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The 6 things states can do to build a diverse and effective contact tracing workforce

  ·   By Brooke DeRenzis
The 6 things states can do to build a diverse and effective contact tracing workforce

Public health experts agree: Contact tracing is critical to stopping the spread of Covid-19, which has caused more than 160,000 deaths in the United States and an economic recession with devastating impacts for millions of workers– particularly workers of color and those without a college degree. Yet few states have developed intentional strategies to ensure workers can train for contact tracing jobs, especially in communities most impacted by the virus. 

Our latest report – “Add to Contacts” – outlines concrete steps that states should take to build and support a contact tracing workforce to contain the spread of the virus while also creating quality, long-term career pathways in health-related fields for these essential, frontline health workers 

Contact tracing, much like workforce development initiatives, should be a local process. States should take a community-based approach by recruiting and training local health workers, prioritizing Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other communities of color who have been hardest hit by the pandemic due to structural racismHealth workers with deep knowledge of their local community are more likely to be successful in building trust and connecting patients to the right resources and services. And voters agree, with the majority of Black, Latinx, and Asian American respondents in a recent poll saying they want contact tracers to come from these impacted communities. 

States must also focus on connecting this diverse contact tracing workforce with longer-term quality careers in health-related fields by providing career pathway training grants and investing in partnerships between local health employers, local education and training providers, and local community organizationsThese additional training opportunities should lead to family-supporting careers and advance equity within the workforce. 

Such investments are crucial to addressing current health workforce shortages, and growing the diverse and equitable health workforce our country needs. Racial and ethnic diversity in the workforce helps healthcare systems increase their cultural and linguistic competencies and patient satisfaction, which in turn can increase the effectiveness of care and associated health outcomes. 

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases and delays in testing have hampered contact tracing efforts in recent weeks. But long term, contact tracing will continue to be one of a number of key strategies that states and localities will need to use to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, safely reopen communities, and get the economy back on trackThose who are already at the frontlines of tracking the virus –along with future contact tracers –deserve support to step into for quality careers once COVID-19 contact tracing subsides. 

With this in mind, here are the six things states can do to build a diverse and effective contact tracing workforce, as outlined in Add to Contacts: 

  1. Recruit, train, and hire contact tracers from local communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, particularly communities of color. 

  1. Set standards for contact tracing jobs to ensure they create economic opportunity for workers and their families while also building a talent pipeline for other health-related careers. 

  1. Fund and support industry partnerships to develop career pathways to quality healthcare careers that will remain in the labor market when contact tracing declines. 

  1. Provide contact tracers with career pathways training grants so they can continue their training and transition to their next job. 

  1. Create supportive service funds that provide contact tracers with time-limited financial assistance. 

  1. Provide transparency on the training and job placement of workers in contact tracer jobs. 

You can read the full report here.


Posted In: Skills Equity

Georgia should use financial aid to help close its middle skills gap

  ·   By Melissa Johnson,
Georgia should use financial aid to help close its middle skills gap

Georgia joins a number of states this month in convening a new session of the legislature and welcoming a new governor. One of the most pressing challenges facing these new leaders is the state’s middle skills gap. Most jobs in Georgia’s labor market – 55 percent – are middle-skill jobs, which require more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree. However, only 43 percent of Georgia workers are trained to the middle-skill level.

NSC’s new brief, Closing Georgia’s Skills Gap through Financial Aid, outlines why the state needs more workers with associate’s degrees in high-demand fields and details two steps that the state could take to fill this need: (1) extend the time to earn the HOPE scholarship and (2) expand HOPE Career Grants to include associate’s degrees. NSC authored this brief in partnership with several Georgia-based organizations – Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Atlanta CareerRise, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and the Atlanta Civic Site of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Producing more workers with associate’s degrees is only one part of filling Georgia’s middle skills gap, but it is a particularly important piece of meeting this goal. Currently Georgia does not produce enough associate’s degree graduates to meet employer demand. Between July 2016 and June 2017, Georgia produced about 19,000 associate’s degree holders while there are nearly 34,000 job postings requiring an associate’s degree.

