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Making the workforce system work for more Californians

Oscar Wilde reportedly quipped, “Life is too short to learn German.” Considering there are 16 options for the word “the,” it’s hard to argue otherwise (or so I tell myself given that I can barely read a menu written in German despite having lived in the country throughout high school). 

In my five years of learning about it since joining the Better Careers team, I’ve often thought the same thing about workforce development. Life can seem too short to keep straight the titles in WIOA and the slew of acronyms, guidance, and directives around how public funds get spent, not to mention the complex mix of direct service nonprofit, educational, and for-profit organizations that play a role in helping people find and access jobs. And this complexity is nothing if not obscuring. It’s hard to develop a perspective on how a system could work better for Californians whose labor and talent have been undervalued if you can’t even understand how the system (which is a generous characterization) works. 

And we’ve seen over the past five years of partnering with a phenomenal group of grantees that it can work. Grantees share with us story after story of exceptional job seekers overcoming tremendous barriers to access better jobs.  

But those gains proved fragile in the wake of a global pandemic and uneven economic recovery that fueled economic gains for a few but left many, mainly those with lower incomes, behind. And the racial reckonings opened a deeper national conversation about the extent to which this country has been built on stolen labor and its public systems continue to fail people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous people. As Irvine articulated its commitment to working to repair the harms of systemic racism, the Better Careers team began to expand our scope beyond work that depends upon exceptionalism to supporting work that both reaches and is rooted in the communities most harmed by the current system.   

We spent the better part of last year examining these dynamics and engaging with grantees and our board about if and how the Better Careers strategy should adapt. We ultimately proposed an approach that continues our support of high-quality training, deepens our emphasis on quality jobs, and builds on Irvine’s commitment to racial equity by focusing our grantmaking in three interrelated areas: 

  • Expanding inclusive apprenticeships to provide clear and debt-free paths for people to access quality jobs with family-sustaining wages, benefits, opportunities to advance, and labor market power 
  • Promoting effective and equitable public workforce services designed to meet job seekers where they are and stay with them as they enter quality jobs  
  • Supporting nonprofits that are led by and accountable to the communities they serve and that Californians who have been failed by multiple systems trust to provide comprehensive, wrap-around support and connections to quality jobs  

We are pleased that Irvine’s board approved this updated approach in December, which allocates $160 million over the next seven years. Our goal is to use job training and workforce services as a mechanism to advance racial and gender equity, build worker power, and move more people into quality jobs that provide good wages, benefits, and a stable foothold into the middle class.  

And we believe that those working in workforce development can be and in many cases already are – sources of repair in communities that have been harmed by years of underinvestment and whose needs are not met by traditional workforce models. Our grantmaking will support efforts that foster trust and prioritize the dignity and voices of low-wage workers and communities of color to open the door for more Californians to get on a path to economic mobility. 

This path invites and engages with the full complexity of the workforce development system, so it may be the philanthropic equivalent of signing up for German II. It may also mean progress is slower in the near term, but if it also means it is more resilient – and equitable – in the long term, life is too short not to try.