Postsecondary and Career Pathways

Aligning with Employers: Advancing Equity In Workforce Development With A Dual-Customer Mindset

In April, New Profit launched the Postsecondary Innovation for Equity (PIE) Initiative to support social entrepreneurs working at the intersection of postsecondary education and job creation for individuals from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds. Over the next several months, we will be publishing a series of essays on what we’re learning from the breakthrough leaders in the PIE grantee cohort – and how their work is expanding opportunity for Americans.

By Glendean Hamilton Stewart, Associate Partner, PIE Initiative

The American postsecondary education system is at a crossroads. On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions of Americans to lose jobs that are not coming back. They need postsecondary education to help them acquire new skills for new kinds of jobs that will emerge in the post-pandemic economy. At the same time, with cries for racial and economic justice swelling with urgency, the system needs to rapidly evolve to better serve millions of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and low-income Americans who, for decades, have been denied the opportunity to acquire degrees and credentials that foster economic mobility.

In April, New Profit launched the Postsecondary Innovation for Equity (PIE) Initiative to support social entrepreneurs working at the intersection of these two urgent problems. Over the next several months, we will be publishing a series of essays on what we’re learning from the breakthrough leaders in the PIE grantee cohort – and how their work is expanding opportunity for Americans. We hope philanthropists, policymakers, and other social problem solvers can benefit from this insight as they make critical decisions about their future work. 

Our first topic: the urgency of re-architecting job training programs to better align with employer needs and demand.

The staggering number of Americans who remain unemployed seven months after the pandemic started is straining our employment support safety net in ways few could have imagined. Across the country there is broad recognition of the need for more high quality workforce development programs that help job-seekers build relevant skills and strengthen professional networks. 

Today, it’s common for learners to graduate from programs that promote themselves as “employer aligned,” only to find that the skills they’ve gained are not actually relevant to employers. This is a major reason why shrinking numbers of adults believe that more education will prepare them to get a good job and employers commonly cite a mismatch between the skills they need and those demonstrated by applicants. To fix this problem, we need more workforce development programs that have been designed from the ground up to meet the needs of employers. Two examples from the PIE cohort of this approach are below. 

Tried and True: Registered Apprenticeship Programs Creating Pathways to Employment

Registered apprenticeship programs have long created training programs based on employer needs. The value of high-touch employer engagement is evident in the strong  productivity and high employee retention rates experienced by apprenticeship programs. A dual-customer mindset shapes these programs: apprentices are given opportunities to earn and learn through paid work experience and classroom instruction, while employers are able to develop and retain a highly skilled workforce. 

New Profit’s grantee-partner Andrew Cortes, Founder and Executive Director of Building Futures, is leveraging the registered apprenticeship model to create more opportunity for underrepresented young people across a wide range of occupations in Rhode Island. He describes apprenticeship programs as “vehicles for equity” because they allow job-seekers to “earn while they learn.” In the apprenticeship model, learners are not forced to choose between taking care of their families and developing careers, a choice that often leaves out young people from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds. 

Andrew knows the power of apprenticeship programs because a carpentry apprenticeship program set him on the path of economic mobility when he was 17.

“The program was incredibly well structured,” Andrew recalls. “We learned all facets of carpentry through training sessions and on-the-job experience, all while earning a living wage.” Within two years of entering the program, he had earned his Journeyman certificate and purchased his own home.

“Registered apprenticeship was my path to fulfilling work and [reaching the middle class],” he says, “And there is no reason that ‘learn while you earn’ apprenticeship programs in a variety of industries and occupations can’t provide the same benefit to millions of young people from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds today.”

Fueled by Andrew’s lived experience and vision, Building Futures presented similar opportunities to others. The organization serves a growing number of people from underrepresented backgrounds and creates new apprenticeships for 40 high-growth occupations across many sectors. 

Work-Based Learning and Just-in-Time Talent

In the San Francisco Bay Area, New Profit’s grantee-partner Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), led by Chief Executive Officer Lisa Countryman-Quiroz, is deeply attuned to the needs of local employers, as well as the needs and capacities of learners. For the last 40 years, JVS, through its Career Pathways Programs, has connected people to good, living wage jobs by building partnerships with industries that are hiring. Over the last few months, JVS expanded its Quickbooks course and certification program to include a paid work-based experience component that benefits learners and local businesses alike. 

In the expanded program, learners get the opportunity to apply what they are learning through a paid-work based learning opportunity at a local business, which helps them develop real-world skills, build their portfolio of knowledge, and increase their know-how through practice. Learners are placed at local small businesses, primarily owned by women and people of color, who benefit from the opportunity to receive bookkeeping support. 

This collaboration arose in response to a complaint JVS often hears from the small business community: it’s difficult to find highly-skilled, affordable, flexible accounting and bookkeeping support. With some of the participating small businesses having received loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, the talent JVS is providing is valuable to these businesses as they track their spending in order to access the loan-forgiveness component of the program. 

JVS Quickbooks training program stands as an example of nimble leadership and a shining example of the dual-customer approach. The program emerged quickly from a clear need and because of deep relationships with local small businesses. The resulting  program gives learners  the ability to gain practical experience and get back to work in the near term. 

Building Futures and JVS are demonstrating that there does not need to be a choice between learner progress and employer progress. The most powerful innovations are found at the intersection, when social entrepreneurs deeply understand both learners and employers. In the same way that employers feel an urgency to find quality talent, unemployed Americans  have an urgent need to get back to work quickly in a promising career path. They need to know  that the programs they are attending are highly likely to lead to  employment opportunities down the road. 

Building Futures and JVS are demonstrating that there does not need to be a choice between learner progress and employer progress. The most powerful innovations are found at the intersection, when social entrepreneurs deeply understand both learners and employers.

— Glendean Hamilton Stewart, Associate Partner, PIE initiative

Recommendations for Funders

With many in the funding community looking to use philanthropy’s influence to find new ways to help Americans get back to work, here are a few ideas we think funders can consider in the near term:

  • Seek out and fund programs operating with a dual-customer mindset. Boosting these kinds of programs with capital will help them deepen their work and expand their capacity to serve more learners. Programs like these are especially critical for learners from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds because they help to reduce the uncertainty of whether a career and wage is waiting on the other side of training. In addition, funders should encourage and support programs to measure and publicly report their return on investment.
  • Encourage grantees to learn about the talent needed in their geographies. The best programs develop a deep understanding employer talent needs in their community. In some places, businesses have banded together to better describe and communicate their talent needs through initiatives such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management Initiative. Funders should encourage grantees to connect with and learn from such efforts, in addition to building relationships with hiring managers at partner companies. Strengthening relationships in with the individual most responsible for future hiring
  • Ensure shared values with corporate partners. Funders and workforce development programs should seek out employer-partners committed to discovering and elevating talent no matter where it comes from. For too long, some employers have only recruited and hired talent from certain institutions and recipients of certain degrees, which has often excluded talented Black and Latinx applicants. Social entrepreneurs should be working with companies that are committed to developing better ways of measuring the potential of new employees, while at the same time creating opportunity for a broader range of people in society. 

Let us know your thoughts on these insights in the comments section below, or reach out to me directly at glendean_hamilton@newprofit.org. In the coming months, we’ll be publishing a series of additional pieces on Future of Work insights that can help funders, practitioners, policymakers, and others meet the urgent workforce needs of people who have been hit hardest by the pandemic.