Envisioning an equitable, inclusive workforce system that works for the people and businesses that need it most

By Jeannine LaPrad, February 11, 2022

NSC and coalition partners lead the conversation about how implementing investments and policies can drive an inclusive economic recovery.

As our country emerges from the most devastating economic crisis since the Great Depression, we have a real chance to significantly impact the lives of workers and businesses by equipping them with the 21st century skills our country needs.

First, consider that Congress made over $1 billion in investments in skills training when it passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November – and more investments are currently under discussion by federal policymakers.

And, Congress is in the midst of conversations that would reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), America’s primary workforce training program.

With the implementation of these groundbreaking investments, and reauthorizations of key policies on the horizon, it’s a critical time to rethink our workforce system – especially in the context of the restructured labor market, massive economic displacement from a global pandemic, accelerated technological change, and new attention to our history of structural racism.

Decisions made by state and federal policymakers over the next year are an opportunity to achieve workforce development policy changes that contribute to a more inclusive and equitable economy for working people and the small and mid-size businesses that hire them. How we implement federal recovery investments will lay the groundwork for new, consistent federal investments in skills training, changes to other major federal policies, and for the workforce development strategies that states, and localities pursue for years to come.

We could ensure a public workforce system that truly keeps pace with worker and business demand for skills in local economies. We could make great strides dismantling the structural racism within the workforce and education and training system; addressing the disproportionate impact of economic crises (current and future) on workers of color, immigrants, and workers with a high school diploma or less; and acknowledging the essential role of small businesses who hire and invest in their workers.

Imagine: a workforce system that supports the workforce equitably and meets the moment we’re in – and a future where change is the only constant.

As NSC works with our networks to shape a reauthorized WIOA and steer implementation of workforce investments in this context, our work will be guided by our Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery framework.

Building off that framework, NSC launched a new initiative – Implementing an Inclusive Recovery to shape implementation of federal recovery investments as well as new state and federal workforce investments and the workforce development strategies that states and localities pursue for years to come.

Listening to the Voices of Program Leaders and Practitioners

Input from field stakeholders, including those working on the ground and those with lived experience, is critical to understanding what is working and what needs to change in our public workforce investments and policies to create more equitable outcomes. That’s why, during the fall of 2021, NSC and a set of national partners convened a series of listening sessions with stakeholders from across the country to inform this initiative and a set of recommendations for federal and state lawmakers charged with implementing federal recovery dollars. With several national partners, NSC convened 15 listening sessions with over 160 stakeholders representing approximately 140 organizations.

These sessions have been driven by an organizational commitment that NSC made in our Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery framework of engaging, listening to, and learning from advocates and partners leading racial and economic justice efforts as well as leaders of color in the workforce development world. The pandemic made this task more urgent, as it magnified historical and structural inequities faced by workers of color, immigrants, those with a high school diploma or less, and other historically excluded populations.  

Participants represented a wide range of perspectives – workforce boards, community-based workforce training providers, workforce advocacy coalitions and organizations, community colleges, businesses and chambers of commerce, funders, unions, and labor management partnerships.  They also came from both rural and urban areas and represented 40 states as well as several Tribal nations. Across all sessions stakeholders generously shared their experiences, ideas, and insights on how to implement workforce investments, policies, partnerships, and practices in ways that address inequities and support an inclusive workforce.

The listening sessions were designed to seek feedback from a diverse group of people and organizations about what is getting in the way of providing equitable access to good jobs, workforce education, and supportive services for workers most impacted by the pandemic recession and structural barriers to opportunities, particularly Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) workers.

NSC sought to lift up and seek feedback from listening session participants on key recommendations for industry- and worker-targeted skills policies across a range of topics such as sector partnerships, business and industry engagement, community college and career pathways, data and performance measurement, and support for frontline workforce development professionals.  Across all these topics participants identified what must happen to ensure more equitable access to programs and services and to reduce racial and gender disparities in outcomes.

NSC also worked with key partners in hosting six sessions on equitable access to education and training and related services for Latinx workers, Black workers, Native or Indigenous workers, immigrant workers, working mothers, and formerly incarcerated workers. These organizations, including Unidos US, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Northwest Area Foundation, National Employment Law Project (NELP), National Partnership for New Americans, and Institute for Women’s Policy Research provided critical research and perspectives on challenges facing and opportunities for better supporting these workers.

What We Heard: Themes for implementing workforce programs to advance equity

Key themes emerged across the listening sessions. As we consider how to implement federal workforce programs to advance equity, we will want to center these themes:

  • Continue to prioritize investments in the communities and workers who have been most impacted by the economic effects of the pandemic and structural racism. Include community-based organizations who have deep connections with and understanding of communities historically excluded from skills training and employment opportunities (e.g., formerly incarcerated people).
  • Center the voices, experiences, and expertise of people with lived experience in shaping policies and programs. Include individuals with lived experience on policy or program leadership bodies and in customer-centered design processes focused on improving access to programs and services.
  • Align programs and resources that support the whole person in training for a career or advancing in their existing one.  Continue flexibility in program eligibility, allowable costs, and braiding of funds to address local needs, pay for wrap-around supports, and help people feel included and connected to a network of services.
  • Change what we’re measuring to gauge progress toward closing disparities and advancing equity in program access and outcomes.  Develop longer-term measures, such as job quality and career advancement, and disaggregate outcomes by race/ethnicity and other demographics to ensure movement toward equitable outcomes.
  • Support industry partnerships that work with businesses, worker organizations, and training providers to promote quality jobs, workforce diversity, and inclusion. Ensure industry partnerships in a broad range of sectors have the tools to disrupt occupational segregation of people of color and women in lower wage jobs and support training and career advancement opportunities.
  • Increase digital access and learning for all working people at home and on the job in ways that support equitable upskilling. Invest in digital access and skills training alongside and inside of career pathway programs, including better assessment of digital skills and greater flexibility in where, how, and when training is delivered.
  • Increase support for frontline workforce development professionals to strengthen cultural awareness and sensitivity and advance equity. Shift from providing compliance-oriented training to skills based professional development for program managers and staff that helps them better meet BIPOC community needs (e.g., training in trauma-informed practices, racial equity and inclusion, and cultural competence).

What’s Next? Implementation Recommendations

In the next few months, NSC will release analysis that delves deeper into some of the key themes noted above. We will also be releasing a framework for state and federal policymakers to support equitable implementation of federal workforce investments and initiatives. These recommendations and analyses will be shaped by NSC’s commitment to assessing the potential racial impacts of our policies. Last year, NSC completed the development of an internal racial equity policy assessment tool to guide us in developing our policy proposals. That tool shaped our approach to the listening sessions and will shape our development of these key themes and recommendations. In these and other ways, we’ll continue to create opportunities throughout the year for our network to shape federal initiatives and recovery implementation at the state and local levels.