Catapult 1 Year Later: Lessons Learned, COVID Impacts and Where Do We Go From Here?

December 16, 2020

A little over a year ago, when the Boston Foundation and SkillWorks launched Project Catapult with a series of papers from Jerry Rubin, President and CEO of Jewish Vocational Service, and Rougi Diallo, Chief of Staff at Resilient Coders, the world was a very different place. Greater Boston’s unemployment rate hovered around three percent, and finding qualified workers was a critical problem in some fields.

A year later, with the COVID-19 pandemic upending the local economy, the workforce environment looks very different – but the core concepts of Catapult remain as important as ever, according to panelists at a December 16 forum.

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The forum, Catapult 1 Year Later: Lessons Learned, COVID Impacts and Where Do We Go from Here? brought together more than 100 people for an online webinar to review the past year and take a look at the post-pandemic future of workforce development. 

Cover Slide for the Catapult evaluation slide deck Review Navjeet Singh's evaluation slides

Boston Foundation Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Keith Mahoney and Kaitlyn Bean, Senior Program Officer for Skillworks, set the tone for the discussion with a review of Catapult’s initial development. Then Bean turned the “stage” over to consultant Navjeet Singh, who has been evaluating the first year of the Catapult Leadership and Learning Lab, a cohort of leading workforce development organizations sharing information and best practices as they work to expand their services.

Singh found that while the pandemic unquestionably changed the trajectory of the Learning Lab and its cohort members, the Lab provided critical supports in an unprecedented time. Lab mentors worked with cohort members to address the constraining forces of the pandemic, and Singh complimented the Lab’s ability to pivot to pandemic-related issues and build connections.

But the pandemic also served to illustrate some areas for growth moving forward. He noted that the diversity of the cohort, and their diversity of goals, can make it difficult to design and manage an effective community. And he noted the often daunting need for cohort members to improve their own capacity and operations while simultaneously tackling improvement of the ecosystem in which workforce development organizations operate. This year in particular, he noted, highlighted that in order to do either one, you had to still discuss both. 

He also noted the fact that the workforce ecosystem post-pandemic will undoubtedly look far different than it did just a year ago. In-person training will remain difficult for the foreseeable future, and some of the industries that had the highest demand for workers pre-pandemic, like hospitality, have been devastated by the pandemic. 

The disruption from the pandemic, he noted, has only underscored the importance of Catapult’s key competencies for “next gen” workforce programs, including market responsiveness, and the focus on quality jobs – even as the definition of what constitutes quality has changed.

After the presentation, Skillworks Executive Director Andre Green was joined by Singh and three other workforce training leaders in a panel discussion. Jewish Vocational Service President and CEO Jerry Rubin, who wrote most of the original Catapult Papers, started by noting that the Papers assumed the strong job market would end – though the speed of the crash was hardly expected – and that the down market has only highlighted critical needs for a focus on job quality and on big public policy solutions.

“Big challenges need big solutions,” he said, “Small solutions around the margins aren’t going to deal with scale and capacity. We’ve got a real crisis and we need to rise to that occasion.”

Rougui Diallo of Resilient Coders highlighted the need for continued innovation, and also noted that the crisis, in many ways, is one of values exposed. “We’re still in a moment of limbo,” she noted. “(The pandemic) revealed a deep crisis of values in the tech field and others. ‘Who do we value in our workforce development system?’”

Diallo said where workforce providers must focus is on those they train. “We are beholden to the people we serve. We provide a service to employers, (but) they need to learn to create inclusive practices within their companies,” she said. “We need to be reminding ourselves that we (and jobseekers of color) need to be leading the discussion of what it means to be inclusive – not the marketing departments at different companies.”

The final panelist, Bryan Lindsley of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, shared some national trends toward broader collaboratives that build upon data in areas as disparate as transportation, housing and child care to more broadly support workers. But he cautioned about “systems change” language that becomes so broad as to make issues too large to tackle.

“People need to get (more) specific about ‘What is the problem they are trying to solve?’ Child care is a topic area – not a problem,” he said. He added that looking for others’ solutions to replicate is less likely to succeed than efforts that take local realities more effectively into account. “Find where you have influence and expertise, where you can have an impact, versus copying another initiative from elsewhere.”

To learn more about the Project Catapult initiative, visit