Meanwhile Georgia’s associate’s degree students face significant financial need. Financial aid can help these students complete college, but because of program limitations HOPE - Georgia’s largest and most well-known college financial aid program – only reaches 15 percent of associate’s degree students.

To help close its middle-skills gap by supporting more students in securing associate’s degrees, Georgia should make two policy changes:

1.       Extend the time to earn the HOPE scholarship.

Associate’s degree students who are more than seven years removed from high school graduation are ineligible for the HOPE scholarship. More than two in five of Georgia’s associate’s degree students are older than twenty-five, making them likely ineligible for this crucial form of financial aid that can help them complete their associate’s degree and secure a well-paying job.

2.       Expand HOPE Career Grants to include associate’s degrees

Georgia has established HOPE Career Grants to provide additional help to students pursuing technical certificates and diplomas in high-demand fields. Students must maintain a 2.0 GPA to qualify for the grant. The combination of the HOPE Grant and the HOPE Career Grant covers tuition for Georgians pursuing certificates and diplomas in targeted fields. However, associate’s degree students in these in-demand HOPE Career Grant fields cannot access this financial aid. Allowing associate’s degree students to access the HOPE Career Grant can help employers meet their most pressing needs for talent.

Now, at the beginning of new gubernatorial and legislative terms, is a wonderful time for Georgia’s leaders to take bold new steps to address its middle skills gap.  NSC’s new brief shows exactly how they can begin.

Posted In: Skills Equity, Georgia

NSC’s new 50-state scan discovers increased support for sector partnerships

  ·   By Bryan Wilson,
NSC’s new 50-state scan discovers increased support for sector partnerships

National Skills Coalition (NSC) has updated our 50-state scan of sector partnership policies and finds that state policies supporting sector partnerships are rapidly growing. Sector partnerships are collaborations of employers with education, training, labor, and community-based organizations to address the local skill needs of a particular industry.  Sector partnerships are a proven strategy for helping workers prepare for middle-skill jobs and helping employers find skilled workers. States can support local sector partnerships through program initiatives, technical assistance, and funding.

Our 2017 scan finds that thirty-two states have policies in place to support local sector partnerships. This is an increase of eleven states from our previous scan conducted two years ago. Of the thirty-two states, twenty-two provide funding to support local sector partnerships, an increase of seven states from two years ago. The biggest difference in funding is the increased use of Governor’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Reserve Funds to support sector partnerships. Twelve states use Governor’s Reserve Funds, while just a single state used Workforce Investment Act Reserve Funds two years ago. Also, more states are providing technical assistance to local sector partnerships. Twenty-eight states now provide technical assistance; two years ago, fifteen states did so.

Increased state support for sector partnerships is largely attributable to WIOA. WIOA, which became effective two years ago, requires sector partnerships as a local workforce activity, and requires states to support those local efforts. While state support has increased substantially under WIOA, there is still considerable room for further progress. In 2018, states must modify their WIOA state plans, which will present another opportunity for states to establish policies to support sector partnerships. As Congress reauthorizes other federal acts - including the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, and the Higher Education Act - there may be more opportunities to include sector partnerships as a key strategy to engage employers in skill development. 

States without a policy in place can use National Skills Coalition’s Sector Partnership Policy Toolkit to establish one. Many of the states with a policy already in place can also use the Toolkit to further expand state support for local sector partnerships.  

