New Project: Supporting Upskilling for Essential Workers and Small Businesses

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, March 29, 2022

A new project from National Skills Coalition is helping five states improve essential workers’ and small businesses’ access to upskilling opportunities. The 14-month Essential In Deed project is tackling a challenge that existed even before the pandemic but has been magnified during it: Frontline workers and small businesses in essential industries often have the least access to the very upskilling opportunities that can help them succeed and thrive.

There are many reasons for this lack of access. For example, small businesses may struggle to access state incumbent-worker training funds due to burdensome eligibility requirements. Or companies’ upskilling programs may be targeted at mid-level workers rather than those in frontline or entry-level roles. Sometimes the very nature of essential work makes it harder to participate in upskilling, as when people are working rotating shifts or don’t have a fixed schedule.

Because many essential workers are people of color, these barriers can widen racial inequities in access to upskilling — and shut out workers of color from the wage gains and economic mobility that upskilling can unlock. In contrast, eliminating those barriers, if done thoughtfully and with intention, can help to close racial equity gaps. NSC is working with the selected states to apply a racial equity lens throughout this project, and will share more details on this aspect of the work in a future blog post.

Barriers to upskilling can also have major ripple effects for essential workers and small businesses seeking to adapt to new digital demands in our economy. NSC’s prior research has documented the significant need for digital skill-building across the US workforce (including workers of color) as well as innovative program models for helping workers of all backgrounds build such skills. State teams participating in the Essential In Deed project are using the data-gathering elements of the project (described below) to gather input about the digital upskilling needs of essential workers and small businesses, and how they can best be supported.

The project will advance state-level policy efforts designed to help local businesses avert layoffs and encourage upskilling and to make digital access and learning available to working people at home and on the job. These are two of the critical goals/policy priorities NSC outlined in Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery – a vision and a set of policy goals for pandemic recovery released in fall 2020.

Five states have been selected to participate

States attended an information session about the project in Fall 2021 and subsequently submitted applications to participate. Of the five states selected, three teams are led by state officials, while two are led by NSC SkillSPAN coalitions or Business Leaders United affiliates:

  • Utah’s team is led by the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs and the Center for Economic Opportunity and Belonging at the Economic Development Corporation of Utah
  • Tennessee’s team is led by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, NSC’s combined SkillSPAN lead and BLU affiliate
  • Louisiana’s team is led by the Louisiana Budget Project, NSC’s SkillSPAN lead
  • Indiana’s team is led by the state’s Department of Workforce Development
  • California’s team is led by the state’s Employment Training Panel

Gathering data to inform policy changes

The selected state teams are currently gathering data from small businesses and workers to help identify barriers to upskilling for workers, including which groups are under-represented in their participation. This data collection and analysis portion of the project is taking place throughout the first quarter of 2022. It includes:

  • Convening of two focus groups in each state: One focus group in each state is focusing on essential workers, and the other on small businesses. These focus groups provide a way to gather crucial qualitative data direct from workers and business owners themselves. People will be able to share feedback about why they have or have not participated in upskilling opportunities in the past, what could support them in doing so, and how state policies can be changed to improve their ability participate. NSC is partnering with the Detroit-based JFM Consulting Group to carry out the focus groups.
  • Development of a data profile for each state. These data profiles supplement what states already have available to them through their Labor Market Information agencies. The new data profiles are tailored to each state and provide crucial quantitative data that sheds light on the characteristics and constraints facing essential workers and small businesses in essential industries. NSC is partnering with the Virginia-based Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness to produce the data profiles.

Identifying areas for policy change

Once states have received their data profiles and focus group summaries, they will begin identifying areas where state policy may need to be changed. The Essential In Deed project focuses on executive-branch changes that can be accomplished administratively, without needing to pass new legislation.

For example, a state may learn that very small employers are reluctant to apply for upskilling funds for their incumbent workforce because of barriers in the application process. The state may decide to alter the application process for all applicants, or create a streamlined process for very small businesses in particular.

National Skills Coalition staff will be working closely with state teams as they review their data and decide on potential areas for action. States will examine their data to see what light it sheds on racial inequities and potential remedies for those inequities; the evolving demand for digital skills among essential workers and small businesses and how upskilling policies can address it; and other factors specific to each state’s priorities and goals.

The five state teams participating in the Essential In Deed project will participate in two cross-state conversations to discuss what they are learning and how their data and policy ideas may be relevant to their fellow state teams. In addition, states will participate in peer learning calls with other states outside this project on an as-needed basis (such as if a state is contemplating a policy change that another state has already enacted).

By the end of 2022, each state team will have enacted or begun to enact one or more of the administrative policy changes it identified as a part of this project.

Sharing broader implications for other states and the workforce development field

At the conclusion of this project in late 2022, NSC will published a “lessons learned” report that highlights key takeaways that have implications for other states. Particular attention will be paid to strategies and policy levers that can close racial equity gaps and foster digital skill-building among essential workers and small businesses.

Stay tuned for more updates from NSC as the Essential In Deed project continues throughout this year.