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America’s Best-Kept Future of Work Secret

How modernizing workforce boards can support workers experiencing low wages

This article was originally posted on Dr. Angela Jackson's Medium blog.

When we explore solutions to train and place workers in higher-wage jobs, the focus is often around what individual companies or programs are doing to close the gap and reach workers. However, there is another— often overlooked—resource that is a powerful complement to these initiatives. Workforce boards, located in all regions across the United States, identify the labor needs of local communities and direct public funding to programs that connect workers to training, jobs, and other resources.

In many ways, these boards are America’s “best-kept secret” in the future of work. As research from Jobs for the Future shows, workforce boards are in a “prime position to drive impact at scale.” These organizations represent the niche needs of local communities, reaching historically disinvested communities through public-private partnerships.

As Covid-19 dramatically redefines employment and education opportunities, workforce boards have a unique opportunity to shape the lives of overlooked talent. Cedric Williams, an Engineering Tech at Proterra Inc. and a member of New Profit’s XPERTS worker advisory board, is one of the millions of Americans who has applied the resources and knowledge of workforce boards to his career path. He shares:

“The American public needs to know and understand that workforce boards are a necessity to America’s economic growth. Workforce boards provide the resources for any individual to obtain a meaningful occupation. These organizations provide the tools and training to give you the opportunity to interview, obtain, advance, and sustain in today’s workforce.”

Workforce boards were originally born out of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. Since then, many of these organizations have struggled to modernize—facing challenges from outdated technologies and a lack of resources to the growing digital skills gap. As Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, cautions:

“Workforce investment boards must be measured and funded not based on legacy WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) allocations, but rather on whether they’re succeeding at putting Americans into good jobs (defined as $50,000+ annually, full-time employee, with multiple career paths). The workforce boards that can’t do this should be torn down and replaced with something new.”

As we work towards economic recovery, modernizing these boards will be a critical component of post-Covid planning. Ashley Putnam, director of the Economic Mobility Project at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, understands that the role and responsibilities of workforce boards need to shift to reflect mounting social and economic pressures. She summarizes:

“In 2019, Philadelphia Federal Reserve research on automation indicated that people of color, non-degree holders, and younger workers would be most impacted by automation. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated these trends, while exacerbating existing economic and racial inequality. As work is changing rapidly, workforce boards have a unique role to play as intermediaries working to convene industry leaders around the shifts necessary for equitable economic recovery. We know that recessions historically have widened disparities. An intentional focus on racial equity and job quality are necessary to move our economy forward.”

As part of the ongoing Future of Work Grand Challenge, the winning ideas will equip five innovation-oriented workforce boards to use MIT Solve’s solutions and XPRIZE’s training technologies to reach the anticipated wave of one million displaced workers they’ll be serving—ultimately, creating workforce playbooks to be used with the 538 workforce boards nationwide. You can apply to the Reimagining Pathways to Employment in the US Challenge powered by MIT Solve by November 9.

This kind of collaboration will be necessary as workforce boards reimagine their futures. Tracey Carey, director at Midwest Urban Strategies—an organization that represents a coordinated effort on behalf of 13 Department of Labor urban workforce development boards, explains:

“There is an opportunity during this economic crisis to diversify partnerships, resources, and strategic solutions to move beyond the box. Boards are beginning to consider new and innovative ways to partner with employers to address their needs for onboarding and upskilling talent. They are also looking at strategic resources that can be braided together with traditional funds to weave a comprehensive set of services that supports a job seeker in all facets as they prepare to embark on a career change or advancement strategy.”

As innovators collaborate to identify solutions that will support workers who are experiencing low wages, career displacement, and job loss, workforce boards represent a meaningful opportunity for collaboration and capacity-building. Organizations like Jobs for the Future are working directly with workforce boards to help them adapt to the rapidly shifting economy—from transforming operations virtually to expanding centers’ capacities.

Covid-19 has destroyed the status quo for many sectors. While the future of work conversation has not typically centered on workforce boards, it’s time for leaders to better recognize the value in these organizations. No longer do workforce boards need to remain a “secret” to a few—we should be equipping them with the necessary resources, tools, and funding to reach displaced workers.

Apply to the Reimagining Pathways to Employment in the US Challenge powered by MIT Solve by November 9. Challenge winners will have access to a $625,000 prize pool made possible by Challenge partners Morgridge Family Foundation, New Profit, CSU Global, and Gary Community Investments. These grants will fund the development of validation pilots with innovative US Workforce Boards to benefit an estimated one million displaced workers.

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