Closing Local Workforce Gaps with New Approaches and Innovative Technology
A Shared Commitment to Coalition Building
“As organizations, we’ve never partnered together in this way,” shared Elizabeth Creamer, Vice President of Workforce Development and Credential Attainment with the Community College Worforce Alliance (CCWA), and Co-chair of the Greater Richmond Workforce Coalition. "Taking the time to get to know each other’s work and what we each bring to the table, building trust and working with a facilitator over the course of a year, is what really made the difference this time.”
The Greater Richmond Workforce Coalition has been meeting since January 2019 to develop shared goals and regional systemwide coordinated initiatives. The current members of the Coalition are from organizations that either directly provide workforce development services or otherwise have a role in addressing workforce needs at a “critical mass” level: The Capital Region Workforce Partnership; Chamber RVA; Community College Workforce Alliance; Office of Community Wealth Building, City of Richmond; and United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg. The Coalition also receives input from industry sector leaders as well.
Over the past two years, the Community Foundation has funded the initial development, strategic planning process, and hiring of a coordinator for the Coalition. There is also a dedicated staff member who participates in the group. “We know that this is a long-haul effort, and the only way to find regional solutions to systemic issues is to commit resources by finding unique grant-making solutions, bringing people together and offering our leadership and expertise to the cause,” shared Scott Blackwell, Chief Community Engagement Officer for the Community Foundation.
“I’ve never seen such an across-the-board, unequivocal commitment to a shared enterprise before. All the partners are investing resources, dedicating personnel, writing grants together, absorbing costs. Everyone’s got skin in the game because we all know how important it is to work together under a common framework to create consistency, scale our efforts and make lasting systemic change in the region,” Elizabeth said.
“Everyone’s got skin in the game because we all know how important it is to work together under a common framework to create consistency, scale our efforts and make lasting systemic change in the region."
The Coalition aims to provide a reliable pipeline of skilled workers for high-growth industries. It is guided by the belief that providing unemployed and underemployed residents with the skills, qualities and attributes that characterize job readiness, as informed by industry-specific requirements, will result in success, retention, and long-term career pathways.
“We have so many individuals in greater Richmond that may be working two part-time jobs, but still not making ends meet. It’s like they’re running on a wheel and can’t get ahead,” said Elizabeth. “Yet, we have jobs that can genuinely lead someone to very good wages, benefits, and opportunities for advancement. Employers are frustrated they don’t have the number of workers they need, and the gap has become much more acute since the pandemic.”
The Local Labor Crisis
During the beginning of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, Greater Richmond’s unemployment rate jumped from a healthy 2.9% to a staggering 11.4% in one month. A year later, unemployment is down to 5.5% as businesses and the economy reopen.
As the region continues to recover, it’s critical to have a system in place that matches unemployed or underemployed job seekers with the varied job openings that exist. The solution is not so simple and straightforward, however. John Dougherty, Principal of Human Services Innovations, was hired as a coordinator to help the Coalition implement joint initiatives, specifically working with employers to determine what high demand industry opportunities are available and then connect them with the Coalition to work together on closing the skills gap for those positions. “So often the gap is not in technical competency, but in the job-seeker’s lack of life management skills and resources to secure and sustain employment,” shared John. “It’s critical that we holistically address this to ensure the success of individuals. This is what enables our region’s employers and, consequently, our communities to thrive.”
“Every industry is desperate for employees right now. We had a problem pre-COVID, and it’s worse now,” John explained. Businesses are overwhelmed trying to figure out how they’re going to get things up and running while they can’t get a workforce. For some, there’s a fear for health and safety. One of the largest mechanical and electrical contractors in the region shared that they are struggling with HVAC technicians coming onto the job site and realizing they’re afraid of heights and refusing to work on top of a building. Local home health agencies are dealing with Certified Nursing Assistants who aren’t willing to take the risk of getting sick, especially for the amount of money they’re being paid. “Right now, some are just choosing to scrape by on unemployment,” John said, “but what happens when that runs out?”
“For many job seekers, childcare is a real barrier to getting back to work. The high costs and low supply of affordable slots are a real issue. “In the past year, you’ve also had children at home doing virtual school and needing supervision,” shared Elizabeth. “At one point during the pandemic, women were leaving the workforce in record numbers. We won’t really be able to solve the labor crisis unless we’re able to attract a more diverse workforce in terms of age, gender, race and ethnicity and find realistic solutions to the barriers of getting people back to work.”
