Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) is an 80- year-old workforce intermediary with roots in the Depression-era period of Jewish immigration and anti-Semitic employment discrimination. Since 1938, the organization has been working to enhance the education and skills of working-age adults—who often have limited English language, skills and income—and meeting the hiring, retention and talent development needs of employers. Over the past several decades, the organization has grown to be one of the largest and most important providers of high-quality workforce development services in the region.
As the Boston regional economy explodes and the labor market tightens, JVS is growing rapidly, refining its workforce development model to more effectively meet the needs of employers and employees. The strategies, organizational culture and specific practices we have adopted, and continue to refine, represent what we believe are the core features of “Next Generation” workforce development organizations that can effectively meet the challenges and opportunities of our new economy, and can offer a road map for other organizations seeking to play this role in their regions.
This essay, the third of four, calls for and describes how Next Gen workforce organizations can leverage job market conditions to improve job quality for workers and improve employer competitiveness.
The essay is based on the innovative and field-proven practices of JVS Boston’s transition to a Next Gen workforce organization, which is rooted in decades of field research, experimentation, evaluation, failure and success. These reflections will allow us and others to sharpen our strategies and practices in response to unprecedented economic growth and income inequality. Other essays in the series more deeply explore related issues of practice and address in more detail changing organizational culture, achieving scale and tapping the untapped workforce.
For the three decades following the Second World War, American workers could count on steadily rising standards of living, fueled by consistent robust economic growth and public and private policies that supported shared prosperity. Beginning in the 1970s, those trends, which propelled millions of Americans into the middle class, began to change dramatically, and in the four decades since, American workers have seen their wages stagnate and their standards of living steadily decline. As the nation began recovering from the Great Recession, the most significant economic decline since the Great Depression, and new job creation expanded, wages and job quality more broadly continued to lag far behind economic growth and declining unemployment. Despite robust job growth over the past two years, wages continue to fall behind what most economists have expected.1
That said, in many regions of the country, including my own in Massachusetts, wages and broader job quality have shown significant improvement amid historically low unemployment rates. This change has been so profound that JVS employer partners are having great difficulty finding and retaining workers, and are pursuing a wide range of strategies to make their continued growth feasible. Current tight labor markets are creating a “once in a generation” opportunity for workforce development organizations, when the interests of employers, who are desperate to secure talent, and the interests of workers and the “untapped workforce,” who have been left out of earlier periods of economic growth, are aligned.2 In this period, while broader policy efforts to improve job quality will continue to be critically important, extremely tight labor markets create an opportunity for market-driven job quality improvement fueled by changing employer practices, high-quality workforce development services, and highly effective Next Gen workforce development organizations.
To successfully leverage the current market opportunity, Next Gen workforce organizations will need to adopt a new narrative and operating framework. Most importantly, we will need to move to a framework in which we recognize the common interests of employers and workers in a tight labor market. Employers need to recruit and retain workers if they are to continue to operate and grow. In a full employment economy, employers that can change their policies directly influencing job quality to allow them to tap the untapped workforce will be the most successful. They will be “employers of choice.” Employers who do not will find themselves left behind.
From the workers’ perspective, job seekers who can position themselves most effectively to be hired by employers of choice—by improving their job-related and job search skills as well as by making the right connections—will find employment, and see higher wages, better hours and overall better job experiences.
In this changing landscape, both employers and workers may find navigating the new reality challenging. Employers may not find it easy to change job quality policies that position themselves as “employers of choice” and allow them to tap the untapped workforce. Workers may not find it easy to understand the exact skills employers of choice are looking for, attain those skills, and get a foot in the door with those employers of choice. Therefore, this intermediary role—helping employers become “employers of choice” and helping workers become “employees of choice”—is precisely the role of Next Gen workforce organizations in this historic moment.
The narrative that will need to accompany this role for Next Gen workforce organizations cannot be a scold, in which we stand on a soapbox and tell employers that they should improve job quality.