Posted In: Sector Partnerships, Skills Equity
NSC releases state policy toolkit on work-based learning for out-of-school youth and disadvantaged adults
Many states have enacted policies to increase the scope of work-based learning that combines instruction at a worksite with classroom learning.  Few of these state policies, however, focus on low-skilled populations of out-of-school youth or disadvantaged adults. NSC’s scan, for example, found that among the 14 states that have policies supporting pre-apprenticeships or youth apprenticeships, all 14 states target in-school youth. While disadvantaged adults may be among those who benefit in the 26 states that have work-based learning policies that support adult training, very few of these policies specifically target disadvantaged adults.
NSC’s new policy toolkit focuses on state policies designed to make work-based learning more widely available and successful for disadvantaged populations. The toolkit also emphasizes policies to make work-based learning more available and effective for small- and medium-size employers. The toolkit concentrates on work-based learning that combines instruction at a worksite during paid employment with classroom education, and that culminates in an industry-recognized credential. Workers in paid work-based learning programs obtain skills and credentials while earning a wage. This is especially important for disadvantaged individuals with immediate financial needs.
The toolkit contains:
  • An explanation of the key policies that support the growth of work-based learning for out-of-school youth and disadvantaged adults;
  • Examples of current state policies and local practices that expand work-based learning for out-of-school youth and disadvantaged adults; and,
  • A legislative template for state work-based learning policies that target out-of-school youth and disadvantaged adults.

Policymakers and advocates can use this toolkit to:

  • Inform decisions on establishing or expanding state policies that support work-based learning;
  • Learn from other state and local community examples; and
  • Develop legislation that establishes or expands work-based learning.

The toolkit presents five policy components:

  • A grant program to fund work-based learning intermediaries;
  • A support fund to aid disadvantaged populations engaged in work-based learning or preparing for work-based learning;
  • Grants for small employers to assist with the cost of starting and managing new apprenticeships;  
  • A tax credit for employers employing apprentices, with an enhanced credit for apprentices from disadvantaged populations; and,
  • A tuition waiver for apprentices’ postsecondary classroom instruction, and a requirement that this instruction articulate with certificates and degrees.

NSC recommends that a state enact all five components to establish a robust policy of supporting work-based learning for out-of-school youth and disadvantaged adults.
Posted In: Work-Based Learning, Skills Equity

Ohio budget bill includes provision to advance skills-based SNAP E&T

  ·   By Rachel Hirsch and Hannah Halbert
Ohio budget bill includes provision to advance skills-based SNAP E&T

In its 2018-19 budget, the Ohio legislature took an important step toward supporting quality skill-based training programs for Ohioans eligible for food assistance (SNAP). The new law requires that the Director of Job and Family Services, in collaboration with the Chancellor of Higher Education, convene a planning committee to expand a skills-based SNAP Employment & Training (E&T) program. Representatives of community colleges, local workforce development boards, and nonprofit organizations that provide training to low-income people must all be included. The committee will identify potential training partners and funding sources that could be used to leverage SNAP E&T’s 50 percent reimbursement grant (often times called “50-50 funds”). Through these funds, the federal government reimburses states for 50 percent of SNAP E&T program costs paid for with certain non-federal dollars. In addition to supporting education and training activities at community colleges and community-based organizations, 50-50 funds can also be spent on certain participant support services, such as transportation, books and supplies, and child care.

This provision is a win for Policy Matters Ohio and other Ohio advocates including the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, the Ohio Poverty Law Center, the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, and the state’s health and human services coalition Advocates for Ohio’s Future, which have been advocating for the expansion of a skills-based SNAP E&T program in Ohio. Policy Matters recently found that more than 666,000 Ohioans between ages 18 and 64 did not have a high school diploma, and SNAP recipients are much more likely than average to lack this credential. To combat this and other barriers to attaining jobs with family-supporting wages, Policy Matters recommended that Ohio shift to a skills-based E&T model, with the first step being the formation of a planning committee and identification of potential education, training and support service partners and funding sources. Policy Matters supported this proposal through testimony to the Ohio House and Senate. Advocates were pleased these recommendations came to fruition in Ohio’s latest budget bill.

Washington State’s SNAP E&T program, which has grown into a $30 million effort helping roughly 28,000 students who need SNAP assistance attend education and training programs annually, continues to be a model for the Ohio advocates. Ohio is sixth in the nation for people skipping meals or going hungry because they do not have enough money to buy food. This program can help more people build marketable skills while protecting access to the assistance they need to buy food.

