforms would also connect each worker with individualized wraparound support services.

The platforms could be deployed statewide but also be customized to local needs, so they could be used by people in urban, suburban, and rural areas. And deployments in Opportunity Zones could leverage additional funding and offer additional supports. The training offerings could include virtual, in-person, or hybrid programs from a mix of local and national providers.

5. Strategically design, support, and scale a small business innovation network focused on good jobs.

States can expand the capacity of higher education partners, including community colleges and universities, to create small business incubators that provide resources and services to entrepreneurs interested in opening companies that will create jobs and increase regional economic activity.

To support such operations, states could build small business incubation and innovation networks that would offer services to new and existing small businesses at scale across entire regions. The networks would drive innovation within, and enhance the viability of, the small business community while also contributing to the state’s workforce development and inclusive economic recovery efforts. They also would improving partnerships between colleges and local businesses.

6. Position community colleges as cross-sector catalysts for entrepreneurial innovation in the age of COVID.

The states that are the most successful and most able to adapt to meet the rapidly changing needs of their workforces are those that have structures and mindsets that foster collaboration between the workforce, education, and economic development systems. Community colleges exist at the nexus of those systems and are well positioned to play an important role as hubs of innovation.

For example, a community college could serve as the institutional home of a small business development initiative that is responding to the COVID-19 crisis and creating good jobs for the future. To build on that kind of work, states could set up incubators on college campuses and thereby create new potential for further collaboration on workforce development and economic development efforts.

We believe that these six ideas offer innovative ways for states to transform their workforce development efforts while also ensuring that lower-income communities and communities of color have greater access to high-quality skill development opportunities. State leaders who pursue RWP grants will have a unique opportunity to reimagine their workforce and education systems and create innovative programs that have substantive and sustainable impact. Every state would benefit from implementing these ideas.

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