We need to adopt a consultative and strategic partnership perspective, in which we work closely with employers to develop and implement policies that will make them employers of choice and improve their competitiveness. Of course, that requires that Next Gen workforce organizations have something to say, and have the skills, knowledge and relationships with employers to be given the opportunity to provide genuinely valuable assistance, and then effectively deliver that help. The remainder of this paper addresses four important strategies that Next Gen workforce organizations can adopt to become effective intermediaries between employers of choice and employees of choice:
Before we can effectively help employers and workers take full advantage of job quality opportunities, we need to clearly define what we mean by “job quality.” Most of us think about job quality primarily in terms of pay, and perhaps benefits, but it is far more complex than that. At JVS, we surveyed our own employees about what they valued most about a job, and we asked them to survey their clients. The results were fascinating, and complex. One employee’s definition of what makes a great job is not the same as another’s. For example, some may value predictable and flexible hours more than wages. Others may put a premium on proximity to home, while others may place more value on the culture of the company or how they are engaged, valued and empowered. And, as workers attain higher quality jobs, their priorities change.
From our surveys, we identified five common factors that our clients consider for their own definition of job quality: salary, stable scheduling, benefits, supportive managers and career ladder opportunities, in that order. And, we identified that as the basic foundation of job quality—wages and benefits—improves, workers then prioritize more aspirational elements such as career ladders, organizational mission and company values.
Employers’ definition of job quality also varies significantly from one industry to another and even one employer to another within the same industry. Employers in one industry do not face the same constraints and opportunities as an employer in another industry. Acute healthcare organizations, for example, tend to have more wage flexibility than most long-term care organizations, which are more captive of public reimbursement policies. Fixed-shift organizations may have less scheduling flexibility than others.
At JVS we are developing a dynamic definition of job quality that can account for different worker priorities and employer contexts. That said, our goal is to create a flexible and practical definition that incorporates some basic values and strategies that will help employers in any industry be employers of choice. JVS is beginning to develop a job quality benchmarking tool based on data derived from our large client data base, JVS coaches’ extensive experiences with clients and employers, and self- reported data from employers.
An excellent framework for defining job quality is the hierarchy of job design components developed by workforce development consultant Steven Dawson.3 The National Fund for Workforce Solutions has assembled a comprehensive set of resources to help develop and implement job quality strategies (https://nationalfund.org/job-quality-resource- center/). Other frameworks and tools have been or are being developed by workforce development and related organizations and may be helpful for Next Gen workforce organizations and employers as they develop their own flexible and practical definitions of job quality.4
A flexible and practical definition of job quality can be used by Next Gen workforce organizations to help determine how to prioritize employers and how much to invest in the relationships. All organizations have limited resources, and in a tight job market, we have the luxury to be more selective about how and with whom we deploy those resources. This has some very practical implications as the job market continues to heat up. Beginning two years ago, JVS began seeing more employers show up for graduations and job fairs than graduates. Simply on the basis of space constraints, we can only accept a fixed number of employers and quickly realized that “first come first served” was perhaps not the most strategic approach to use. Also, our staff have limited time, and while we might not walk away from employers, we are now prioritizing which companies we will work with most intensively.
With these constraints and opportunities in mind, the JVS team developed an Employer Engagement Guide that defines four phases of deeper relationships with employer partners and how to achieve them. Our job quality benchmarking tool is being overlaid on the Employer Engagement Guide in order to strategically deploy resources and determine which employers to more deeply engage.
The tight job market is giving us important opportunities to use these tools in real time. Recently, our team was approached by a long-term care organization to explore creating a Talent Pipeline recruitment and training program (explained further below) for them. We had received information from graduates of our Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program who had worked there, as well as their JVS coach, suggesting that the company’s pay was comparatively low, and that there were internal challenges around supportive management. After analysis of our data base, we determined that the company’s pay rate was $2.50 below the average hourly earnings of our CNA graduates. With that information in hand, JVS’s staff consulted with the company and explained that we would not be able to successfully recruit and train for them with their current pay level and delicately brought up internal management challenges. The company will continue trying to recruit on its own and is considering purchasing coaching services from JVS to supplement its retention efforts. JVS staff made several recommendations to improve retention, including managerial training and conducting a Workforce Needs Analysis (WNA) for company leaders to assess where challenging education and skills gaps exist with their current staff and also to explore staff-generated ideas for operational improvements. Of course, our hope is that the company ultimately considers changing its policies for the benefit of its employees and so that we can effectively help its managers recruit and retain employees.
