October 30, 2017

Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. Home to corporate behemoths like Microsoft, Boeing, and Amazon, the city has seen an explosion of new jobs and an influx of new residents to help fill them. But the city is grappling with problems that are characteristic of a fast-growing metropolis. Income inequality and gentrification have marginalized many of the city’s most vulnerable residents. People with histories of homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, mental health challenges, limited education and low-income struggle to gain a foothold in Seattle’s increasingly high skilled labor force. At the same time, the supply of qualified labor in Seattle is not growing as fast as the demand. Seattle-area employers are unable to fill jobs, in part because of a perceived dearth of local talent, and that labor shortage is expected to continue.

In 2016, Seattle’s Office of Economic Development (OED) and The Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), a leading venture philanthropist, engaged FUSE executive fellow Suzanne Towns to develop recommendations for a creating a coordinated response to the issue. A key emphasis of the fellowship was to explore how social enterprise could be leveraged to achieve the goal of a more inclusive workforce. Unlike traditional public or nonprofit job support agencies, social enterprises operate as businesses that generate revenue. Those revenues are then reinvested to fund job training and placement programs, in addition to wrap-around social services like housing and mental health treatment.

To meet Seattle’s rapidly growing labor needs while ensuring inclusivity, Suzanne Towns developed a workforce development strategy that engaged social enterprise to help people with barriers to employment find and retain jobs. Towns brought together stakeholders from city agencies, social enterprise, and the business community to create an innovative approach.

When Towns’ fellowship started, Seattle already had a number of workforce development initiatives in place. “It was like one big game of chess trying to think about how to connect and align all of this work,” said Towns. Without a centralized hub overseeing all of the city’s workforce development efforts, there was no unifying strategy tying all of the pieces together.

Understanding the Landscape

Towns engaged stakeholders within government, social enterprise and the private sector to produce a landscape study that mapped workforce and economic development activity in the city. She also conducted a needs assessment, in which she interviewed social enterprises and private sector employers throughout the city to understand where in the city’s workforce development pipeline they could be engaged most productively.

“It’s really created an opportunity for us as a community-based organization…to come together and say, ‘Ok, how can we do a better job of moving people forward?” said Molly Hancock, VP of Programs for the social enterprise FareStart and a member of the Seattle Regional Partnership, a multi-sector initiative aimed at growing middle-income jobs in the region. “And how can employers understand who we’re providing in terms of candidates for their jobs, and how can they not get pinged by 50 different organizations trying to place people with them? How can we be more cohesive?”

Armed with this holistic view of the workforce development ecosystem and an understanding of the city’s emerging labor needs, Towns was able to present ideas for improving the efficiency of the system overall, including better aligning disparate initiatives and incorporating design thinking into the development of new pilot programs. She also facilitated leadership roundtables to promote greater coordination and innovation among public and private workforce and economic development leaders.

Crafting a Strategy

Working closely with OED and REDF staff, Towns developed a model for engagement with social enterprise that had two core features. The first was to connect social enterprise partners with Upskill/Backfill, a workforce development model that combines entry-level job placement with retention and advancement strategies for people already in the workforce.

“We don’t always connect the dots between basic readiness and entry level placement with how we are working with employers to ensure that there are opportunities for people to advance?’” Towns said.

She saw the opportunity to position social enterprise as the referral source, or backfill, for positions vacated by incumbent workers, aligning with city resources for retention and advancement activities. That complementarity, importantly, created opportunities to develop career pathways benefitting participants of both social enterprise and OED programs.

The second element of the strategy was the incorporation of a sector-specific approach, in which workforce development initiatives were structured to meet the business and labor needs of employers in rapidly growing sectors—such as manufacturing, maritime, life sciences, and technology. The food retail and hospitality sectors, typically the most accessible to people with barriers, were also included.

“For those that have had long-term structural barriers to work, there’s a real need for innovation,” said Towns. “How do we change employers’ perception of who their talent pool could be, and how do we make sure that we are building services, training, and upskilling opportunities that are really going to meet their needs? Because the more we’re able to do that, the more we can help create equitable access to jobs and support business growth.”

Looking Ahead

In May 2017, Towns’ launched a coalition of more than a dozen social enterprises. Coalition members meet monthly to identify synergies and discuss potential areas of cooperation and partnership in meeting the hiring needs of the region’s employers. The coalition has set an action agenda for increasing their capacity and is positioning themselves as a collaborative talent pool for targeted hiring initiatives in development in healthcare, retail and manufacturing. That kind of collaboration wasn’t happening systematically before. “Suzanne essentially has created this community that didn’t previously exist, with people who knew of each other but didn’t talk to each other,” said Carrie McKellogg, Chief Program Officer at REDF.

From the city’s perspective, the most valuable outcome of the fellowship was the creation of a more intentional strategy for engagement with social enterprises. “Suzanne’s work has really broadened our thinking about opportunities for partnerships with other social enterprise organizations,” said Nancy Yamamoto, Workforce Development Manager at the OED. “Folks feel that there are more opportunities that have emerged as a result of the fellowship year.”

Towns believes the model that emerged from her work in Seattle could easily be replicated in other cities.

“When you think about what a modern workforce development approach could look like, having one that is driven by and aligned to business growth but doesn’t lose its focus on equity and economic inclusion, is something that I think is essential.”