February 28, 2018

Across the country, a growing segment of the population has been struggling to gain a foothold. For people with histories of homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, mental health challenges, limited education and low-income, finding a job in an increasingly high-skilled labor force is proving to be more difficult. According to a 2017 report by McKinsey & Co, almost 40 percent of American employers say they can’t find employees with the skills they need, even for entry-level jobs. Closing that skills gap represents an enormous challenge for city leaders — but also an opportunity.

Last year, FUSE partnered with three cities — Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Jose — to help expand job opportunities for their most vulnerable residents.

In Los AngelesHana Rhee helped develop a strategic plan to ensure that residents near LAX, the world’s busiest airport, have opportunities to build the skills and resources they need to compete for jobs and contracts related to the $8 billion LAX capital improvement plan.

In SeattleSuzanne Towns brought together stakeholders from city agencies, social enterprise and the business community to create an innovative approach to meeting the city’s rapidly growing labor needs, while ensuring a more inclusive workforce.

In San JoseNick Almeida helped to create a training hub for job-seekers, small business owners and budding entrepreneurs. The center is not just about job placement, but also a place to connect residents to industries that lead to lucrative career paths, such as manufacturing and technology.

We asked city officials who had worked closely on these projects what they’ve learned about how to build a more inclusive and equitable workforce. Here’s what they told us.

1. Consider the entire landscape.

Creating job opportunities often top the list of cities’ priorities, so cities can have a variety of workforce development initiatives scattered throughout agencies at any given time. Add to that the nonprofit and social enterprise sectors working towards the same goals, and it’s easy to end up with a jigsaw puzzle of efforts that don’t always contribute to a cohesive whole. That’s why it’s critical to keep close track of all the moving pieces. Knowing this blind spot, the city of Seattle enlisted Towns to map the vast ecosystem that makes up the different workforce development initiatives, and to serve as a liaison between the various stakeholders. That holistic, birds-eye view led to the development of a strategy that complemented rather than duplicated existing services, which then helped the city to direct resources that supported and strengthened the entire pipeline of job creation efforts.

2. Measure and share inclusivity standards.

At Los Angeles World Airports, project managers in each business unit were responsible for making sure that contracts adhered to inclusivity standards, such as making sure that a certain percentage of commissions went to locally- and minority-owned businesses. But senior management had little visibility into whether or not those standards, which were designed to ensure that the community benefited from infrastructure projects, were being met. Once those metrics were made accessible to executives, it became clear that many contracts were falling short of the organization’s goals. Visibility at the highest levels of the organization prompted more rigorous management of inclusivity standards and greater accountability across the entire organization.

3. Work backwards from demand.

Washington state is facing an employment gap of 750,000 jobs over the next five years. Knowing this, Seattle officials worked with local employers to understand which jobs will be most in demand over the long-term. Those conversations have led to the development of a “sector-specific” strategy, in which local workers would be trained for jobs in high-growth industries (in Washington, those were maritime, life sciences, manufacturing and technology). Working backward from potential demand ensures that workers’ skills are closely matched to the future needs of the workforce, and helps prime the talent pipeline for prospective employers.

4. Consider barriers to access.

To help San Jose residents and small businesses, the city of San Jose recently unveiled a new, state-of-the-art workforce development center called SJPL Works at the downtown branch of the San Jose Public Library. It serves as a central hub for community partners to provide programs, like job fairs for both job seekers and small business owners. It’s also the place to go for those who need help with career development, including workshops to write cover letters and prepare for interviews, and for burgeoning businesses, help with developing strategic plans and logistics of starting new businesses within the city.

Less than a year into its launch, city officials are already thinking about how to address barriers to accessing the center, like transportation and lack of English proficiency. To accommodate those who can’t physically get to SJPL Works, the city is looking into live streaming events to the library’s 20-plus branches. For residents who are not native English speakers, the city is translating printed and online resources into different languages. Other barriers to access might include lack of childcare or job seekers who have precluding felony convictions. Proactively anticipating and addressing the potential barriers can help maximize the impact of workforce development programming.

Other, broader change-management lessons learned about what drives success in job creation initiatives:

  • Conduct a needs-assessment study early on to understand what services already exist and what gaps need to be filled.
  • Benchmark against what comparable organizations are doing and bring back best practices.
  • Establish an anchor partner in the community to serve as a source of knowledge and expertise.
  • Make sure that the right financial structure and management tools are in place to support project goals (e.g., a separate cost center or a dedicated budget to help raise external funding).
  • Use data and empirical evidence to make the case internally for why change is needed.
  • Be open to unconventional partnerships with community startups that might be willing to partner with city agencies in ways that benefit both.

Their approaches represent some of the best practices in government innovation: holistic, evidence-based, responsive to communities, and always with a focus on the long-term vision.

Rikha Sharma Rani is a Bay-area based writer and journalist. She is the founder and principal writer at Rickshaw Writers. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, Politico Magazine, The Atlantic, HuffPost, Oakland Magazine, and more. 

[Photo credit: Zhipeng Ya]