Last summer, in what now seems like a luxuriously routine work trip, I flew to Dallas for the National Fund for Workforce Solutions’ biennial convening. Along with several hundred other workforce practitioners and employers from around the country, I joined a series of panels, workshops, and informal conversations about how to make the most of our country’s low unemployment rate and decade-long economic expansion. Building on the urgency of the convening’s theme, The Time is Now, we talked about improving job quality for frontline workers, making public workforce investments more effective, and eliminating racial employment disparities.
That world is gone. And yet, our priorities remain. In the last six weeks, over 30 million workers have filed for unemployment insurance as a result of coronavirus shutdowns. The question for workforce practitioners is, how do we respond to the new economic landscape? In this time of great uncertainty, with the situation changing day to day, one wonders if it is possible to answer that question. And yet, the time is still now, and the world is begging us to choose what to do in a scenario that now looks more like the 1930s than 2019.
In the midst feeling immobilized by bad news, I’ve been heartened by what I’m seeing across the National Fund network. Our regional workforce collaboratives have quickly assessed community needs, adjusted well-laid plans, and jumped into action. Atlanta CareerRise, for example, adapted an online WIOA enrollment process they were piloting with five workforce boards to become that region’s primary enrollment tool. At a time when many governments are struggling to move essential services online – like unemployment insurance and other supports for laid-off and unemployed workers – Atlanta had a click-ready solution. In Cleveland, the Fund for Our Economic Future modified their Paradox Prize competition, which seeks local solutions to the conundrum of “no car, no job; no job, no car,” to connect nonprofits on the coronavirus front lines to public transportation assets that might be able to support a surge in COVID-related transportation needs amid a reduction in regular service. These approaches, like many in the National Fund network, reflect that the last recession and recovery in many ways served to exacerbate inequities, and different approaches are now required, not just to mitigate disparities, but proactively reverse them.
Although it’s not always this acute, system-minded workforce practitioners have always known that they faced complex environments defined by endless choices, and webs of connection that require seeing not just parts or individual choices, but wholes and relationships.
This pandemic inflates and accelerates these tough realities to dizzying levels. As we work through the vertigo to respond to immediate needs of safety that must not wait, systems theory encourages us to move from frantically thinking about what to do, and instead think about how to think about what to do. In other words, we should spend a moment understanding the structure of how good decisions are made under uncertainty. The first steps include defining what the problem is, having clear objectives for resolving it, and explaining why you are addressing this particular problem.
People driving systems change projects are often out-of-the-box thinkers who intentionally try to shake things up with big ideas about what to do, but the best systems change strategies are born of being highly systematic in decision making. In other words, applied system thinking is the discipline of how to think about what to do. Although we’re used to applying this adaptive methodology to workforce systems, we can now use it to think about how to react to a world that has already completely changed.