Getting workforce development right

Strategies must respond to market while also extending opportunity

IN MARCH 2017, Boston Foundation CEO Paul Grogan wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe titled “A Tight Labor Market is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” Since that time, when Boston’s unemployment rate was 3.3 percent, the labor market has only tightened. At the end of 2018, Greater Boston’s unemployment rate was below 2.5 percent.

That’s a far cry from the height of the Great Recession, when Boston area unemployment peaked at 8.1 percent. In those not so distant days, employers were inundated with resumes and inquiries from job seekers, even as they cut back on hiring. In response, as Northeastern University economist Alicia Modestino and her colleagues note, many employers raised hiring standards, requiring specific postsecondary credentials or additional years of experience—regardless of whether the job actually demanded it.

In the past several years, though, the dynamic has reversed. Employers in many industries have become desperate to fill openings. They are not just worried about hiring bottlenecks; they are living with them—and beginning to feel the effects. In Boston, for example, a restaurant chain recently put off expansion plans for fear of not finding qualified new hires; a technology-dependent health research organization had to slow its business cultivation because open IT positions couldn’t be filled.

In response, many employers are reconsidering their hiring standards, willing to take a chance on job seekers they would not have interviewed when demand was less robust. Some have lowered education and experience requirements. Others are eliminating mandatory drug testing.

Paul Grogan was right: This moment should not go to waste. It’s a seller’s market. Employers are willing to consider labor pools they have often ignored. They are open to working more closely with organizations that know how to reach and support diverse populations, including immigrants, refugees, and the formerly incarcerated. The most forward-looking are willing to negotiate pay and terms of employment if it means they can be assured a steady supply of productive workers.

For people from groups that have been left out of Boston’s hot economy, the current moment is ripe with possibility—not just for getting a job, but for getting a job with wages, benefits, and stable schedules that were out of reach only a few years ago.

But strong demand alone is not enough: whether the possibility is realized depends in large part on the professionalism and boldness of the city’s workforce organizations as they engage with anxious employers.

The Boston Foundation and SkillWorks, a workforce funder collaborative housed at the Foundation, recognize the opportunity that this moment presents. In early January, the two organizations announced the launch of Project Catapult, an initiative that will build a robust “next generation” workforce development solution by investing in the “exponential growth of the city’s most effective, market-driven training and education organizations in partnership with the region’s most savvy businesses.”

The strategy is to support the most effective workforce organizations in the city—those that have the trust of large employers, a track record of preparing lower-skill workers to meet employer needs, and the capacity to expand without sacrificing quality—and to propel others to become more successful.

To focus attention on the initiative, Catapult commissioned a set of four essays on the future of workforce development from Jerry Rubin, CEO of Jewish Vocational Service. JVS is one of Boston’s (and the nation’s) premier providers of adult education and workforce development services, providing immigrants and native-born individuals with programs from English language skills to technical training, at JVS’s office and in partnership with local community colleges and employers. Its $15 million a year budget makes JVS among the largest workforce development providers in Greater Boston.

Rubin, who took the JVS helm in 2007, has been steadily remaking the organization, strengthening its responsiveness to health care, manufacturing, hospitality and other employers so it can deliver for those it trains and prepares for jobs. Internalizing “decades of field research, experimentation, evaluation, failure, and success,” as Rubin puts it, JVS has developed a field-tested set of strategies and practices and an employer-facing organizational culture. It exemplifies the kind of sophisticated “next gen” organization that Catapult wants to promote and grow.

Rubin’s first essay describes JVS’s overall strategy, focusing on how JVS has evolved into a nimble and trusted partner for employers, offering services that HR offices will pay for and able to capitalize on the staff’s deep knowledge of and access to untapped immigrant and native-born communities.

The other essays, to be released in two-week intervals, address strategies for job quality, scale, and reaching diverse populations.

“Workforce organizations have to pivot from a human-service, anti-poverty culture to a market-responsive one. That’s the first step. And it is not an easy one,” notes Rubin. He details the changes required in internal messaging, staffing, training, and performance incentives. And he shows how moving in this direction helps JVS get its “nose under the employer’s tent,” so that it is better positioned to “expand the value proposition for employers while raising job quality for workers.”

Rubin demonstrates with specific examples how JVS’s success, combined with the tightening labor market, has enabled it to be more selective in choosing employer partners and more firm in negotiating on behalf of job seekers and incumbent workers. He describes, for example, two instances where JVS convinced employers to set higher wages and better schedules by demonstrating that, if they did not, qualified potential hires would vote with their feet and apply for jobs with competitors whose wages and conditions were better.

Steven Dawson, a national leader in the workforce development field, sees JVS as an organization pointing the way forward. For many years, Dawson led PHI, a research and advocacy group committed to “quality care through quality jobs” in long-term health care. Through that work, he became a strong advocate for the view that the workforce field needs to reinvent itself so that it places as many individuals as it can in good jobs, but also helps employers “make bad jobs better.” JVS is moving in this direction where it can. Project Catapult and the Catapult Papers are a call to action in that spirit.

We can’t predict when the economy will cool and the labor market start to slacken. But we know it will happen. And that when it does, the leverage for improving job quality will weaken as well.

For that reason alone, Catapult, its sponsors, and its model provider JVS, see now as the time to be bold and to make the most of labor market leverage so that next gen strategies will be able to survive in a less hospitable labor market.

To get a better understanding of the Catapult strategy—and the direction that Rubin and JVS have charted—take a look at the Catapult Papers. They were written to elevate the discussion and to signal the way forward as the Boston Foundation, SkillWorks and their Catapult initiative move from ideas to investments in the region’s workforce infrastructure.

You can join in on the Catapult website. Do it now: There is no time to waste.

Richard Kazis is a Boston-based consultant on workforce development and higher education.