National Skills Coalition has long advocated for states to make skill-building an integral part of a state’s SNAP E&T mission. This includes utilizing 50-50 funds to expand quality skills-based education, training, and support services to SNAP recipients. When utilized in this way, SNAP E&T can help prepare recipients for middle-skill jobs with family-supporting wages. For more information on how to develop a skills-based SNAP E&T policy in your state, check out NSC’s Skills-Based SNAP E&T Policy Toolkit

Rachel Hirsch is State Network Manager at National Skills Coalition. Hanna Halbert is a researcher at Policy Matters Ohio which works to create a more vibrant, equitable, sustainable and inclusive Ohio through research, strategic communications, coalition building and policy advocacy.

Posted In: Skills Equity, Ohio

Fifty-State Scan of State Work-Based Learning Policies

  ·   By Bryan Wilson,
Fifty-State Scan of State Work-Based Learning Policies

Across the country, employers are reporting a skills gap for middle-skill jobs that require some form of post high school education or training but not a bachelor’s degree. Employers report there are insufficient numbers of job applicants with the occupational/technical skills required for open middle-skill positions and that too many applicants lack critical “soft skills,” and have no relevant work experience. State policymakers have heard employers’ concerns and are seeking solutions.

One key strategy for filling these skill gaps is work-based learning programs like apprenticeship and career and technical education with a worksite component — programs that blend worksite and classroom learning to prepare workers with the skills employers need. This dual model of training has a long tradition of proven effectiveness. Yet, the scale of workbased learning, especially paid work-based learning, is limited in the United States.

Recognizing the value of work-based learning and the opportunity to spread work-based learning to more populations and sectors of the economy, states have adopted policies to help increase the scope of work-based learning opportunities.

National Skills Coalition (NSC) has scanned the fifty states and the District of Columbia to identify the policies that states have in place to support work-based learning that includes paid employment. Through the scan, NSC finds that:

Thirty-five states have a policy in place to support work-based learning.

  • Fourteen of these states have an expansion initiative that directs resources for state staff or other organizations to support the growth of work-based learning.
  • Eighteen of these states provide a subsidy to employers who participate in work-based learning.  Ten provide a grant or reimbursement to employers, and ten provide a tax credit. (Two states provide both.)
  • Fourteen of these states have a policy supporting pre-apprenticeships or youth apprenticeships.
  • At least eleven of these states have another type of policy to require or fund work experiences for secondary students that include paid work-based learning.
  • Nine of these states have a policy subsidizing postsecondary classroom instruction for apprentices.

The scan explains each type of work-based learning policy, identifies which states have work-based learning policies in place (including descriptions of those policies) and reveals which states have opportunities to adopt new policies. 

Posted In: Work Based Learning, Work-Based Learning, Skills Equity

Fifty-state scans identify opportunity for states to pass skills equity policies

  ·   By Nicky Lauricella Coolberth,
Fifty-state scans identify opportunity for states to pass skills equity policies

Middle-skill jobs that require education or training beyond high school but not a bachelor’s degree make up the largest share of the labor market. Employers looking to fill these middle-skill positions often voice concerns about their ability to find skilled workers. At the same time, limited access to skills training keeps too many people from filling good-paying jobs that can support families. Policymakers can respond to both of these issues by adopting a set of policies that expand equitable access to middle-skill training, credentials, and careers – particularly for those who have faced barriers to economic opportunity.

National Skills Coalition is advocating for states to adopt a set of policies that broadly expand access to middle-skill training, especially for those who have faced barriers to economic opportunity.  These “skills equity” policies are intended to remove barriers that, if addressed, will make it easier for low-income people to access and complete middle-skill training that leads to an in-demand credential and family-supporting job.

