A conversation with Michelle Wilson and Jonathan Osei
Even as the workforce grows more diverse, people of color face barriers to good jobs and economic mobility. With support from JPMorgan Chase, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions and PolicyLink are studying current and future labor market trends and identifying strategies to remove barriers, build viable career pathways, and create better opportunities to good jobs and advancement for vulnerable populations.
Five communities in the National Fund network are developing explicit equity-focused and data-driven local strategies to directly address these barriers and achieve more equitable workforce outcomes.
We sat down with the team leading this work to learn more about what we can expect from the Jobs and Opportunity Reports.
How did the Jobs and Opportunity Reports come about?
Michelle Wilson: The National Fund has never done anything like this before. We were interested in digging deeper into disaggregated data to advance workforce equity. At the same time, JPMorgan Chase was interested in following up on their New Skills at Work initiative. So, for the first time ever, we partnered with a data-focused organization, PolicyLink, and engaged our network to convene equity workgroups in their communities.
What are the key elements of this project?
Michelle Wilson: The Jobs and Opportunity Reports themselves are a key element of the project. Eleven reports will be produced in total — a national report and 10 regional reports. Engaging community stakeholders to create a strategy that is highly contextualized to the locale is also a defining feature. We intend for these reports to mobilize action. That is why we have funders and decision makers at the table who can move strategies forward. Our goal is to provide a process for our local partners, as regional influencers, to uncover and address inequities in the workforce system. Ideally, this process can be replicated in other places.
When you say “partners in the network,” who specifically is involved in the project?
Michelle Wilson: A total of 10 communities participate in this project. Boston, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, and Seattle are part of the National Fund network, while Columbus, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, and Nashville are outside the network.
We also wanted to collaborate with a strong data organization that places a premium on equitable solutions, and we’re excited to work with PolicyLink and our secondary data partner, Burning Glass.
What are the communities doing with this data? How are they moving forward?
Jonathan Osei: The equity workgroups are key to driving this work, so we put a lot of thought and effort into building and convening them. PolicyLink and the National Fund work with site leads in each community to help think through the equity workgroup structure, timelines, etc.
Once the workgroups launch, they define what “workforce equity” means locally and establish the geographic boundaries for the report. Then they begin collecting data around the local drivers of inequity. Equipped with that data, they start working on strategy — and this is where it’s important to have important influencers, decision makers, and/or funders at the table to co-sign strategies and push progress.
All of this culminates in the data and strategy reports.
When this project began it was a different world. We’re now in month seven of the COVID-19 pandemic. How has that affected this project?
Jonathan Osei: COVID-19 has only exacerbated already existing inequities. There is a heightened sense of urgency around these reports and how they can be used to support communities.
This makes me think of Michelle’s eloquent blog about confronting racism in workforce development. Can you talk about what this reckoning has meant for the National Fund and for workforce development broadly?
Michelle Wilson: Jonathan and I understand the importance of this work. We toured these communities pre-pandemic. We saw, very starkly, the problems that the reports reveal and contextualize.
We spend a lot of energy compartmentalizing the crap that comes with living in America, just so we can survive – COVID, multiple egregious police killings of Black folks (which has been happening for centuries), and little accountability.
Witnessing such injustice in the midst of a pandemic where many Black and brown people are unemployed, evicted, and disproportionately affected by the virus, I wanted to name and acknowledge the inequity, especially our — meaning workforce development’s — role in it.
At the National Fund, the challenge has been not to offend anyone in our diverse network — the “we catch more flies with honey” strategy. But we’re so beyond that. We want everyone to come along with us, but we have to be able to speak openly and honestly about racial injustice in order to confront it.
Given all of these factors — the pandemic, the fight to dismantle structural racism, the uncertain future of workers — what are the implications of a project like this?
Jonathan Osei: One of the National Fund’s current priorities is to strengthen the network to drive impact. Working so closely with five of our communities on these reports has definitely done that. We engaged with them in a new and much more intensely collaborative way. As a result, the National Fund has been much more visible in these communities. Our five regional partners now have access to a great deal of really good data, and that helps strengthen the entire National Fund network. And finally, because of this project, funders will have deeply thought-out strategies to pursue if they are serious about advancing workforce equity in their communities.
Michelle Wilson is director of learning and evaluation at the National Fund and leads the Jobs and Opportunity Reports project. Jonathan Osei is program associate. The Jobs and Opportunity national report will be released in November 2020. The 10 regional reports will be released in early 2021.