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A ‘Skills And’ Approach Can Support Workers in Pursuit of Quality Jobs

July 27, 2023

At a Glance

To ensure individuals succeed in high-demand, family-supporting careers, we must provide jobseekers and workers who experience structural barriers with equitable access to skills-focused career pathways, quality jobs, and high-quality supports.

Mary Gardner Clagett Senior Director
Alyshah Aziz Director
Phoenix Asifa Senior Program Manager
Practices & Centers

For nearly 40 years, Jobs for the Future (JFF) has worked to develop and scale evidence-based education and training strategies to help individuals who experience systemic barriers attain the skills and credentials needed for in-demand quality jobs. Building on lessons from this work, we’ve developed workforce policy recommendations designed to support equitable economic advancement for all and help the United States compete in today’s global economy. Our recommendations have been vetted by stakeholders from some of the nation’s most innovative workforce programs, and their feedback has helped us gain real-world insights and new ideas for progressing toward our new North Star: In 10 years, 75 million people facing systemic barriers to advancement will work in quality jobs.

To this end, JFF has developed a Quality Jobs Framework to define job quality based on what’s important to workers today—jobs that provide not only living wages and benefits but also stability, flexibility, autonomy, and economic advancement. To test the framework, we spent a year talking with experts and stakeholders on the topic of job quality and about changes in policy and practice that are needed to achieve this goal.

Now we are focusing on a broader, more holistic analysis of what workers with low to moderate incomes need to get good jobs and advance in today’s economy. Specifically, we are zeroing in on the social determinants of work—the factors and conditions that affect a person’s ability to prepare for and succeed in the workforce. And we are working to identify the policy changes that are necessary to ensure these conditions. This is something we are referring to as “Skills And…”

“Skills And…” Can Address a Wide Range of Advancement Barriers

While skills and credentials have a direct impact on workers’ employment and earnings potential, skills alone are not enough to ensure economic advancement for all of America’s workers. If we want to ensure that all individuals succeed in high-demand, family-supporting careers, we must provide jobseekers and workers who experience structural barriers—like occupational segregation, housing discrimination, and lack of other needed supports—with equitable access to skills-focused career pathways, quality jobs, and high-quality supports. Policy also must address enabling conditions to overcome the structural barriers that have proven to decrease worker resiliency and have contributed to the Black-white wealth gap and employment disparities for people of color, women of all races and backgrounds, individuals with criminal records, and others. Even small fluctuations in the job market have a higher impact on the workers most affected by these barriers.

If we want to ensure that all individuals succeed in high-demand, family-supporting careers, we must provide jobseekers and workers who experience structural barriers—like occupational segregation, housing discrimination, and lack of other needed supports—with equitable access to skills-focused career pathways, quality jobs, and high-quality supports.

To fully support workers so they can succeed, the following social determinants of work must be realized:

  • Financial security allows workers to meet their basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, and health care during sickness, economic downturn, job loss, or other emergencies.
  • Affordable housing is essential for workers to successfully participate in the workforce. High housing costs and lack of affordable housing have only intensified since the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Transportation is essential for work. Transportation challenges that result from the combination of poor public transit systems and job sprawl, where jobs are located far from where families from low- to moderate-income households reside, are a major barrier to advancement.
  • Health care, including health insurance, paid sick leave, and mental health services, are critical to worker success. Uneven healthcare coverage, especially for workers in low-paying jobs, often leaves workers and their families unprotected.
  • Quality child care, which can take as much as 35% of a family’s income, might be the most important factor in a family’s ability to secure and maintain a quality job and the greatest barrier for working families, as affordability and accessibility have only worsened since the pandemic. Working parents with low and moderate incomes—especially mothers—often face additional challenges in balancing work and family obligations.
  • Access to lifelong education and skills development is critical, especially as we look to the future of work where technology advancements are expected to transform or even eliminate many low-wage jobs. The traditional model of learning as it relates to career development—learn first, then get a job—is being replaced by lifelong learning principles. As a result, more workers will need upskilling and reskilling to advance in work.
  • Broadband access and digital literacy are necessary to search for jobs, connect with employers, learn new skills and competencies, and perform general work duties. However, infrastructure gaps limiting internet access and high costs for service and devices have fueled a digital divide that is just now being addressed by federal policy.

However, the federal programs individuals depend on to offer these crucial supports are usually siloed and not easily combined to provide the kinds of wraparound assistance that workers need.

Joining Forces to De-Silo and Address the “Benefits Cliff”

Federal support programs and the policies that create them are authorized in different federal statutes, developed by different committees in Congress, administered by different government agencies, delivered by distinct programs and providers, and vary widely in terms of eligibility and reporting requirements. Because of these diverging rules and eligibility standards, gaining access to one form of assistance can put participants at risk of losing other critical supports. This phenomenon, known as a benefits cliff, is exactly that: Individuals experience a sudden, unexpected drop-off in eligibility for critical supports as a result of even a slight increase in income or receipt of assistance from another program. This fear of losing access to support can discourage workers striving to attain economic stability and advancement from pursuing further education or promotions.

To address these long-standing challenges effectively, we must understand how all these supports interact, and identify where they do not align, or worse, work against each other. And we must advocate for comprehensive, systemic changes in our safety net programs so they are designed to help workers achieve long-term financial stability.

Several states and organizations are making real progress in these policy issue areas:

  1. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (Atlanta Fed) conducts research, engages with local partners, and makes data-driven recommendations on policies that impact the benefits cliff. They developed the Career Ladder Identifier and Financial Forecaster (CLIFF) suite of tools to model the interaction of public benefits, taxes, and tax credits with wage progressions.
  2. Education and workforce entities in three states—Connecticut, Florida, and Maine—piloted the CLIFF Dashboard, a tool that shows clients the financial outlook associated with various careers over a 20-year span. While these pilot studies were relatively small in scale, findings indicate that the CLIFF Dashboard is a valuable tool to help clients make informed career choices and plan for long-term financial stability.
  3. Massachusetts is using American Rescue Plan Act dollars to fund a three-year pilot program that will calculate household income and resources for 100 participating families, then issue cash payments to account for any loss of public benefits.
  4. The Career Mobility Action Plan pilot in Washington, DC, aims to lift 600 families experiencing homelessness out of poverty through a combination of cash reimbursements to offset benefits cliff-driven income loss and intensive case management.
  5. Allen County, Ohio’s “Benefits Bridge” pilot program, launched in 2018, covers any benefits loss and other expenses that present barriers to employment for 18 months, and offers participants a $3,000 cash payout upon program completion. Though this program was launched in 2018, this combination of financial stabilization and incentives proved so successful that it is now being scaled to other counties across the state.

As we continue to work toward our North Star, it will be increasingly important for JFF to identify our own policy priorities and to partner with other organizations and stakeholders in pursuit of new investments and needed changes in our education, workforce development, and social support systems to ensure economic advancement for all America’s workers. This includes perfecting our social safety net programs so they provide the comprehensive assistance needed by workers who experience barriers to advancement, so they can pursue and succeed in rewarding, family-supporting careers.

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