NSC has just completed a comprehensive scan of all fifty states and the District of Columbia to identify which states have skills equity policies in place. The scans find that: 

  • Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have established job-driven financial aid policies that provide financial aid to part-time students and those in middle-skill training programs;
  • Nineteen states have established stackable credential policies that support industry-recognized postsecondary “stackable” credentials that can articulate toward a higher level certificate or associate degree;
  • Twelve states have established alignment policies that enable low-income, low-skilled adults to follow pathways toward skilled careers by combining the key elements of integrated education and training; career counseling; support services; a high school diploma; training that leads to an industry-recognized, stackable credential; and industry engagement.

The scans explain each policy, identify which states have skills equity policies in place (including descriptions of those policies) and bring into sharp relief which states have opportunities to adopt new policies. 

The scans are companion pieces to previously released policy toolkits designed to help states develop and enact skills equity policies that can help states bridge their skills gap, help people train for in-demand occupations, and help businesses find the skilled workers they need to succeed.

The toolkits provide resources for policymakers and advocates to advance a skills equity agenda in their state. They describe each type of policy, explain why it’s important for states to adopt such a policy, detail components of the policy, offer examples from states, and provide legislative templates that advocates and state legislators can adapt.

Posted In: Skills Equity

National Skills Coalition hosts first Skills in the States Forum

  ·   By Silvia Vallejo
National Skills Coalition hosts first Skills in the States Forum

On October 17-18, nearly 100 workforce advocates from 20 states and D.C. gathered in Detroit, Michigan to take part in NSC’s first Skills in the States Forum. The purpose of the event was for participants to engage with peers and share ideas on how to move skills policies forward in their states.  

The two-day event kicked off with a plenary discussion on state policies for skills equity, where speakers shared ideas on how to expand access to skill building for underserved populations in their states. The discussion was led by NSC Senior State Policy Analyst, Brooke DeRenzis; Emily Price of So Others Might Eat in D.C.; Sarah Labadie of Women Employed, Illinois; and Dr. Corey Wiggins of the Hope Policy Institute in Mississippi. Another highlight from the event was a discussion on Detroit’s economic recovery and how government agencies, nonprofits, and businesses are collaborating to help workers strive in the City’s growing job market. The plenary, moderated by Chauncy Lennon of JPMorgan Chase, featured Wanda Stokes, Director of the Michigan Talent Investment Agency; Jason D. Lee, CEO of Focus:HOPE; and Jeff Donofrio, Detroit’s Director of Workforce Development and Executive Director of the Mayor’s Workforce Development Board.

Participants also had a chance to dive into the topic of investments in skills policies, with a plenary where Jessica Fraser of the Indiana Institute for Working Families; Jerry Rubin from Jewish Vocational Services Boston; and Debra Jones of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office shared budget challenges in their states and best practices for working with partners to address them.

At the forum, NSC launched a series of policy toolkits meant to help states develop and enact “skills equity” policies that expand equitable access to middle-skill training, credentials, and careers - particularly for those who have faced barriers to economic opportunity. The toolkits, which include model legislation, are designed to help states bridge their skills gap, help people train for in-demand occupations, and help businesses find the skilled workers they need to succeed. The toolkits cover policies on  job-driven financial aidSNAP E&Tstackable credentialsalignment, and integrated education and training.

The toolkits fueled a robust discussion on the best ways to influence state policies during a set of concurrent sessions. Workforce Data Quality Campaign also lead a conversation on workforce data policy. During these sessions, participants had the opportunity to discuss a state skills policy issue and possible strategies for advancing it.

In addition to the plenaries and discussions, participants broke out into smaller groups to engage with peers from other states on advocacy tactics and how to expand opportunities for people to enhance their skills, credentials, and careers, and ultimately, their families’ financial well-being.

A special thanks to our steering committee who helped organize the forum. The five-member committee included: Andrew Bradley from Indiana Institute for Working Families; Julie Brown from Dan River Region Collaborative in Virginia ; Melissa Johnson, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute; Alice Pritchard, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities; and Carrie Thomas, Chicago Jobs Council. In addition to the steering committee, the forum was made possible with help from our funders W.K. Kellogg FoundationJPMorgan Chase, and the Joyce Foundation.

