The Importance of Trust, Training and Multiple On-Ramps in Workforce Efforts

Lessons from Generation Work

Posted July 19, 2023
two women look at a computer screen in an office workspace

Ten years ago, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion began focus­ing on an urgent chal­lenge: How to bet­ter con­nect young adults — espe­cial­ly young peo­ple of col­or from low-income fam­i­lies — with jobs and, ulti­mate­ly, fam­i­ly-sup­port­ing careers. 

Draw­ing on Casey’s pre­vi­ous work­force devel­op­ment ini­tia­tives, we aimed to bet­ter under­stand the needs of job seek­ers and busi­ness­es and craft strate­gies that would ben­e­fit both groups. Review­ing the avail­able evi­dence, we looked at lever­ag­ing sup­port­ive and skill-build­ing ser­vices to address the needs of still-devel­op­ing young adults while prepar­ing employ­ers to help these young work­ers thrive. This approach would help strength­en path­ways to careers and demon­strate new ways for employ­ers to recruit and retain the tal­ent they need­ed in a chang­ing labor market. 

Such con­sid­er­a­tions fueled the 2016 launch of Gen­er­a­tion Work™, a mul­ti-site ini­tia­tive in which local part­ners change the way pub­lic and pri­vate sys­tems pre­pare young peo­ple for jobs. Unlike oth­er work­force efforts, Gen­er­a­tion Work focused explic­it­ly on address­ing sys­temic bar­ri­ers that can put career-sup­port­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties out of reach for young peo­ple of col­or in low-income families. 

As Gen­er­a­tion Work enters a new phase, three of our part­ners have doc­u­ment­ed lessons and chal­lenges in advanc­ing this ini­tia­tive. These part­ners iden­ti­fied key ingre­di­ents for remov­ing bar­ri­ers and advanc­ing equi­ty for young work­ers — ingre­di­ents such as trust, time, train­ing, staff buy-in, per­son­al intro­duc­tions with employ­ers and mul­ti­ple routes to the right fit between employ­er and employ­ee. In addi­tion, Casey’s team has gen­er­at­ed its own lessons about fund­ing this effort.

About Gen­er­a­tion Work

With Casey sup­port, part­ners in five com­mu­ni­ties — Cleve­land, Hart­ford, Indi­anapo­lis, Philadel­phia and Seat­tle — helped align edu­ca­tion, employ­ment and sup­port ser­vices to pre­pare young peo­ple to be job-ready through­out the first phase of Gen­er­a­tion Work. 

The first sev­en years of the ini­tia­tive unfold­ed dur­ing chal­leng­ing times that saw the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic and a nation­al reck­on­ing on issues of race — con­di­tions that changed the land­scape for employ­ees and employers. 

Despite the pan­dem­ic, exist­ing par­tic­i­pants remained engaged in train­ing in 2020 and 2021, with dropout rates far below nation­al aver­ages for work­force pro­grams. At the same time, the num­ber of new stu­dents enrolled in work­force pro­gram­ming or secur­ing employ­ment declined due to relat­ed dis­rup­tions. In 2019, 4,992 young peo­ple who com­plet­ed the pro­gram were placed into ongo­ing post­sec­ondary edu­ca­tion or employ­ment, com­pared to 3,535 in 2020 and 2,866 in 2021.

Review­ing Gen­er­a­tion Work’s Progress 

Over the past sev­en years, Gen­er­a­tion Work has addressed deeply root­ed inequities in edu­ca­tion and employ­ment sys­tems that ham­per many young peo­ple of col­or from suc­ceed­ing in the labor mar­ket. Recent eval­u­a­tions have pro­vid­ed impor­tant insights in three areas.

  1. In two eval­u­a­tion sum­maries, MDRC exam­ined Gen­er­a­tion Work’s efforts to make work­force sys­tems more racial­ly equi­table. The MDRC review high­light­ed the impor­tance of strong senior lead­er­ship and a clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed vision shared by lead­ers and staff across the part­ner orga­ni­za­tions,” con­clud­ing that efforts to make a work­force sys­tem more equi­table also require a high lev­el of trust among part­ners. MDRC found that it takes a long time for work­force devel­op­ment lead­ers and employ­ers to grasp the root caus­es of sys­temic bar­ri­ers for young adults of col­or. While Gen­er­a­tion Work part­ners rec­og­nized the need to address such inequities, they also strug­gled to find the time and resources to do so.
  2. Child Trends assessed Gen­er­a­tion Work’s use of pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment into employ­ment train­ing. The review found that there is no sin­gle tem­plate for imple­ment­ing pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment prin­ci­ples and that part­ners need­ed to evolve the tem­plate to address local issues. In addi­tion, the review under­scored the val­ue of strong com­mu­ni­ca­tion with employ­ers, as well as across work­force providers and with­in sys­tems. Per­son­al intro­duc­tions to employ­ers and oth­er providers and var­ied entry points helped ensure that young peo­ple could be referred to anoth­er orga­ni­za­tion and receive the ser­vices they need­ed for a good employ­ment fit.
  3. The Aspen Insti­tute reviewed Gen­er­a­tion Work’s engage­ment with employ­ers. In the first stage of the ini­tia­tive, Gen­er­a­tion Work part­ners encour­aged employ­ers to cul­ti­vate oppor­tu­ni­ties that offered young employ­ees valu­able, paid work expe­ri­ences; oppor­tu­ni­ties to expand their net­works and explore their strengths and career inter­ests; and sched­ules that accom­mo­dat­ed their school and per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ties. Aspen also encour­aged law­mak­ers and fun­ders to devote resources to sup­port­ing work­force devel­op­ment enti­ties in estab­lish­ing deep­er rela­tion­ships with employers.