Job training is the traditional bread and butter of the workforce development field. In this very tight labor market we have an opportunity to transition to new models of job training that more effectively tap market forces, better serve lower-income and lower- skill workers with higher quality jobs, better serve employers, and are far more sustainable and scalable than traditional approaches.
TURNING JOB TRAINING UPSIDE DOWN: THE TALENT PIPELINE MODEL
When workers are hard to find, employers are willing to pursue approaches to recruiting talent that they would not consider in a softer job market. JVS is experiencing this dynamic and is acting quickly to take advantage of the opportunity by re-designing our traditional job training programs into a new “Talent Pipeline” model. Traditional job training programs train job seekers and then introduce them to prospective employers, and training costs are paid by public sources like the Workforce Investment and Innovation Act, or by philanthropy. In the Talent Pipeline model, trainees are either pre-hired at a training wage or promised a position upon graduation by an employer partner who pays for their training on a per-trainee basis. The employer partner also provides JVS with real-time skill and hiring requirements for curriculum development, and our staff shadow the roles they are recruiting for and conduct in-depth interviews with HR and hiring managers. JVS recruits and screens to the company’s specifications and narrows the field of candidates to a small cohort. Utilizing JVS staff recommendations, the employer partner makes the final selection of candidates who will go through training to be hired upon successful completion, or be hired at a training wage during training. This is a critical feature as both the risk and rewards are shared by both the employer and JVS.
Traditional training programs typically start from the supply side, focusing primarily on key questions such as: Who are the job seekers? What are their skills and gaps? How do we fill those gaps and make them employable? Under this new model, we start from the demand, or employer perspective: What are the vacancy rates for this position? What skills does this employer need to hire for? What skills do typical applicants lack? Why do some hires fail while other hires succeed? How much is the employer paying to secure this talent by other means? What is the cost to the employer when unable to fill critical positions? How fast can we recruit and train job seekers to be prepared for these roles?
The Talent Pipeline model is an important tool for improving job quality. For example, in order to attract high quality applicants and impact retention, a large healthcare organization piloting the Talent Pipeline model with JVS for nursing assistants agreed to offer program applicants higher wages, full time hours, predictable schedules, and benefits packages. In this pilot current graduates were guaranteed stable schedules, full-time hours and $15.45 per hour. For comparison, in our traditional nursing assistant training program, only 55% of initial hires are full-time, and the average wage is $15.09 per hour. The combination of a higher hourly rate and full- time employment has increased weekly earnings for graduates significantly.
In a second Talent Pipeline pilot focusing on pharmacy technicians, three participating hospitals have also committed to full-time jobs and wages for all successful graduates starting at $16.30, $17, and $22 per hour, and those at the lower end are reconsidering how to compete with those at the higher end. For comparison, only 71 percent of other employed graduates of our traditional pharmacy technician training program start full-time, and they earn on average $15.08 per hour. As a result of negotiating these higher wages from the three hospitals, a participating retail pharmacy employer recently agreed to increase starting wages for JVS graduates from $12 per hour to $15 per hour in retail stores and $19 per hour in their specialty pharmacies.
The Talent Pipeline model generates revenue from employers to support the services. Without the Talent Pipeline model, JVS’s ability to expand our job training and placement services is largely constrained by limited public and private funding. Now our success in recruiting and training high-quality candidates for employers should lead to substantial growth, limited only by employer hiring demands and our own capacity. And, while we can be confident that the current tight job market will not last forever, our goal is to establish ourselves as a proven, high-quality source of talent that will be in demand, regardless of the ups and downs of the job market.
TAPPING THE UNTAPPED LABOR MARKET
Another advantage of tight job markets and Next Gen job training strategies is that they allow us to secure good jobs for individuals who might not have been considered by employers of choice in a softer job market. Two years ago, JVS’s traditional pharmacy technician program graduates were hired exclusively by retail pharmacies, which have different hiring requirements than their hospital counterparts.
Hospitals were not interested in considering our candidates. This year, not only are three of the largest hospitals in Boston hiring our pharmacy technician graduates, but they are paying us to recruit and train them. The same dynamic has happened with nursing assistants, as major Boston hospitals are hiring our graduates for the first time, and are seeking proposals from JVS to create Talent Pipeline programs for them. We are now beginning to plan for migrating this new model to other traditional training programs in retail banking and hospitality/food service because employer investment means better outcomes for both employers and workers.