To view materials from the forum, please visit the events section of our website here

Posted In: Skills Equity, Michigan

NSC releases toolkits to advance a skills equity agenda

  ·   By Nicky Lauricella Coolberth
NSC releases toolkits to advance a skills equity agenda

Arming people with the skills they need to succeed is crucial for workers, for business, and for our economy. But many people face challenges in accessing and completing training that can lead to a middle-skill career: low-income people, workers with caregiving responsibilities (many of whom are women), immigrants with language barriers, etc. 

To expand economic opportunity for people and build a pipeline of skilled workers for business, we need to create better access to training and credentials that lead to careers – and we need to do so equitably.

That’s why National Skills Coalition is advocating for states to adopt a set of policies that broadly expand access to middle-skill training, especially for those who have faced barriers to economic opportunity.  The policies in our skills equity agenda are intended to remove barriers that, if addressed, will make it easier for low-income people to access and complete middle-skill training that leads to an in-demand credential and family-supporting job.

For instance:

  • Integrated education and training policies can help people refresh basic math, reading, and English skills while training for an in-demand occupation;
  • Job-driven financial aid policies make it possible for students (including part-time students, those in short-term programs, and working learners) to enroll in middle-skill training programs; and  
  • Stackable credential policies allow working learners to balance their education and training with job schedules, family needs, and financial resources.

These are just three examples of state policies that, when properly implemented, can expand equitable access to middle-skill training, credentials and careers.

National Skills Coalition has developed a series of toolkits to help states develop and enact these kind of “skills equity” policies designed to help states bridge their skills gap, help people train for in-demand occupations, and help businesses find the skilled workers they need to succeed.

The toolkits are part of NSC’s skills equity agenda – an effort to advance state policies that expand access to middle-skill training through job-driven financial aid, SNAP E&T, stackable credentials, alignment, integrated education and training, and TANF E&T.

The toolkits provide resources for policymakers and advocates to advance a skills equity agenda in their state. In addition to containing model legislation that advocates and state legislators can adapt, the toolkits describe each type of policy, explain why it’s important for states to adopt such a policy, detail components of the policy, and offer examples from states with model policies. In the coming months, NSC will also release 50-state scans that will identify which states have skills equity policies in place – and which states have opportunity to adopt new policies. 

Posted In: Skills Equity

Ready to work: Seattle creates new on-ramp for immigrant English learners

  ·   By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock,
Ready to work: Seattle creates new on-ramp for immigrant English learners

When a group of stakeholders in Seattle identified that low-level adult English Language Learners were often struggling to succeed in community college, they took action.

The group collaborated with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, the Seattle City Council, and three city agencies -- the Human Services Department, Office of Economic Development, and the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs – to develop a successful model for serving these learners that could be replicated.

After substantial research and development, the Ready to Work (RTW) program launched in 2015. RTW was created as a prototype model of English language acquisition, career development, and employment, offered in a community-based setting. The program’s goal is “to empower and support immigrants and refugees in overcoming barriers on their journey to economic stability, quality jobs and integration into life in Seattle.”  One of the key features of RTW is its commitment to track participants’ progress over a longer time frame than conventional funding streams typically allow.

What It Is: Program Details

Ready to Work combines English as a Second Language (ESL) classes with computer literacy instruction and case management to help immigrants gain job readiness skills and take steps toward economic self-sufficiency.

