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Getting to Better Careers: What We Learned

Elizabeth Gonzalez and Kerri Folmer, Former Portfolio Director and Guest contributor from Monitor Institute by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP

In December 2017, The James Irvine Foundation announced the approval of two new, multiyear initiatives as part the Foundation’s focus on expanding economic and political opportunity for working Californians who are struggling with poverty. One of those, Better Careers, will leverage grantmaking and partnerships to help 25,000 low-income jobseekers secure employment that pays at least $18 per hour.

How did Irvine arrive at this goal and the initiative focused on achieving it? The Foundation’s work was informed by more than a year of listening to and learning from grantees, employers, thought-leaders, and other stakeholders across California. With the support of Monitor Institute by Deloitte, we engaged these groups in a series of interactive convenings, innovation labs, and conversations to understand their perspectives, prioritize needs, and inform Irvine’s strategy.

Together we compiled the potential solutions we heard that can help workers connect to secure, middle-wage jobs and careers. We asked grantees and other field experts to identify the ideas with the most — and least — potential for impact.

Irvine is not able to fund all the topics and ideas we explored — including those listed below — but the Foundation wants to share all the lessons learned with the broad field focused on these issues and populations. With that said, here are highlights from this yearlong listening and learning process:

  • There is no single solution but rather a number of promising ideas to consider. Although a few ideas rose to the top, and themes emerged, there was limited consensus on which ideas could create the most impact. This reaffirmed for us that there is no single path forward toward closing the middle-skills gap but rather a number of promising solutions to explore.
  • More often than not, the ideas were about connections within the system. We heard again and again about the complexity of the system and apparent gaps. Whether described as “fragmentation,” “market inefficiencies between supply and demand,” or mismatches between what employers want from candidates and what they communicate, our research helped identify some key opportunities to tighten connections and feedback loops. For example:
    • Stronger competency-based training and hiring models can emerge when organizations and educational institutions that focus on workforce development and employers connect to understand in-demand jobs and skills.
    • Employers report greater overall success when they adapt their internal cultures to better support the hiring and advancement of workers from diverse backgrounds.
    • Qualified jobseekers can more easily (and quickly) find work because of new models and innovations that bring together the people hiring, training, and seeking employment.
  • Employers have a range of motivations but increasingly recognize their role in improving the system. The employers we spoke with stated varied reasons for participating in middle-skill talent conversations. Some seek to diversify their employee base, while others seek cost-effective ways of supporting their existing middle-skill workers. Others are looking to fill in-demand jobs. Regardless of motivations, respondents identified numerous, mutually reinforcing ways to encourage and support employers to play a larger role in helping low-income jobseekers to secure family-sustaining wages and sustainable careers. This could include identifying ways to reduce bias from hiring processes, creating high-touch employee assistance programs that help incumbent workers, or even developing and refining training programs for in-demand jobs.
  • We need new models that share ownership, costs, and benefits. Financial sustainability is a top priority for nonprofit and community college training providers. Many see an opportunity to advocate, collectively, for more public funding for workforce programs, or to explore fee-for-service programs between workforce development organizations and employers. However, new models of partnership may be needed among nonprofit training providers, community colleges, and employers to spur the right behaviors, facilitate the tight connections needed, and share the costs and ownership of solutions.
  • Place matters. Workforce and employment systems vary dramatically by region – and so do the potential solutions. Alternative pathways are necessary in regions where middle-skill jobs are not growing at the same rate as in Los Angeles or the Bay Area. For instance, in Fresno we heard that micro-entrepreneurship could be a promising, alternative path to a family-sustainable wage and a promising career.
  • Technology can improve the system’s efficiency, but it’s not a solution on its own. Those we spoke to see technology as an important tool to help improve training, hiring, and retention – and potentially better match job seekers to available jobs. However, we also heard that technology alone wasn’t enough; it cannot replace the important “ground game” needed to reach and connect job seekers, training providers, and employers.

All these insights and lessons were invaluable in helping us shape the Better Careers initiative, and you will see evidence of this in Irvine’s first grantees in the initiative over the months and years. Additionally, Irvine will continue to explore ideas to help low-income jobseekers secure employment paying a family-sustaining wage.

We thank all those who participated on this learning journey, and we are confident that what we learned will further our collective understanding of ways to help all Californians create a better life for themselves and their families.