Admittedly, while a tight job market creates opportunities for the un-tapped workforce, engaging with employers on a fee-for-service basis through the Talent Pipeline model runs the risk of having some employers setting higher hiring standards than employers we’ve worked with in our traditional job training programs. If this situation is not managed carefully it could in some cases actually result in providing fewer opportunities for candidates with more barriers to employment. We are managing this challenge in two ways. First, as we have engaged with new employers of choice, we continue to work with our traditional employers so that we can ensure that a wide range of graduates can be placed. And, we leverage our relationship with a range of employers to influence them to gradually increase the attractiveness of their jobs in order to compete with employers of choice for workers. For example, in our Pharmacy Technician Training Program we continue to work with retail employer partners, who have more flexible hiring standards, as well as hospital partners with tighter hiring standards, and work to influence both to raise the quality of their jobs.
The Talent Pipeline model also gives us the opportunity to work closely with employers we have built trust and credibility with to consider a wider range of candidates whom we stand behind, giving us the opportunity to leverage our trusted relationship with them to change hiring standards that were not essential to good job execution but were habitually applied. Recently, we convinced a hospital partner, who hired us to recruit for a very difficult-to-fill position, to reduce the required English language skills for the position, increase the hourly wage, and consider dropping the requirement for a high school diploma.
An additional concern is that the program staff of traditional workforce organizations, with deep experience and cultures rooted in client- focused and human service–oriented approaches, are likely to struggle as they make the transition to a more employer-led, market based workforce development strategy. As JVS has begun to transition our traditional job training programs to incorporate the Talent Pipeline model, we have encountered several kinds of internal organizational challenges that other organizations are likely to face as well.
The first is a very fundamental tension about our mission and strategies. Some of our colleagues have fully embraced the idea that rooting our work more deeply with our employer partners is necessary to most effectively serve our clients. Others are more skeptical, raising legitimate concerns that we may move away from harder-to-serve clients or put less emphasis on protecting the interests of our clients when they don’t coincide precisely with the interests of our employer partners.
The second is concern over autonomy and control. In traditional job training programs, instructors and coaches are the masters of their universe: Classes are typically held in our own facility, curriculum and coaching methodologies are developed by JVS, and students are selected by our staff. Talent Pipeline programs can be held, at least in part, at the workplace, with its own set of rules and culture that our instructors and coaches need to abide, curriculum is developed jointly, candidates are selected by the employer, and results are developed and impact is measured by a paying customer. This dynamic can understandably be very challenging to instructors and coaches making the transition.
Lastly, paying customers have very high expectations, and particularly when you are forging a new market, high quality delivery is critically important. This dynamic places a great deal of pressure on staff who may feel like they are under a microscope, and are being judged by new standards of performance. All three of these internal challenges are manageable if they are acknowledged and addressed sensitively and effectively, but they are significant challenges nonetheless.
LADDERING UP: PROVIDING A CONTINUUM OF TRAINING
Increasing job quality for workers and employers requires that Next Gen workforce organizations provide a continuum of training and supports that allow workers to increase their skills, move into higher level jobs, and earn more over time. From the employer perspective, a continuum of training is a key component of an effective retention strategy, and employers of choice understand that retaining and developing internal talent is a cost-effective approach.
Most workforce development services involve discrete education, training and placement programs that are designed to prepare a worker for a specific job. But this does not reflect the real dynamics of the job market, the aspirations of workers and the needs of employers.
JVS has been building a comprehensive continuum of worker advancement services for over a decade through deep, long-term and trusted employer relationships. In today’s labor market, this approach is an important element of a Next Gen workforce development and job quality strategy. One key component of this continuum is that JVS provides both pre-employment services and incumbent worker services, so that individuals who are hired by our employer partners can take advantage of employer- sponsored skill and career advancement classes and coaching.
