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It’s no surprise that all eyes are turned to Washington as the nation claws its way out of a recession and scrambles to distribute vaccines. But overcoming the pandemic-driven economic crisis will require much more than good intentions and billions in new spending.
That’s because the nitty-gritty of recovery — empowering aspiring workers with the skills they need to succeed and connecting them to available jobs — inevitably takes place in individual cities and regions with unique needs.
To meet those needs effectively, we need determined collaboration by numerous players in communities far outside the Beltway. We need bridge builders — intermediaries that play a vital role in workforce development by connecting learners, educators and employers, helping them to speak a common language and resolve local supply and demand mismatches.
The need to address these problems isn’t new, of course. Long before the pandemic, a stubborn disconnect between the supply of and demand for skilled workers created stark barriers to opportunity. Black, Latino and low-income learners have had a particular disadvantage finding and navigating successful pathways between education and well-paying work.
An economic recession is now making this worse. Jobs have been abruptly eliminated and quickly added and roles are shifting dramatically. Workers have had to rapidly figure out what additional training and skills they need, and where to find them.
The good news is that bridge builders — including nonprofit civic groups, economic development agencies and businesses and educators — have shown in recent years how to bring the right parties together to make change.
Case in point: Mobile, Alabama, where civic organizations, industry associations and churches successfully leaned on public schools and higher education institutions to improve student success rates. They had to.
With its massive deepwater port and a seemingly impressive local education infrastructure, Mobile had successfully lured big employers, such as the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, to set up facilities in the area.
But it turned out that its school system had inflated its high school graduation rates, and few of those students who did finish went to college and earned degrees. Too many community college students wasted time and money acquiring credits that didn’t transfer to the University of South Alabama. The big employers complained that they couldn’t find talent.
Alarmed and outraged, the community stepped in. A small nonprofit, the Mobile Area Education Foundation, brought together educators, employers, clergy, elected officials and others through a campaign called Graduate Ready. The campaign led to internships and apprenticeships for students at all levels, fostered programs of study that synced with workplace needs and simplified community college transfer processes.
As a result, dropout rates are down, high school graduation rates are up and the number of students successfully transferring from the community colleges to the public university has more than tripled.
Even as we hope for strong results from ambitious national policy initiatives, let’s not forget the critical need for bridge builders in city and state economies.
Unclogging the pipeline between education and work also requires the creation of a common language around skills. Learners who seek to navigate a dizzying array of credentials are hampered by jargon-filled language, both from education providers and from hiring managers, as they try to match the skills they have or can learn with the skills employers want.
In Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber saw that conversations between employers and educational providers were often sporadic and disjointed. It led an education initiative, Detroit Drives Degrees, or D3, that began pushing higher ed institutions and employers to communicate more effectively, use common terminology and standardize their definitions of skills.
Then it asked employers to come up with action plans to coordinate industry needs with talent production.
“If an employer is paying for one of their employees to go back to school, they have an investment in making sure it’s relevant to their work,” Melanie D’Evelyn, D3’s director, said in a report recently released by Strada Education Network and Lumina Foundation. (Lumina Foundation is among the numerous funders of The Hechinger Report.)
As the country weathers and recovers from the global pandemic, one more challenge that can’t be solved from Washington is the persistent mismatch between the supply of and demand for skilled workers, which hampers effective local and regional responses to the fast-changing labor market.
In Montana, the state government has played a leading role in bringing together talent supply and demand, a model rare in the United States. The state has connected its university system, private colleges, Department of Labor and Industry, State Workforce Innovation Board and the Department of Revenue to identify and create policies to narrow skills gaps in the labor market.
Its data-driven approach helps consumers see the pay and demand for various careers and has led to the creation of new certificate and degree programs in sought-after fields like public health and data science, plus more offerings in shortage areas like occupational therapy, nursing and hospitality.
Whatever specific problems a given region or community is trying to solve, the unheralded but indispensable work of fostering collaboration to build opportunity is vital. So, even as we hope for strong results from ambitious national policy initiatives, let’s not forget the critical need for bridge builders in city and state economies.
Intermediaries that tailor efforts to the unique needs of time and place — individual, institutional and economic — will have the best prospect of lifting local learners and employers to a more prosperous future.
Ben Wildavsky is senior vice president for national engagement at Strada Education Network
This story about workforce development was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.