Fund­ing Gen­er­a­tion Work 

When we at the Casey Foun­da­tion reviewed our role as a fun­der of Gen­er­a­tion Work, four main lessons emerged. These are: 

  1. With a flex­i­ble approach, local part­ner­ships embraced improv­ing ser­vices to young peo­ple using both pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment and racial equi­ty and inclu­sion resources. While Gen­er­a­tion Work pro­vid­ed a com­mon frame­work and helped address local pain points with tar­get­ed capac­i­ty build­ing, part­ner orga­ni­za­tions moved at their own pace and worked in dif­fer­ent ways, empha­siz­ing the val­ue of flex­i­ble resources and year-over-year sup­port — espe­cial­ly dur­ing the pandemic. 
  2. Young peo­ple are well-served by pro­gram part­ners. While some young peo­ple do not matric­u­late through Gen­er­a­tion Work pro­grams as quick­ly as oth­er ini­tia­tives, this is by design. Gen­er­a­tion Work pro­grams and part­ners seek to hang on to young peo­ple over time, link­ing them to dif­fer­ent ser­vices that stack skill-build­ing, employ­ment and wrap-around sup­port that cre­ate sta­bil­i­ty on an employ­ment jour­ney. One area of oppor­tu­ni­ty, how­ev­er, is that the bur­den of mak­ing these con­nec­tions too often falls on direct-ser­vice staff who con­sis­tent­ly go the extra mile — an approach that is unsus­tain­able in the long term.
  3. More work is need­ed to align sys­tems and fund­ing for long-term sup­port of young work­ers. Each of the part­ner­ships suc­ceed­ed in align­ing ser­vices across adult- and youth-ori­ent­ed fund­ing streams and with­in edu­ca­tion, work­force and human ser­vice sys­tems. Yet, most of these suc­cess­es were relat­ed to influ­enc­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of the allow­able uses and the braid­ing of exist­ing funds. Aside from a one-time influx of sup­port in the wake of the pan­dem­ic, part­ners have not seen a lot of new mon­ey become avail­able. Sup­port­ing young people’s basic needs and respond­ing to the pandemic’s dis­rup­tions became a pri­or­i­ty that reduced part­ners’ capac­i­ty to focus on strate­gic, long-term change efforts. Addi­tion­al work is nec­es­sary to inte­grate youth devel­op­ment and employ­er engage­ment prac­tices through for­mal sys­tem align­ment and funding.
  4. Employ­er engage­ment is a com­plex and con­tin­u­ous task that must meet employ­er real­i­ties. Gen­er­a­tion Work part­ners are skilled at engag­ing employ­ers and influ­enc­ing how employ­ers hire young work­ers. Shap­ing the reten­tion and pro­mo­tion of young work­ers, how­ev­er, has proved more dif­fi­cult. Ear­ly in the first phase, local part­ner­ships refo­cused on mak­ing the case for sup­port­ing and advanc­ing young adults as well as on devel­op­ing resources about tar­get­ed prac­tices, such as front­line super­vi­sion and upskilling. While increased atten­tion and com­mit­ment to racial equi­ty by pri­vate sec­tor lead­er­ship has the poten­tial to advance oppor­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple of col­or, many employ­ers find them­selves short staffed and try­ing to main­tain finan­cial prof­itabil­i­ty in an uncer­tain mar­ket — and engage­ment efforts must con­tin­ue to adapt to this chang­ing context.

What’s Next for Gen­er­a­tion Work?

In its sec­ond phase, Gen­er­a­tion Work has expand­ed to sup­port part­ner­ships in eight cities. The ini­tia­tive will con­tin­ue engag­ing with employ­ers while sharp­en­ing its focus on hir­ing, reten­tion and advance­ment — includ­ing pro­mot­ing the val­ue of hands-on learn­ing and wrap­around ser­vices like coach­ing, child care sub­si­dies and transportation.

The Foundation’s choice to man­age the first phase of Gen­er­a­tion Work inter­nal­ly enabled it to devel­op deep, trust­ing rela­tion­ships with local part­ners. Yet, this approach also lim­it­ed Casey’s capac­i­ty to address the tech­ni­cal assis­tance needs of part­ners in real time. The Nation­al Fund for Work­force Solu­tions is well-estab­lished for its exper­tise in sec­tor strate­gies and indus­try part­ner­ships. This orga­ni­za­tion will man­age the initiative’s sec­ond phase, offer­ing both tech­ni­cal assis­tance and coach­ing on equi­table employ­ment prac­tices. As for Casey: It will con­tin­ue to help its part­ners grow their capac­i­ty to serve young peo­ple and con­tin­ue to col­lect and share lessons that will advance this work. 

Read more about Gen­er­a­tion Work

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