Classes meet four days a week, three hours a day, for a total of 12 hours per week. Instruction is provided by two Seattle Colleges and Literacy Source (a community-based adult education provider).  The initial program design also includes:

  • Managed enrollment; new participants can join the class only during quarterly enrollment periods
  • Variable length of participation; learners may stay in the class for a few weeks to 6 months or more, given continued progress
  • Community-based learning; classes are held onsite at the nonprofit Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) and at South Seattle College
  • Regular digital literacy; learning opportunities are provided daily to participants
  • Activities integrated into curriculum; for example, field trips and guest speakers are pre- and post-taught

RTW also includes several notable features that go beyond English language instruction, says Glenn Scott Davis, who serves as program and policy specialist for the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA). These features include:

Case Management Navigation and Support. Each quarter, participants receive an average of 10 hours of case management and $250 in support services from ACRS (e.g., discounted public transit passes; gas or grocery cards). “This is an advantage of housing the program at a multi-service nonprofit organization such as ACRS,” says Davis. “Case managers can integrate a multitude of services on-site.” The case managers also help learners to navigate to their appropriate next-step placement at Seattle Colleges or in other education and training programs. Continued case management is available to participants as an ongoing support system even after they graduate from RTW classes.

Workshop Thursdays. These regularly scheduled events include field trips to cultural resources such as the Seattle Art Museum and public libraries; visits to area employers such as Nordstrom, Starbucks, and the PCC grocery chain; and visits to pre-apprenticeship programs.  On other Thursdays, guest speakers visit the classroom to help participants learn about opportunities for job training as home care aides and child care assistants; improve their financial literacy; and find out about childcare resources. Human Resources staff from industry partners also conduct mock interviews to help participants prepare for the job market.

Contextualized instruction. “[Classes] focus on contextualized learning, with a lot of visual aids and group work,” says Davis. “It’s not necessarily [industry-specific], but career development starts from the very beginning [of the program], and we expose people to a wide range of careers.” Teachers and case managers help participants gain a deeper awareness of their existing talents and strengths – a fundamental building block of a self-directed career plan.

Who Is In the Classroom? About the Participants

RTW’s target audience is adult English Language Learners who are seeking initial employment or a better job. Participants typically score at the lowest levels (1-3) of the National Reporting System for adult education. In addition, participants’ literacy and communications skills even in their first language vary widely.

Among participants to date, the top countries of origin are Ethiopia, Vietnam, China, and Mexico. Fully two-thirds (67%) of participants have less than a high school diploma, including 28% who have not even attended high school.

In order to reach potential participants, RTW works with a wide range of community partners to publicize the program and its eligibility criteria.

Multilingual outreach flyers are available in Chinese, English, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese and other widely spoken languages.

Participants are referred through numerous avenues, including ethnic and community based organizations, ethnic media, and other service providers.

All Together Now: Program Partners

In addition to the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, RTW’s lead partners include: HomeSight (a nonprofit community development corporation), ACRS, Literacy Source, and two Seattle Colleges (South and Central).

Nearly two dozen other organizations, including city agencies, community and faith-based organizations, and businesses, serve as recruitment, referral or employment partners for the program.

 “The intent of Ready to Work was never to compete with existing adult education programs, but to demonstrate the efficacy of a focused, community-based model that can be replicated on a larger scale to collectively produce better outcomes for learners with lower levels of English,” says OIRA’s Davis. “What we’re doing is developing organic ties between the RTW program and those next-step trainings – not just at college, but also community-based and industry-based short-term trainings – that can help people get quality jobs sooner rather than later.”

RTW has been deliberate in building its initial partnerships with business. “We have started the process of cultivating targeted relationships across sectors with quality employers,” says Davis. “That way, even if people end up in a job that [has a lower starting wage], it will have other benefits and a work culture that is supportive of ongoing learning and mobility.” 

Paying For It: The Funding Source

The city is using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to initially support Ready to Work, with the nonprofit HomeSight serving as the project’s fiscal agent.   These funds are distributed through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to communities around the country. They are flexible in design and can be used for a wide variety of activities, including employment and training services for people with low- and moderate incomes.

Other funding sources for RTW include Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Title I funds from the Workforce Development Council, and Washington State funds for adult education through the Seattle Colleges.

The Broader Context: Using Municipal Priorities as a Springboard

While many cities receive CDBG funds, relatively few have used them for programs serving jobseekers with limited English skills. One factor in Seattle’s approach is its ongoing Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), the City’s commitment to eliminating racial disparities and achieving racial equity.

