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A Better Careers deep dive: What we learned in the initiative’s first three years

In January 2018, Irvine launched our seven-year, $110.8 million Better Careers initiative – one of three multiyear initiatives designed to help us reach our vision of a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically.

Better Careers supports efforts to prepare Californians with low incomes for middle-skill jobs that provide family-sustaining wages and opportunities to advance. Grantees also connect employers to more diverse talent and improve public policies and workforce development systems that are doorways — but too often create barriers— to opportunities for middle-wage careers.

Prior to the launch, we spent one year doing pilot grantmaking and engaging with grantees, thought-leaders, employers, and other stakeholders across California. Their insight and wisdom, along with what we learned from listening directly to low-wage Californians, informed our approach to the work.

In 2020, almost three years into the initiative, we partnered with Social Policy Research Associates on a deep-dive analysis that included listening to grantees, assessing progress, and determining if we need to make changes to reach our initiative goals. We are excited to share some key learnings.

Grantees respond to a new reality

California, and the world, has changed dramatically since the initiative launched. The health and economic impacts of COVID-19, compounded by ongoing, systemic racial injustice that spurred 2020’s massive protests, have created tremendous challenges for Better Careers grantees, particularly those serving Black and Latinx communities disproportionately impacted.

Unemployment rates have increased dramatically, and many formerly low-wage workers must start over after being laid-off from middle-skill jobs. In response, career pathway grantees have shifted to meet the needs of their participants by rapidly transitioning trainings and program offerings to virtual platforms, providing cash assistance and relief funds to support basic needs, and assessing and strengthening organizational capacity to meet the unique needs of our pandemic-impacted world.

Grantees are also meeting the current moment by stepping more fully and forcefully into racial equity efforts, with examples including a sharper focus on their internal systems and policies, working to ensure California’s economic recovery efforts advance racial equity, and holding those they partner with, such as employers, accountable.

Initiative progress

As of December 2020, Better Careers has invested $51.8 million of its $110.8 million budget. The data we collected indicates the Better Careers initiative is on the right track, though we saw the need for some strategic adjustments. We are encouraged to see that grantees have made significant progress, including:

  • Thousands of low-income Californians have gained access to middle-skill, middle-wage jobs through career pathway programs, and those programs are successfully pivoting to meet the challenges of COVID-19.
  • Grantees have effectively partnered with employers, far exceeding expectations, including using strategies to champion and recognize employers critical to their work.
  • Grantees’ innovative efforts to explore new models are increasing workers’ skills and opportunities for advancement – and offer promise for the growth and sustainability of workforce development programs.


Pandemic-related impacts, including layoffs, business closures, and increased competition for jobs, pose a threat to this progress. That’s why expanding and strengthening career pathways strategies — including apprenticeships, paid internships, and work-based learning — will remain a critical aspect of our approach through the life of the initiative.

Initiative update

Based on the above lessons, Better Careers will stay our current course with a keen focus on career pathways and integration of a new industry-specific approach in our efforts. We will start this work by selecting two industries from four in which grantees are currently seeing particular success – manufacturing, healthcare, construction, and information and communications technology. Increasing racial and gender diversity in the selected industries will be a primary focus of the work.

We are thankful for the work our grantees and partners continue to do to help low-income Californians advance economically, particularly in the face of the immense challenges of the last year and those that lie ahead.

We look forward to sharing more of what we learn about the initiative, and the workforce development space in general, and we invite you to read the full Deep Dive report here.