What Human-Centered Design Looks Like in the Workforce System

Make Fast Studio and Jobs for the Future’s maturity model that maps workforce boards along a spectrum of customer and community engagement.

Published jun. 02, 2022

The long-overdue social and economic upheavals of the past few years have forced us to confront how our national history has shaped our institutions, even those formed on the fundamental principles of fairness and opportunity.

The public workforce system is one such institution, and as workforce leaders, we are learning how to identify and confront the inequities baked into our policies, procedures, and practices. As part of this shift, we recognize that the transformed labor market has left our current models of training job seekers and connecting them to employment inadequate for the communities we serve.

To address these core issues and aspirations, we identified human-centered design (HCD) as a critical lens, a language, and a set of practices to view and speak about organizational qualities and recommend concrete methods for behavioral and cultural change.

HCD thinking flips the problem-solving process on its head by exploring these issues through the eyes of customers, stakeholders, beneficiaries of services, and front-line staff. For workforce boards, adopting HCD to create programs, policies, and products requires examination of who they consider the “customer” and how that person's voice is recognized and upheld throughout the organization. One of the most powerful aspects of human-centered design is that it starts with the assumption that everyone is more than just a customer, a worker, or an employer. This recognition of each constituent as a complete person helps us learn about one another’s needs, wants, and skills. It asks workforce leaders to consider which (if any) parts of their organization currently incorporate the voice of that person, how those insights are operationalized, documented, and formalized, and how they are woven into the underlying culture of the organization.

The research conducted led to the development of a “maturity model” that maps workforce boards along a spectrum of customer and community engagement. The maturity model includes four stages:

  • Alone. Workforce boards that have a stand-alone business model and primarily engage transactionally with customers and community organizations to comply with state and federal statutes.
  • Aligned. Workforce development boards that see the value in understanding unique and constantly-changing needs, and actively engage with community organizations to ensure programs, policies, and products are in alignment with those needs.
  • Attuned. Workforce boards that have adopted a strategy for gathering feedback from and insights on their customers and community organizations and are embedding those insights into their decision-making and program design process.
  • Anchored. Workforce boards that are fully embedded and viewed as leaders in the broad ecosystem of their communities. These boards’ operating principles are grounded in people, businesses, and systems that enable communities to thrive.

To build the maturity model, we mapped the behaviors identified in interviews to each stage of the model, broken down into five categories. Swipe to see each mapped against the related spectrum of engagement.

1) As workforce development leaders, we need to confront a shift in purpose. A workforce system designed solely to fill job vacancies with jobseekers is doomed to fail at meeting the complex and evolving needs of the people and markets it serves:

2) We need to reexamine policies through an equity lens lest we continue to unwittingly perpetuate bias, injustice, and trauma:

3) We need to recognize the people of workforce boards, not solely as job coaches or board members completing a set of tasks or a prescribed role, but as fully-realized and empowered members of the community in which they work and live:

4) We need to determine the ways in which the programs and products we build and deliver help or hinder, and include or exclude:

5) We need to reposition the role of workforce boards as anchor institutions and partners that are deeply embedded in the communities they serve, and as integral to the well-being of a place as social-network-building engines such as libraries, houses of worship, and community gardens:

Starting in early 2021, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, a group of partners that included Make Fast Studio, Aspen Labs, JFF, Turning Basin Labs, and CivicMakers set out to explore the degree to which HCD principles were present in workforce boards across California and the country. The goal of this work was to develop a set of tools to help guide workforce boards toward discovering a more empathetic organizational posture. We hypothesized that by changing this approach, and the practices and policies that underlie it, workforce boards will deliver more equitable and meaningful outcomes to those they serve.

This is just the start. While our work here is a great stepping-off point, it remains incomplete as it captures only a fragment of the experience and perspective of workers, workforce board staff, and the many other stakeholders involved in this system. The next step is to implement and test this model and discover new tools for operationalizing the model with a cohort of workforce boards committed to working with their board members, elected officials, and other stakeholders.


Illustrations by Emily Shepard, Graphic Distillery

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