“The City requires all of its programs to use the racial and social justice toolkit,” explains Davis. “It really helped us be able to define and talk about the Ready to Work program…we aren’t [just] looking at this in terms of access or opportunity, but in terms of equitable outcomes.”

In part, Ready to Work was born out of the recognition that “what transforms people’s lives in the short term is a really good learning experience and a really good job experience,” adds Davis. “One of our core goals is to empower participants as self-directed learners who can make informed decisions…which is key to attaining economic stability and full integration into the life of Seattle.”

Measuring It: An Outside Evaluation

Early results from RTW are strong, says Davis: “Our attendance, retention and completion rates are very high -- we think that shows what people are getting out of the program.”

But Ready to Work isn’t relying on anecdotal findings or even traditional program output data to prove its value. Rather, OIRA has contracted with the well-known firm RTI International to conduct an in-depth third-party evaluation of the program.

Key outcomes being tracked include:

  • Language Skills: Continued level gains; progression in English skills
  • Participation: Attendance in classes and workshops; quarterly course completion and attrition rates; advancement in next-quarter RTW classes and higher level non-RTW programs
  • Employment and Self Sufficiency: Initial and second job placements; progression to self-sufficiency; and retention and advancement
  • Educational Advancement: Advancement to and progression in next-level courses and/or programs and beyond
  • Continuing Participation in English Language Acquisition: Finding ways of engaging employed RTW grads in ongoing English language learning

“A big challenge for so many adult ESL programs is the lack of long-term tracking [of participant outcomes],” says Davis. “So that is what we're attempting to do here. We want to track the longer term impact of our investments in Ready to Work and determine the efficacy and replicability of the model in Seattle and elsewhere.”

The RTI report is expected to be released in Summer 2016.

Next Steps: Learning and Looking Forward

While the Ready to Work program is still in its initial phase, Davis and his colleagues have already begun to identify early lessons. A particular area of focus has been how to ensure that participants have a smooth and successful transition to their next educational or vocational step.  

A key challenge is that while participants may have the desire to seek ongoing education and training following the RTW program, most have an urgent need to find employment.  “We look for the best possible immediate job options,” says Davis. Complicating factors, he explains, is that desirable pre-apprenticeship programs in construction and childcare certification require higher levels of English proficiency. “Our ACRS case managers work with college staff to smooth the transition and place learners in the most appropriate next-level ESL class for their particular goals,” he says.

Another major learning from RTW thus far is that immigrant English language learners follow a variety of paths to economic stability.  One size does not fit all –nor should it, according to Davis.

In particular, while RTW serves participants who are pursuing educational paths leading to college certification (and eventually to the quality jobs that require those certifications), as well as participants who were professionals in their home countries and seek to return to professional jobs, the program also recognizes that the needs of other participants who are not yet equipped to take those paths.  

Going forward, Davis says, RTW will be digging deeper into the question of how to most effectively facilitate learners’ transitions to short-term, industry-focused skills training programs with strong English language supports that can lead to a quality working-class job.  “Where such programs do not exist, OIRA will work with colleagues in the City of Seattle and with our key community, adult education, college, workforce development, and employer stakeholders to nurture new programs,” he says, “in order to provide these participants with equitable pathways to quality jobs.”

In the months ahead, Davis and his colleagues will be tackling these and other questions – including big-picture questions around supportive services, social benefits, and job-creation/job-quality strategies. These structural questions go beyond any single program or institutional actor, and Seattle is looking across the country for ideas to inform its efforts, including to New York City’s Career Pathways initiative.

Tackling structural challenges is nothing new for Seattle, of course. From the citywide Race and Social Justice Initiative to the much smaller Ready to Work program itself, city officials and stakeholders are using a fresh lens to examine long-held assumptions. The picture looks promising.  

Posted In: Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Adult Basic Education, Immigration, Career Pathways, Skills Equity, Washington
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