While the jobs bill (America’s Jobs Act) commands the attention of elected officials in our nation’s capitol, state and local leaders have struggled with employment issues for decades. They know there is no single solution because there is no single problem.
Most communities face some combination of the following:
- Too few jobs (especially those offering health insurance and family-sustaining wages)
- Skills gaps among applicants competing for good jobs that do exist and those in emerging industries
- Young workers having difficulty making the leap from job to career (or from school to job)
- Older experienced workers who cannot afford to retire or simply want to remain engaged but in different roles than they play today
- Labor markets that lack transparency (e.g., applicants submit hundreds of resumes into “black holes“)
- Persistent poverty, especially among communities of color, which limits access to job opportunities and to the social networks that help people advance
- Overcrowded and underfunded public schools and institutions of higher education struggle to cultivate the talents of all of their students
- Ongoing economic shocks—not just unanticipated layoffs, but also natural and weather-related disasters of which there have been 83 in 2011 (a record high in any calendar year)
“As of 2008, the war for good jobs has trumped all other leadership activities […] The lack of good jobs will become the root cause of almost all world problems that America and other countries will face.”
—Jim Clifton, Gallup Management Journal (September 2011)
No one challenge, no one solution.
These challenges are not for the faint of heart, and cannot be solved by a single leader, organization or sector. But they are among the defining challenges of our day. And courageous leaders in public, private, non-profit, and civic sectors all over the country are quietly stepping forward to tackle them—increasingly, in partnership with one another.
Adopting more collaborative, open-minded, and entrepreneurial approaches than in years past, these leaders prioritize the goal—community well being and prosperity—above the means, be it program, funding, agency precedent, or political jurisdiction. We call this new approach WEadership in a nod to its collaborative nature.
One of the most important opportunities this collaborative approach offers is the potential for shared learning and experimentation in ways that spread the risk and share the benefits. Here are three examples:
- Volunteer-run services. In one California community, need for workforce services had so overwhelmed a strapped public agency that staff began encouraging clients (job-seekers) to run their own activities. To their surprise, many job seekers jumped at the chance. Staff trained a small number of clients to use some basic organizing tools and allowed them to use the agency offices and equipment to run job search clinics, industry meetings, and other activities. As a result, volunteer organizers learned new skills, grew their networks, and were engaged in ways that made them feel valued—some secured jobs as a direct result. In addition, more job seekers could access a wider range of services (including those offered in the native languages of the organizers) at no additional cost. And other community leaders noticed. They valued the agency’s flexibility and creativity.
- Returnships. In communities whose key industries are shifting, public, private, and non-profit leaders are working together to provide adult internships (sometimes called “returnships“) for individuals who are returning to the workforce after caring for children or families or who are transitioning from one industry or field of practice to another. These experiences can help job seekers gain tacit knowledge and build networks that enable them to secure longer-term employment or launch their own ventures. Because adults demand specific learning and development opportunities, these internships tend to be carefully structured, not just provide an introduction to the workplace as many youth-oriented internships do. This focus can build the capacity of host firms and organizations to provide higher-quality internships and development opportunities for younger interns and existing workers, as well as returners.
- Social innovation. In grassroots communities everywhere, social innovators in state and local governments, tribal nations, and nonprofit and private sectors are organizing their communities in ways that enhance economic opportunity. From helping aspiring entrepreneurs crowdfund small ventures on Kickstarter to organizing off-line peer learning communities around on-line learning and professional development platforms like P2PU and Skillshare, to promoting bartering on NeighborhoodGoods or “gigging” on Taskrabbit, social innovators are increasing access to work and learning, even if not in traditional ways. These experiments can even complement or incent changes in programs and services offered tradition institutions
Many small steps.
Workforce leaders (who can come from any level, sector, or jurisdiction) are innovating in ways that can be hard to recognize because their innovations comprise many small iterations, rather than one headline-grabbing breakthrough. And often, they are disconnected. But these small steps matter. And leaders who take them are demonstrating ways in which can all play important roles in solving our most significant problems.
We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.
Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, of Social Policy Research Associates, authored the WEadership Guide (August 2011), the result of a one-year US Department of Labor study of leadership in the field of public policy concerned with work and learning. The entire project is documented at EnhancingWorkforceLeadership.org. Follow it at @WFLeadership.