Recovery is an opportunity for a more inclusive economy

Written by Jill Rizika, originally published to Crain's Cleveland Business on April 18, 2020

"Chris" came to Towards Employment underemployed due to a criminal record. Through a series of assessments, he discovered an aptitude for manufacturing. With a TE scholarship and ongoing coaching, he gained a CNC machining credential. Four years later, up until the current coronavirus pandemic and resulting shutdowns — which reduced his hours, but did not eliminate his job — Chris was earning $23 an hour as a CNC operator, an 85% increase over his previous wage.

What can we learn from Chris' success as we pivot from responding to the immediate health and financial impact of the pandemic to addressing the workforce needs of a rebuilt, more inclusive economy?

First, let's acknowledge that even during our booming economy, Chris' trajectory still represents the exception rather than the norm.

The current crisis shines a bright light on the structural inequities that compound disadvantage for low-income workers, particularly people of color. Disparities in employment and earnings by race, even controlling for education and skill levels, are distressingly consistent across local, regional and national data. Despite the economic growth over the last decade, stagnant real wages, automation of low-skill jobs and erosion of benefits left many workers behind. And those workers are often first to lose their jobs in a recession and then the last to be hired in an upswing. We cannot accept an outcome that puts them at the back of the line again as the economy recovers.

As an organization that connects people to jobs and businesses to talent, with a particular focus on those who otherwise would struggle to be successful, we sit in the middle of a whirlwind of change. We have gone from a tight labor market, partnering with businesses willing to invest in providing training and support to those overlooked in previous job markets, to massive unemployment.

In this changed environment, there are clear actions that contributed to Chris' success that need to continue, while new actions require urgent attention.

Coordination and collaboration between businesses and the workforce system are more important than ever: In 2018, Cuyahoga County and private philanthropy created Workforce Connect, which supports business-led intermediaries in manufacturing, health care and information technology. The goal is to bring together employers in the same industry to define common challenges and work to address talent needs.

As a partner in the manufacturing work, Towards Employment has helped design an on-ramp to entry-level manufacturing jobs, specifically for individuals with convictions — one strategy among many. While new strategies are needed in light of the present crisis, the infrastructure is in place to facilitate communication and prioritization. Deeper understanding of needs and potential, by both business and the workforce system, creates the ability to respond more nimbly and, importantly, to balance short-term needs with a continued focus on building an inclusive pipeline.

Use proven career pathway frameworks: Rigorous evaluations of workforce programming point to the effectiveness of industry-driven programming that aligns targeted outreach to disconnected populations, contextualized career readiness, relevant technical skills training, robust wraparound supports and career coaching. This alignment is one key lesson from the evaluation of WorkAdvance, a national demonstration project, financed locally by the Fund for Our Economic Future and implemented in Northeast Ohio by Towards Employment and its partners. Cost- benefit analysis of WorkAdvance showed large financial gains for WorkAdvance participants and for society at large in all four participating sites.

Invest in digital infrastructure and digital literacy: According to a 2018 American Community Survey, 27% of households in Cleveland had no internet access of any kind, and 44% lacked wireline connections (cable, DSL or fiber). Lack of access is also a matter of affordability. Compounding the challenge is a lack of skills to navigate remote work and online learning, which are key to navigating through the current crisis and success in a post-COVID-19 world. Investment in digital literacy is essential to avoid exacerbating the digital divide.

For business, an opportunity to focus on job quality: In addition to wages, workers consistently cite quality supervision, safety, availability of paid time off and affordable health care, more control over their schedules, and opportunities for training and advancement as important to job satisfaction. These issues are more important than ever for low-wage workers, and the current crisis certainly demonstrates that low wages are certainly not the equivalent of low value. These essential workers are now caring for the sick, driving buses, manning the checkouts at grocery stores and pharmacies, and preparing takeout food, while putting themselves and possibly their families at risk. They deserve better. Offering them better serves everyone's interests.

Don't lose sight of the STARS (Skilled Through Alternative Routes): Amid the pre-pandemic tight labor market, more employers were re-examining their requirements and successfully utilizing alternative assessments to measure applied skills rather than relying on traditional degrees and formal credentials. Falling back on the old approach disproportionately disadvantages young, minority and lower-income workers who have the right skills but lack the formal credentials.

Recognize the importance of employee supports: With the speed and extent of this wave of economic disruption, more people are experiencing the challenges that low-income households face on a regular basis. Continued impact on employees' home life can manifest in increased call-offs, tardiness, distracted attention and/or workplace conflicts. Partnerships with community agencies can bring navigators to the workplace to directly support and/or connect employees to appropriate resources. Towards Employment's Achieve Solutions offers such a service, informed by membership in the national network WorkLab Innovations.

In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other opportunity. As we plan for a post-pandemic workforce, let's take this opportunity to embrace the system alignment, human capital and infrastructure investments and scaling of proven practices needed to generate a more equitable and sustainable recovery.