Empowering Change: How an Initiative in New Mexico is Redefining Workforce Equity

By Nakeisha Ricks-Pettyjohn, March 25, 2024

America needs a dynamic and inclusive workforce system equipped to address long-standing structural inequities in our labor market. We need a workforce system that’s resourced to give workers and businesses access to the skills training they need so workers, businesses, and our economy are resilient in the face of current and future economic shifts. And we need a workforce system that creates pathways to quality jobs so that every worker and industry can thrive.

In May 2023, the National Skills Coalition (NSC) launched the Creating an Equitable and Resilient Workforce System campaign with a discussion brief titled New Ideas for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) that offered recommendations and reforms to our national funded public workforce system. Specifically, in our WIOA Recommendations, NSC called for three types of reforms:

■ Invest in programs that provide equitable high-quality skills training, economic supports, and pathways to quality jobs by guaranteeing training for more workers, developing a national network of high-performing industry/sector partnerships and career pathways, supporting digital skills training, and expanding Integrated Education and Training (IET) models.

■ Provide accountability for our workforce system to contribute to an inclusive economy by requiring WIOA state and local plans and boards to incorporate racial equity goals and workers’ voices and by expanding outcome measures, disaggregating data, and supporting evaluation and data systems.

■ Strengthen the delivery of equity-advancing WIOA career services through funding career navigation services, training frontline workers who deliver them, and piloting service delivery partnerships with culturally responsive, equity-focused service providers.

This blog focuses on the second of those three reforms, which is incorporating workers’ voices into state workforce systems, plans, and strategies, and emphasizes New Mexico as an example of this approach.

Service providers and workforce partners play a pivotal role in championing positive system change with a keen understanding of the ever-changing needs of workers and communities. When workforce partners from various backgrounds align with state agencies around a common goal that prioritizes workers’ needs, it not only reduces administrative redundancy and burdens on service providers, but also provides workers with clear entry points to quality skills training and holistic supports. State workforce development agencies should pursue partnerships not just with other governmental entities but also with organizations that have deep knowledge of and roots in the communities they serve. Unfortunately, these organizations are often asked to provide input and partner without resources or funding, and smaller organizations may not have the administrative and financial infrastructure to comply with public funding requirements, which can perpetuate underinvestment in these organizations.

The New Mexico Worker Equity Initiative (NMWEI) provides an example of such a partnership between state and local workforce leaders. The Initiative is working to provide systemic solutions to create a more equitable, human-centered workforce development ecosystem by bringing together workforce development and worker rights advocates and practitioners, including leaders of community-based organizations serving Indigenous, immigrant, Black, Latino, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) New Mexicans, as well as state agency workforce and economic development leaders to share promising practices, policies, and partnerships that can drive systems change. Through the generous support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the NMWEI is led by the New Mexico Community Foundation, driven by a committee of leaders from 16 organizations supported through the Steering Committee and National Skills Coalition. This initiative is anchored around three goals; 1) build a network of worker equity organizations; 2) establish a worker rights ecosystem that acknowledges, understands, and supports economic security for Black, Indigenous, and other BIPOC workers; and 3) build the capacity of workforce service providers and workers’ rights advocates to serve marginalized communities.

Since its start in April 2023, the project has assembled and strategized with over 30 organizations, state and local agencies over the course of a year, serving as one of New Mexico’s primary worker equity tables. The NMWEI has cultivated an environment that promotes peer-learning, trust-building and strategic collaboration through a series of facilitated meetings with the NMWEI partners and steering committee.

Through NMWEI’s intentional and meaningful engagement of community partners, they have been able to leverage not only the expertise and strengths of partners but also identify specific opportunities to deepen relationships and expand access to resources to holistically support New Mexicans and the state’s diverse workforce landscape.

During the early stages of NM WEI, National Skills Coalition (NSC) provided learning sessions on the ideal workforce ecosystem, an overview of the current New Mexico workforce development system, and funding streams with policy levers that can be utilized through the public workforce development system and included in the WIOA state plan. NSC later provided technical assistance to the NM WEI as they began to explore the connectivity and alignment of other skills training investments such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to advance worker equity and economic mobility. These sessions equipped partners with the tools and knowledge necessary to grasp the complexities of federal workforce policies, programs and investments that could be leveraged to increase equitable pathways into quality jobs. With the NM WEI honoring the importance of acknowledging workers who have historically been excluded from the workforce system and their cultural significance to equitably contribute to an inclusive economy, Dr. Everette Hill provided multiple trainings and research like Equity-Centered Strategies using the CASADA Model to successfully create equity focused solutions in services delivery and policies from design to implementation.

