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Impact Stories

New Approaches Demand Embracing Risk and Opportunity

September 21, 2021


The pandemic taught us that large scale adaptation cannot be achieved without a degree of risk and uncertainty. Companies invested millions into building technology infrastructure that allowed employees to work from home, and outfitted physical spaces to enable on-site work with minimal risk. Many parents, particularly women, sacrificed the security and comforts of dual incomes in order to care for their children; others shifted careers to continue earning and ensure their basic needs are met.

Yet, among all of this turbulence, we are beginning to see that embracing calculated risk and uncertainty, particularly when engaging with new partners, can reveal possibilities we never knew existed.

Over the past 18 months, workforce development boards and American Job Centers have provided millions of workers with guidance and support navigating the complexities of a rapidly changing economic environment. To support the public workforce system during this time of immense change, JFF, New Profit, XPRIZE, and MIT Solve are working alongside six leading workforce board partners in the Future of Work Grand Challenge, a unique competition that paired them with fourteen cutting-edge training providers to co-create innovative ways to help displaced workers reskill to move into higher-wage jobs.

How Workforce Boards Show the Way to the Future of Work
JFF is supporting workforce boards and partner organizations to explore new opportunities in recruiting, training, and capacity-building. This article is one in a series featuring partner impact stories. Through separate features set to be released by JFF, we examine how these six workforce boards have approached the Challenge through the lens of future-focused behaviors.
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Two of our partners, Virginia’s Hampton Roads Workforce Council and the Michigan Works! Consortium, shared how they’re opportunity-oriented—actively seeking out new opportunities to increase their influence and expand the range of services they help make available to their communities..

The workforce boards in the Future of Work Grand Challenge seized an opportunity to engage in a high-profile, fast-paced training initiative during a time of significant shifts in local employment dynamics.

The Hampton Roads Workforce Council

prides itself on pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and finding new solutions to strengthen the local economy. They were excited by the opportunity to use national partnerships and solution providers to deliver comprehensive services to their stakeholders. Employers in the Hampton Roads region, especially in the construction and manufacturing industries, were desperate for skilled talent during the winter and spring of 2020 and looked to the workforce board for answers. Through the framework and requirements of the Future of Work Grand Challenge, the workforce board was able to position itself as a critical partner to these employers and engage both new and existing stakeholders in a way that was responsive to their needs and the unique demands of the moment.

In contrast, at first glance, economies in west and southwest Michigan

weathered the pandemic better than other communities. Because of their high concentration of manufacturing (especially furniture manufacturing), healthcare, and information technology industries, all of which remained in-demand during the past year, the regional unemployment rate among the West Michigan consortium of boards was below 5 percent in early spring of 2020. However, that low unemployment rate wasn’t uniform across counties or populations, and many communities within the boards’ catchment areas were struggling. The team in West Michigan knew there were specific challenges to be met and were open to the Future of Work Grand Challenge as a unique approach to sourcing and partnering with solutions from across the country who could serve the needs of their customers.

Though we knew there was risk involved with some of the lofty goals and expectations, we thought if it was a solution that worked for our regions’ job seekers (and therefore our regions’ employers) the risk would be worthwhile. It’s really as simple as that.

Brittany Lenertz, Talent Solutions Director, West Michigan Works

For some regions, the Grand Challenge offered the opportunity to build sustainable training provider partnerships in critical emerging industries. Beyond training and placing hundreds of jobseekers into living wage jobs during the pandemic, a major highlight of the Grand Challenge, and the direct result of an opportunity-oriented mindset, was the formation of long-term partnerships between training solutions and workforce boards. The seeds of these partnerships, and the relationships that underlie them, would not have emerged without the willingness of workforce boards to embrace new models.

In Michigan the workforce board consortium jumped at the opportunity to work with Centro Community Partners,

an app-based technology solution that provides entrepreneurship training and support to individuals looking to start their own small businesses. Michigan Works had been searching for an entrepreneurship program to complement their existing services for several years, but had been unable to offer a sustainable programming model. Centro’s model provides curriculum and professional development training to workforce board staff, which enables staff to deliver the training to participants in-house. This training is then coupled with localized support and resources available on the app. This approach fit the needs of the target audience and allowed for a sustainable model that can be continued beyond the Challenge.

The Michigan Works consortium was not the only region to establish partnerships built for the long-term. Even before the Grand Challenge wraps up at the end of 2021, plans for continuing relationships and expansion are taking place in Hampton Roads with training provider Generation USA, in Dallas, Texas with training providers VITAL and Arts2Work, and in Worcester, Massachusetts with providers HireMee and ChargerHelp!, among others.

As the ongoing pandemic continues to shape and shift our economy, the role workforce development boards play in their local communities will need to further adapt and expand. Their willingness to take calculated risks, explore novel partnerships, and open new doors for their customers may mean the difference between economies that are resilient and those that lag behind.

Seizing the opportunity to offer access to new and innovative training modalities for in-demand jobs was a key motivator for all of the participating workforce boards.

— Nearly all regions recognized that recruiting such a large number of training participants within a six-week timeframe during a global pandemic would be challenging.

Most regions struggled to achieve the target recruitment goal of 350 participants, despite experiencing higher-than-average unemployment rates. Some potential participants were hesitant to return to work given concerns for their health and safety; others were unable to reenter the workforce due to a lack of childcare while schools and daycares remained closed. Meanwhile, training participants had to invest time into a new program, while employers invested time and money in hiring workers they were not certain have been prepared with the right skills.

— Workforce boards rely on the deep trust they’ve established with customers, employers, and community partners to operate successfully, and to engage with the Grand Challenge, workforce board frontline staff took on significant responsibilities.

Participating in this initiative meant added time spent on outreach, coordination, and support at the expense of other well-established programs. Many boards noted the significant reputational risk they had taken on by participating in such an ambitious, fast-paced effort.

— Transparency with stakeholders and communicating the mission and goals of the Challenge proved vital in building strong partnerships.

As Christina Brooks, the Hampton Roads senior director, said, “The greatest risk is making promises that can’t be kept. We were intentional with how we communicated this opportunity with our jobseekers and employers to ensure they were fully informed about the potential challenges as well as the potential successes.”

— In a time when many organizations and people are considering taking chances on new opportunities and models, often without guidance or help, communicating a sense of shared risk and responsibility helped build trust and confidence among stakeholders.

About the Future of Work Grand Challenge

JFF, New Profit, XPRIZE, and MIT Solve are working together alongside six leading workforce partners in the Future of Work Grand Challenge, a set of equity-focused competitions to generate bold ideas and innovative new training approaches to help displaced workers rapidly build new skills and move into high-wage careers. This joint effort is an important step toward modernizing the American workforce system to better adapt to the changing ways Americans learn, work, and earn in the post-pandemic environment. This is one article in a series featuring partner impact stories.

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