Workforce Boards Focus on Building Deeper Connections
How the workforce system prioritizes people while introducing tech-driven job training programs to their communities.
Workforce boards and American Job Centers were built on the model of in-person service delivery and serve as important access points for people who need to connect to social supports that ease their transition from one job to the next, or are seeking coaching to help them persist in new training programs.
To support the public workforce system during this time of change, JFF, New Profit, XPRIZE, and MIT Solve tapped six leading workforce boards from across the United States to participate in the Future of Work Grand Challenge, a competition in which the workforce boards partner with companies that offer tech-driven, next-generation job training platforms and programs. The goal is to create innovative ways to help displaced workers build skills that are in demand in today’s economy. The Future of Work Grand Challenge was launched in early 2020, when people, organizations, and society as a whole were trying to adapt to a world where the COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in digital tools suddenly playing a bigger role in work and learning than they ever had before.
In this impact story, we explore how participating workforce boards endeavored—and struggled—to embody a human-centered approach to introducing tech-driven job training programs to their communities during the Future of Work Grand Challenge.
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.
Workforce boards had the opportunity to develop new strategies of soliciting feedback during a time when jobseekers’ mental models of what constitutes a good job were evolving rapidly and workers everywhere were reexamining their relationships with work.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed how many workforce boards think about what it means to serve their communities. While this impacted how they would deliver services and what services they would offer, it also required an adjustment in how workforce boards communicated opportunities and solicited, received, and interpreted feedback from jobseekers and other stakeholders in their communities.
For example, the Future of Work Grand Challenge’s focus on living wage had been an admirable goal for the 2019 economy, when employees had little leverage. But that goal was merely table stakes for the COVID-19 labor market, in which employers were raising wages far faster than expected. Job quality, including factors such as workplace safety and working conditions, played a much more powerful role in people’s decisions about whether they would go back to work and what occupations and careers they would choose to pursue.
Often, however, jobseekers’ motivations were opaque, and understanding them required a deeper level of outreach and input. In Virginia, the Hampton Roads Workforce Council was faced with the task of figuring out, early on in the Grand Challenge, why jobseekers were lining up for advanced manufacturing training but were hesitant to engage in construction training, even though wages were similar, and, at least on the surface, the occupations require similar skills and involve similar tasks.
The Behavior in Action
Despite the promise of accessibility provided by entirely virtual classrooms, workforce boards and their training provider partners learned that success requires a personal touch.
Representatives of workforce boards in several parts of the country noted they had difficulty retaining participants and maintaining active engagement in programs that are offered in a fully virtual learning environment. The Hampton Roads Workforce Council and two of its solutions teams began incorporating in-person collaboration time at American Job Centers with the hope of boosting learner retention and engagement. They found that bringing people together provided the human interaction and connection needed to keep learners on track and persisting through completion. Hampton Roads hired a full-time program navigator as part of its grant to facilitate in-person services. The program navigator kept walk-in office hours, held soft skill boot camps for participants in programs offered by training provider Dignity of Work, coordinated in-person meetups for the students of training provider Alelo, and connected learners across all three Challenge-affiliated training programs to social services. Dignity of Work also doubled down on a more personal approach and hired its own program navigator, at Hampton Roads’ recommendation.
Hampton Roads planned for a high degree of in-person, or at least personal, service delivery. As the Grand Challenge continued, it noticed a clear difference in outcomes between completely virtual and asynchronous, hybrid, and in-person models, with training programs with some degree of synchronous or in-person classrooms showing better attendance and more engaged students. Hampton Roads illustrated this point with an anecdote about Dignity of Work’s virtual graduation ceremony. When the instructor came on screen, students applauded and called out her name, highlighting the energy and connection a personal component can bring to the classroom.
By being on the ground and connecting with and listening to people during this time of great change, workforce boards were also able to position themselves as valued advisors and sources of feedback to employers. As a result, hiring managers could better understand the full spectrum of requirements and needs of potential employees, which is an important advantage in a competitive labor market. Workforce boards reported that these employer advisory services around job quality and employee retention, while already offered to some degree prior to the pandemic, would continue to grow in importance in the future.
Christina Brooks, Senior Director of Youth Services, Hampton Roads Workforce Council
By creating an in-person, short-term training program with a small cohort size, [Generation USA] was able to provide a high-touch learning environment. Industry partners were also able to build relationships with the learners before graduation, resulting in a 92 percent hire rate for the graduates of cohort 1.
The design of the Future of Work Grand Challenge at times dissuaded partners from taking a human-centered approach to recruitment and support.
In some cases, the requirements of the Grand Challenge itself put up barriers that were difficult to overcome.
For example, the fast pace and ambitious scale of the Challenge demanded a less personal approach to participant recruitment and led to workforce boards relying on mass marketing engagements. The Michigan Works consortium (West Michigan Works, Michigan Works Southwest, and Michigan Works Berrien-Cass-Van Buren) was able to set up interviews with local television and radio stations and thereby reached a higher number of potential learners than it could normally. However, this approach did not result in the volume of people Michigan Works was hoping to see. Hampton Roads, which used both paid and earned media, experienced a low return on its investment. Staff at both the Michigan Works consortium and Hampton Roads noted that a mass marketing approach, while encouraged by the design of the Grand Challenge, yielded less success than more time-intensive, personal outreach strategies, such as holding one-on-one conversations with career coaches, working with local referral and social services partners, distributing flyers to local gathering places such as barbershops and cafes, and knocking on doors.
An emphasis on reaching a high volume of people also limited the ability of workforce boards to offer the social supports and other services that can lead to higher program retention and graduation rates. Typically, a workforce board will enroll jobseekers into programs funded by federal sources such as WIOA or TANF that can provide funding for career coaching and additional social services. However, enrollment requires processing time and the ability to meet specific eligibility requirements, a major challenge when trying to recruit hundreds of jobseekers in a short time frame. Some workforce boards were able to co-enroll jobseekers in federally-funded programs, either prior to enrollment or once they were enrolled in the training.
In Hartford, Connecticut, Capital Workforce Partners prescreened its jobseekers for WIOA eligibility, ensuring that all of them could receive additional services. While this was a successful approach in Connecticut, it limited the pool of potential jobseekers, which varied depending on the size, socioeconomic profile, and labor market of the participating region.
While there were many lessons learned during the Future of Work Grand Challenge, one of the most consequential, in terms of meeting the Grand Challenge’s goals, was that workforce boards and employers need to connect with people on a personal level and build strong individual relationships. Workforce boards that are successful in understanding and responding to human needs faster and more holistically tend to be better positioned to drive the economic recovery and mobility in their communities.
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.