NMWEI hosted a panel discussion for Secretary Sarita Nair with the New Mexico’s Department of Workforce Solutions (NMDWS), local workforce boards, and energy partners to elevate the challenges of New Mexico, specifically in rural communities, as NMDWS and others support the Just Transition movement and an inclusive economy though the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. These strategic conversations also gave NM WEI partners a chance to share with state administrators firsthand experiences of the many known barriers New Mexican workers face accessing quality jobs and high-quality training and a moment to create shared understanding of the administrative challenges and burdens these policymakers face as well. These roundtable discussions resulted in a joint commitment to create an equitable and resilient workforce system for all New Mexicans through a comprehensive workforce strategy beyond WIOA. NSC also offered NMWEI an opportunity to increase their awareness of ways to create this equitable system by participating in the SkillSpan People Powered Infrastructure Convening during our 2023 Skills in the States Forum in Baltimore, MD. And finally, a lasting positive outcome of these discussions has been NMDWS incorporating NMWEI’s suggestions were incorporated into the 2024-2027 WIOA Combined State Plan to remain as an accountability partner.

These efforts highlight the important role workforce advocates and partners play in ensuring a national workforce system that supports an inclusive economy — one where workers and businesses who are most impacted by economic shifts, as well as workers who face structural barriers of discrimination or lack of opportunity, are empowered to equitably participate in — and benefit from — a growing economy.

Lessons Learned: “The Work in Their Words”

So far, the most valuable achievement of the NMWEI has been to get a foot in the door with stakeholders and build a strong presence at the state-level on behalf of workers. This network has been able to articulate pathways to quality jobs, and stability for workers, by examining what’s truly at stake if we don’t – and in so doing, reinforcing what we have always known at Cultivating Coders: training within these pathways needs to be free, it needs to be within rural communities- not just urban hubs- and provided in the language and culture of those community members. The network has been able to make strides by looking at who is furthest from the opportunities and going directly to them, asking what are the regional and local needs throughout New Mexico and how do we provide flexible requirements for participation and therefore worker success.” – Adrienne Koplik, Cultivating Coders.

“I have enjoyed the progress and impacts of the network members that I can bring to our community centers.  I respect and value the team’s knowledge and creativity in problem solving. I like translating to Navajo while we discuss opportunities in workforce developments”– Roberta Roberts, Navajo & Hopi Families

“One experience in particular that had an impact on me was hearing the presentation from Secretary Nair, talking about the jobs that are open and the workers seeking jobs. While these numbers are nearly identical, it clearly illustrates that there are pathways needed for people to get successfully matched with jobs—people from New Mexico—instead of relying on workers from neighboring states. The stories of marginalized workers in New Mexico who have faced systemic barriers, discrimination, and lacking a voice in the workplace reinforced the urgency and importance of addressing these issues statewide. It really highlighted the need for comprehensive solutions that prioritize NM workforce, centers on equity and justice for all workers.”– Everette Hill, SIS group

Special thanks to the following partners leading these efforts:

New Mexico Foundation; Cultivating Coders (Bernalillo County); Future Focused Education (Bernalillo County); HELP NM (Bernalillo County); National Indian Youth Council (Bernalillo County); Somos Un Pueblo Unido (Santa Fe County); Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund (San Juan County); Community Action Agency of Southern NM (CCASNM) (Doña Ana County) Farm to Table New Mexico (Santa Fe County); Health Equity Alliance for LGBTQ+ New Mexicans (HEAL+NM) (Bernalillo County); Healthy Native Communities Partnership Inc. (San Juan County) Encuentro (Bernalillo County); La Semilla Food Center (Doña Ana County); New Mexico Black Leadership Council (Bernalillo County); New Mexico Caregivers Coalition (Bernalillo County); New Mexico Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (NM CAFé) (Doña Ana County); Center for Southwest Culture (New Mexico Thrives) (Bernalillo County); Nelsy Dominguez, C3Perspecitives, Everrett Hill, SIS group, and generous support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.