Flipping Orthodoxies in Workforce Development (and How We Fund It)

December 19, 2019

By Kaitlyn Bean, Senior Program Officer, SkillWorks

  • A Boston-area medical research organization found itself unable to fill open positions in its IT department, directly inhibiting its ability to take on new contracts.
  • Across town, a rapidly growing fast casual restaurant put new store growth plans on hold for lack of qualified and reliable workers.
  • Shahid is a 28-year-old Moroccan immigrant to the Boston area. He completed high school and one year of college in Morocco and worked part time as an IT technician for a transportation company before he emigrated to the United States. He is currently driving for Uber and Lyft, and hoping to attend community college.
  • Maria emigrated from El Salvador to the United States eight years ago. Since her arrival she has been working in “back of the house” part-time positions in fast food, and speaks very little English.
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The unemployment rate in our region is at an all-time low and there is much good work being done across the Greater Boston education and workforce development ecosystems. And yet, people are still being left out and left behind and businesses are still struggling to find and keep workers.

Together with our workforce funder collaborative SkillWorks, we are trying to change up business as usual in workforce development, and envision a new way of sustaining an ecosystem of education, training and support that works for all – individuals and businesses.

Our recently published report in partnership with Monitor Institute by Deloitte, entitled Catapult Forward, focuses on leading practices of best in class workforce organizations that serve as a model for others to adopt and adapt. Adopting these leading practices, however, requires funds to build or acquire new capacities. There is an important role that philanthropic funders must play in this transformation to support better outcomes for jobseekers and employers and improve the overall workforce and employment ecosystem.

As funders, one way to think about these opportunities is as a chance to name and flip orthodoxies, or commonly held assumptions about the way we fund work like this, which may not support the capacity necessary to advance workers and employers.

Here at the Boston Foundation, we are trying to flip orthodoxies by testing and proving new ways of funding through Project Catapult.  Other funders, including the Citizens Bank Foundation, JPMorgan Chase and the State Street Foundation, are joining us in this mission, and together we are targeting some of the most pernicious limitations in our current system.

The myth that training is enough

Many workforce funders and funding streams have historically focused narrowly on supporting training, and set expected outcomes that don’t reflect the complex operational needs of education and training programs or the complex barriers preventing individuals from succeeding in them. By not supporting items like childcare, transportation, housing, and emergency cash assistance  – funders can unknowingly perpetuate barriers to upward mobility and wealth accumulation.

With Project Catapult, we’re trying to identify where better alignment of support for education and training systems can empower and expand opportunities for people who are not being supported by existing systems,  and  helping organizations identify and invest in the internal or external supports that their clients need to succeed. Addressing the barriers to success must include mitigating the structural and historic inequities that block people from benefiting from new training and education.

The myth of simple metrics

Considering the complex reality many organizations and their clients face, it’s not surprising that simple outcome metrics funders often use, such as graduation and job placement rates, fail to effectively measure a workforce organization’s quality and impact. In some cases, referring participants to another program or helping them access critical support services outside of the organization creates more impact and better serves the participant, even if it lowers the program’s graduation and job placement rates. Partnerships and supply chains in workforce development are essential to more effectively reaching and serving jobseekers and businesses, but funders rarely provide the flexible dollars it takes to make these partnerships successful. 

Project Catapult is flipping this orthodoxy by investing in building networks of organizations, deep and strategic partnerships with shared resources to serve shared participants and employers, and enabling each organization to focus on delivering their core competencies. This means shifting away from the restrictive and one-size-fits-all mindset of “cost per head” metrics, to encourage workforce providers to share participants based upon their spectrum of unique needs.

Seeing workforce development as less than an economic imperative

Catapult papers cover images
Written by JVS Boston CEO Jerry Rubin, "The Catapult Papers" is a four-part series on some of the opportunities and issues facing workforce providers in a changing economy.
The Catapult Papers

As stated in the Catapult Papers, “throughout its modern history, workforce development has been largely a human-service endeavor built in the context of the anti-poverty drive of the early and mid 1960s.” This deficit-focused and paternalistic view treats workforce training organizations as mostly charitable endeavors, and it’s a view that influences funders, employers, and even workforce organizations themselves. As a result, we too often focusing solely on the human-service/support component, without being responsive to employer needs and labor market changes.

Through Project Catapult, we’re working to flip this assumption so organizations are seen and see themselves as critical economic solutions - part of a supply chain of talent - while maintaining their underlying mission. Workforce organizations have undervalued themselves and their unique services to employers for far too long , and the current tight market provides a perfect opportunity to get employers to make critical investments – not out of charity or their Corporate Social Responsibility budget, but because the training, education and supportive service organizations that make up this system are providing economic solutions to employers’ talent challenges.

Employers as Co-Investors

Getting employers to invest requires a rethinking of workforce philanthropy, too. Historically, we tend to see our role as supporting nonprofit organizations that help people get and keep good jobs, then expecting employers to have the funds and wherewithal to strategically source, hire, train and retain talent. However, many businesses, especially small and medium sized businesses, lack the capital and capacity to do the early stage testing of new talent sources and hiring models, and there are few well known examples of that type of organizational change.

What we’re looking to do with Catapult is to inspire public and philanthropic systems of funding to invest in and supplement employers that are willing to take risks, test new strategies, and implement changes and partnerships with the workforce ecosystem that not only improve their talent acquisition and retention, but also support and lift up communities shut out from that the current system. Philanthropy must make critical investments in the research and development that proves the efficacy of these new models for training, sourcing, hiring and retaining talent, and that can push systems change that drive public and private policy change and finding to sustain the workforce system of the future.

The tight labor market has created an unprecedented opportunity, but we must act with urgency.  Through Project Catapult, the Boston Foundation and SkillWorks are partnering with funders, businesses and service providers who share our sense of urgency and vision for next generation workforce development models. The future requires radical transformation and collective action from all of us. The present gives us a critical window to make it happen.

About SkillWorks: Established in 2003, SkillWorks is a nationally recognized funder collaborative that has impacted the lives of thousands of low-income jobseekers and low-wage workers and has created a pipeline of talent for the region’s highest demand businesses and industries. These include more than 100 employers seeking qualified employees for jobs in healthcare, biotech, construction, financial services, hospitality, green jobs, and most recently, IT/ technology. Hosted by the Boston Foundation, SkillWorks acts as a workforce intermediary that pools funding from public, private, and corporate philanthropy to create a flexible set of resources that can be steered towards innovative solutions across community-based organizations, vocational training, community colleges, and employers.