Saturday, April 19, 2008

Connecting Jobs and People Is More Than a Name

"The District's Workforce Intermediary will be tasked with drawing together and leveraging the resources of prospective employers, workforce development organizations, community organizations, educational institutions, organized labor, and other interested stakeholders to increase the likelihood that District residents are prepared to fill at least 51 percent of the jobs that are made available through the waterfront development."
DC Appleseed and DC Fiscal Policy Institute, Hometown Prosperity: Increasing Opportunity for DC's Low-Income Working Families

DC's recovery has not lifted all boats, "Nearly one in three workers from the District was working but poor in 2005." Issued last week, this advocacy report calls attention to the fact that so many people are working but poor and makes recommendations related to adult education, community colleges, economic development, work supports like EITC, and the quality standards of jobs. It is a part of a national effort, called the Working Poor Families Project, to build advocacy capacity to advance education and training.

So, what is a workforce intermediary? I have the dubious honor of being able to lay some claim to inventing this clunky phrase several years ago when we convened a national dialogue on workforce development and published an edited volume, Workforce Intermediaries for the Twenty-First Century. Some of the best workforce development is done by partnerships, not single organizations, but we know that partnerships can be messy and unstable, even when pursuing the right sector-based strategy. Somebody has to herd the cats and keep partners focused and working together, especially when the goal is building career pathways, not just jobs. That's what a workforce intermediary, or workforce partnership, does. There's no one form or blueprint for a workforce intermediary, and many different groups can be the center of gravity, but most partnerships involve employers, unions, community colleges, and community organizations. Workforce intermediaries are "integrators" of strategies, resources, information, partners, and results.

Oddly, until recently workforce intermediaries have popped up more by accident than by the intentions of public workforce systems, in part because they cut across so many silos. In the past few years, local and national funder consortia like Skillworks in Boston and the National Fund for Workforce Solutions have enmerged to provide start-up capital and capacity building for these intermediaries as well as support for better state policies. Linking a workforce intermediary, as in DC, explicitly to the economic inclusion requirements of economic development is a promising approach.

One painful lesson I've learned is that we're in for trouble when clunky phrases like workforce intermediaries or sector-based employment development get widely adopted. Karen Chapple in a paper last year for our CED and Mistakes project talked about "best practices in the air" that get adopted in name only without the hard work being done to make them effective on day one and in year three and beyond. In other words, fashion cycle adoption reinforces a regression of projects to the mean of no effect or mediocrity.

What's the answer? Accountability? Learning? A culture of success? Incentives? Yes, all of those certainly. But I would place my bet on entrepreneurial leaders who stake their reputations on building this intermediary role for the long run and getting results. The challenge is how do we find, nurture, and keep these entrepreneurs. If we don't do this, we'll just end up with more clunky phrases for hoped-for strategies.

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