Several of these partnerships have developed into fully articulated career ladder programs. One example is Hebrew SeniorLife (HSL), the largest long-term care organization in the Boston area. Over the past decade, HSL has hired graduates of JVS’s Nursing Assistant Training Program, who then have the opportunity to learn additional English, computer and other skills on- site through an incumbent worker training program. As part of a career ladder initiative, HSL created a “Senior PCA” position for highly trained nursing assistants to assume a leadership role on their floors, taking on training, mentoring, activity planning and family relations responsibilities. HSL also created a program with JVS and a local community college to transition nursing assistants to Licensed Practical Nurses. In another example, Children’s Hospital has created career ladder opportunities to allow Environmental Services employees to have training opportunities and coaching that prepares them for administrative and other higher-level positions within the hospital.
Other elements of JVS’s services are designed to help workers “ladder up” on their own as their life circumstances and interests allow. Individuals with limited English speaking ability can take an English for Employment class, get a starter job in the service sector, return to JVS to take certification training programs to attain a better job, and eventually prepare for a college-level certification. For example, graduates of JVS’s CNA certificate program often return after several years working in long-term care to enroll in our Bridges to College program to prepare for a nursing degree.
Because many higher-level training and education programs require a high school diploma, JVS students can earn a diploma through our adult diploma program. They can dually enroll in our Bridges to College program when they are approaching graduation, earning college credits toward career pathway certificates and degrees even before they graduate from high school. Creating a fully comprehensive continuum is challenging given how siloed public and private funding remains, but by braiding together multiple sources of funding, it is possible.
As employers seek to become employers of choice and compete for a limited pool of talent, they are considering a wide range of practices that make their company more engaging for employees and more productive and profitable. Creating a great workplace goes far beyond skills training, which is the traditional bailiwick of workforce development organizations. It includes a wide range of human resource policies and practices that support employees, creating career ladder opportunities, re-designing jobs to take fuller advantage of employees’ talents and creativity while supporting productivity improvement, changing enterprise practices through more transparent sharing of financial information or even sharing profits and creating employee stock ownership opportunities.
Next Gen workforce organizations, which have credibility and meaningful employer relationships, can move beyond their traditional role to provide more sophisticated expertise and knowledge about how companies can effectively recruit, retain and advance their employees, while increasing their profitability. By doing so, they will have an important opportunity to affect job quality.
Not all employer policy changes are complicated or require sophisticated human resource or job re- design knowledge. In an early Talent Pipeline pilot project, we convinced an employer partner to offer participants guaranteed full-time positions, with predictable and fixed schedules at specific locations, which are not the typical conditions for long-term care workers. Another employer partner is working with JVS to re-design physically demanding jobs so that older nursing assistants, with many years of experience, can continue to work for the company.
In order to move beyond one-off insights like those described above, JVS developed a Workforce Needs Analysis tool through which JVS staff can provide employers with insights from their employees that can inform employers about employee challenges, skill gaps and aspirations, and ultimately improve their bottom lines. There is a growing body of tools and methodologies linking job quality to enterprise competitiveness, and Next Gen workforce organizations should consider learning from them and using the tools. Zeynep Ton’s Good Jobs Institute at MIT Sloan is regularly generating new research and ideas for improving job quality and competitiveness, and Ton’s book The Good Jobs Strategy is an excellent primer.5
Next Gen workforce organizations don’t need to develop this expertise or do this work alone. JVS is partnering with HR professionals to add new capacity to our workforce development tool kit, and we have partnered with a local manufacturing organization to add our English language classes to their lean manufacturing services. Either through direct services, or creative alliances and partnerships, a sophisticated Next Gen workforce development organization can expand the value proposition for employers while raising job quality for workers.
Next Gen workforce organizations and the workforce development field more broadly cannot solve the job quality conundrum alone. But, under the current labor market conditions, Next Gen workforce organizations can take full advantage of this historic moment to substantially expand their impact, deliver better quality jobs for their clients, and deliver better results for their employer partners.
This will require crafting and applying a dynamic definition of job quality, offering a Next Gen, market- driven version of job training, and going well beyond job training to help companies more effectively recruit and retain talent while increasing productivity and profitability. The field would probably benefit from a learning community to refine and test these strategies. And, when labor market conditions eventually change, which they will, Next Gen workforce organizations will have positioned themselves with institutionalized systems and practices that will have lasting impact despite market fluctuations.