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Catapult Expanded

A Response to Catapult Revisited

July, 2021

By Navjeet Singh, Former SVP,  National Fund for Workforce Solutions; Independent Consultant

The Catapult Papers were written 10 years into one of the region’s longest periods of economic growth. Since then, the economy has been seriously affected and the pandemic-related recession has proved much worse than the Great Recession of 2008–2009. Now, as Massachusetts seems ready to “re-open” after the pandemic, it is both timely and necessary to review the continued relevance and applicability of the Catapult Papers. We are really glad that Jerry Rubin has revisited the major elements of the next generation workforce development systems proposed in the Catapult essays.

Being market responsive 
We totally agree with Jerry that being market responsive is not just about being in sync with labor market trends, but it is about having deep relationships with employers, knowing their emergent challenges and how they are responding to these challenges. In addition, nonprofits can only be market responsive if they possess the organizational flexibility and capacity to respond to rapid changes. There will be much discussion of infrastructure and capacity in a later section, but it is important to highlight the importance of structures and personnel capacity that enable flexibility and adaptability. In workforce development, organizations specializing in serving the hospitality, food services and tourism sector particularly have had to respond quicky to a collapsed market, pivoting to find a foothold in more robust sectors such as logistics and food delivery.

Job quality
The COVID pandemic has highlighted a few critical dimensions of job quality. Foremost among these are the working conditions that employers provide, the risks they are likely to expose workers to and how conducive conditions are to the health and safety of employees, especially essential frontline workers. The long-term care sector immediately faced challenges of retaining workers because for many workers the perceived risks of working with the elderly who were more vulnerable to COVID were no longer worth the meager wages that employers in the sector can afford. 

Second, COVID has underscored the importance of benefits, especially paid sick leave and sufficient health-care coverage, at a time when the job itself tended to be a health risk for many frontline workers. As schools closed or shifted to online classes, childcare suddenly became a make-or-break issue for many workers and employers, especially in health care and retail. 

Third, the pandemic also was able to shine a light on the culture, systems and capacity of employers. Employers who were sensitive to and responsive to their employees and prospective employees quickly attempted to respond to challenges or advocated with governments to respond to challenges such as childcare. The pandemic also showed how the strategic choices that companies make result in cost structures and margins that enable them to respond to COVID-related challenges. And it was quite evident to both workers and consumers how certain employers could or could not respond quickly to the situation.

As Jerry observes, the pandemic and the anti-racist protests of the last year have demonstrated the need for advocacy by nonprofits and workforce development providers. They should be advocating for safe working conditions, health care for all, childcare and racial equity. 

Knowing their own backyard
In knowing their own backyard, I would add to Jerry’s list that workforce development organizations should also know and understand local and regional systems and have good relationships with governments and local agencies that provide support for workers. These include systems for health, support for accessing emergency cash, broadband and telecommunications access, resources of digital devices and providers of digital literacy. 

Workforce organizations that are well established and have partnerships in place with public, private and nonprofit entities were in a better position to support their clients during the worst of the pandemic and secure necessary resources, be it emergency cash, food supplies, internet connectivity or tablets and computers for education and training programs. Without internet access and tablets or laptop computers, most clients in workforce development programs would not have been able to continue their training. Regions that either had the public infrastructure and/or the private foundations to provide these resources have been able to support workers continuing their education and training.

" [...] Advocacy efforts should also include (a) influencing how we deal with [...] the very laws and systems that put more people, especially Black and Brown, into the criminal justice system; and (b) bolstering the K–12 system so that graduates will have solid literacy, numeracy and digital skills."
Going bold and going big
During COVID nonprofits’ ability to pivot and execute effectively has been helped by having robust internal infrastructure and internal systems—especially for information technology, fundraising, and
finances and accounting. IT personnel and capacity has proved critical to providing remote and online services and training. And fundraising staff and financial accounting capacity has proved instrumental in raising emergency funds, applying for federal and state emergency funds and modifying operations quickly. Organizations with scale are more likely to have had that robust capacity to do all that needed to be done in trying conditions. These are also the organizations that will be able to develop better online programming by investing not just in additional technology infrastructure but also in curriculum and instructional design for online and remote classes.

I totally agree that the pandemic underscored the necessity for workforce development organizations to sharpen their focus on advocacy, policy and systems change. I would go even further to say that the advocacy efforts should also include (a) influencing not just how we deal with people who emerge from the criminal justice system but the very laws and systems that put more people, especially Black and Brown, into the criminal justice system; and (b) bolstering the K–12 system so that graduates will have solid literacy, numeracy and digital skills. The workforce development system has long been dealing with adults who either dropped out of the K–12 system or who emerged from the system without sufficient skills.

I would also conjecture that the transition to online and hybrid training and education will enable workforce development providers with deep industry knowledge and robust internal capacity and infrastructure to design and deliver online programming to expand outside their regions. For them geography will no longer be a limitation. It is possible and even likely that selected nonprofits and community colleges with very effective online and remote programs will begin to dominate regional and even national markets.

Tapping untapped talent
Finally, I strongly endorse Jerry’s call to examine systems in order to address racial and income inequities. Without addressing some of these fundamental issues, workforce development can only have a minor effect and cannot make a significant dent in the lower Black employment rate and lower wages that Black and Brown individuals tend to earn.