Well, the divisive election of 2016 is, thankfully, behind us. However, the long-simmering issues that erupted so forcefully in November are now squarely on the plates of civic leaders. At the core was an angry electorate who communicated loudly and clearly that it was tired of being (or knowing someone) stuck in a dead-end job, or having no job opportunities at all. While plenty of finger-pointing and name-calling has persisted since the election, we can’t allow the conversation to break down further and end in a hateful place. Rather, we must find some common issues that transcend political polarization and allow us to mend some of the fragments of civic society.
If ever there were a place where we can talk with each other, a place where we can cross party lines to work together, it’s here in Northeast Ohio — and it can start with broader implementation of a successful recent effort called WorkAdvance.
WorkAdvance was a national workforce development pilot tested in Northeast Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and New York that demonstrated impressive potential to contribute to long-term workforce solutions that give more individuals the opportunity to advance along a career pathway and into jobs that provide family-sustaining wages, and that connect employers to the talent they need for their businesses to prosper.
How much potential? In short, a lot. MDRC, a nationally recognized and independent evaluation firm, measured the results of participants who received WorkAdvance services versus candidates who got the normal mix of services in a rigorous, randomized trial. In Northeast Ohio, MDRC found that, after two years, participants were 49 percent more likely to work in a targeted sector and more likely to work in a job with regular hours and with career advancement potential — and they averaged 14 percent more in earnings.
And here is the stunningly exciting kicker: WorkAdvance achieved its impressive results by pulling together individual services commonly found in more fragmented workforce programs and delivered them at a comparable cost.
How did WorkAdvance do this?
It was comprehensive. WorkAdvance holistically addressed individuals’ needs to enable them to get, keep and advance in a job. Our workforce system includes many successful providers serving individuals at different points along the spectrum, from screening, to job readiness and training, to placement, to case management, without being able to see the entire spectrum of what that individual might get from other partners or needs to advance in a career.
It aligned with private-sector partners and focused on in-demand jobs. In Northeast Ohio, WorkAdvance relied on a coordinated network of sector-oriented partners, such as WIRE-Net, MAGNET and the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, to connect to employers, targeting the manufacturing and health care sectors.
It focused on advancement, not just placement, with an emphasis on post-employment coaching services. Indeed, those who received WorkAdvance services in Northeast Ohio were 10 times more likely to have advanced if they accessed coaching services. And, it turns out that the cost of coaching is minimal compared with the relative investment needed in hard skills training and other services.
WorkAdvance was coordinated locally by Towards Employment and supported by the Fund for Our Economic Future and other national funders. In late November, our fund, along with Deaconess Foundation and the Raymond John Wean Foundation, published a report that builds on the national research released last summer that describes in more detail the impact WorkAdvance had in Northeast Ohio.
As you’ll quickly see from the report, WorkAdvance is not some kind of magic wand or elixir. It’s even better. The model built on successful elements of other workforce programs that already exist, including career readiness training, occupational skills training, job development and placement assistance, retention and advancement support and supportive services, such as transportation assistance, childcare, uniforms and other supplies. The key was aligning the elements and ensuring that job seekers got access to the bundle of services they need since no one or two services is likely to be sufficient for an individual to get, keep and advance in a job.
So, this is where the aisle-crossing comes in. Who could conceivably be against an effort that leverages capabilities that already exist without materially increasing costs in order to get double-digit percentage gains in wages? Northeast Ohio practitioners, policymakers, philanthropic funders and private-sector businesses of all political stripes are faced with an immense opportunity to leverage learnings from WorkAdvance to improve on past workforce development strategies and bring this successful model to scale. While each plays a different role in the system, collectively, the entire community can take actions to drive adoption of WorkAdvance principles.
Spend money better. As noted, the cost to deliver WorkAdvance was comparable to what is spent today, so it’s not a matter of adding resources. It’s about understanding existing constraints of the funding system and advocating for the mechanisms to deliver the model to more people through expanded collaboration to scale it. The effort must be specific to each sector and policymakers must create a table where employers can work with workforce providers to deliver what they need.
Promote core elements of Northeast Ohio WorkAdvance delivery. This includes organizing by sector, coordinating service delivery, utilizing career coaches and ensuring that services continue past initial job placement to include career advancement.
Build into policy and practice. To ensure the long-term sustainability of the model, state- and federal-level decision makers must increasingly build the WorkAdvance principles into how training dollars flow and are measured.
So, let’s bark no more about what’s broken in our polarized political system and how it does not adequately serve workers (urban, suburban or rural) who lack family-sustaining jobs or small- to mid-sized businesses that can’t find the talent they need to grow. Instead, let’s come together and implement something that we know will work and will move us toward the fulfillment of the American Promise.