A Matchmaking System
In the fall of 2020, as a response to the post-COVID economy and getting Virginians back to work, Governor Northam selected the Coalition to launch the Network2Work platform in Central Virginia. The platform went live in early June in four regions across the state. It connects prepared job seekers with living wage jobs and opportunities for career progression. Network2Work RVA uses intuitive technology to offer services matching the needs and interests of three important groups - local employers, job seekers and service providers - each critical for any workforce effort to be successful.
The employer network is made of businesses with opportunities for career advancement and a minimum annual wage of $32,000, or $25,000 with benefits. Posted positions must be accessible for someone without a college degree but could require specialized skills or workforce credentials. The job seeker network matches potential candidates to those jobs and the service provider network helps candidates become job-ready with skills, education, or certifications, and “life-ready” with soft-skills, essential supports, and stability.
Network2Work RVA is also very localized and targeted in its system and approach. To start, the Coalition is focused on the high growth fields of Health Care, Manufacturing and Logistics, Construction and Trades, and Information Technology. Since July 2020, CCWA has also had more than 2500 student enrollments in industry-recognized training in these fields. “Being targeted allows us to have a ‘closed loop system’ where we can get immediate feedback from employers on what they need pre- and post-employment and we can then make adjustments with our training,” shared Elizabeth. Six CCWA staff on the Coaching and Career Services team and several Enrollment Specialists at partner agencies are working with individuals who are interested in these fields, and they are being guided through this system to increase the chance for success. "It’s almost like we’re doing old-fashioned ‘matchmaking’ between job seekers and employers and providing coaching for both along the way.”
“It’s almost like we’re doing old-fashioned ‘matchmaking’ between job seekers and employers and providing coaching for both along the way.”
Currently the service provider network is focused on alleviating the leading barriers that keep people from getting or staying in a job. A United Way staff person coordinates this effort and has already constructed a local network of more than 30 agencies providing more than 165 different services to help job seekers connect to services like transportation, childcare, debt-reduction, occupational training, or employability coaching. These services must be no-cost to the job seeker, as well. “The coordination and innovation to find solutions to help increase talent pipelines into trades and technician level occupations has been really impressive,” boasted Elizabeth.
Looking Forward with Optimism
“Through this model we’re digging deeper with both the job seeker and the employer to understand what each needs to be successful,” said John. “And the technology behind it all helps to make it very clear what ‘job-ready’ looks like and to verify that a person is qualified and able to be employed in that position.”
Since February, over 100 local employers have been engaged with the Network2Work RVA platform through industry-specific roundtable events and targeted outreach. Currently on the platform, you will find construction apprenticeships or trainee positions and jobs that require several credentials or number of years of experience, like an electrician. In the healthcare field you will see big institutions like VCU Health or Bon Secours and smaller home health agencies looking for entry level positions that could move you towards a career path as a Licensed Practical Nurse. You will find IT positions ranging from a “Help Desk” position in a corporate setting to a “Systems Operations Specialist” within a school system. “There’s a full range of opportunities in this system that allow people to plug in wherever they are in their career pathway; if they’re at the beginning of their career they can come back, get more certification and find a more advanced position within that industry. We’ve been very intentional about asking employers what a career pathway looks like for an individual over time – albeit within their own company or beyond it.”
Employers are also sharing how much they value the many unbiased checkpoints and evaluation steps along the way for job seekers to make sure they are employment ready. “We talk with the employer to identify their ‘greatest frustrations’ regarding attracting and retaining an employee. We use this to create very direct job descriptions and as a baseline for screening job seekers, which empowers our Career Navigators to have honest conversations when needed about why they can’t recommend a candidate for the job,” shared John. "This system will take a little time to implement, but it can truly lead to a chance for our economy and our residents to thrive.”
"This system will take a little time to implement, but it can truly lead to a chance for our economy and our residents to thrive.”
The Coalition does not expect to see large scale results from the Network2Work platform until the fall. “We know it’s really tough for employers and job seekers to look at the long-term solutions when the immediate need for workers, on one hand, and the challenges for overcoming barriers to sustainable employment on the other, are a struggle. This system will take a little time to implement, but it can truly lead to a chance for our economy and our residents to thrive.” Elizabeth chimed in, “We know this project is hugely ambitious. No one’s really been able to say, ‘This is what we did to close the skills gap, this is what we did to change the system,' and we have a real chance at that. We are all extremely optimistic.”
Through our High Impact Workforce Development Strategy, the Foundation aims to support community members in accessing career and economic opportunities that will help them achieve upward economic mobility. Informed by the work of our partners, we believe one of the best ways to close the intergenerational wealth gap is to create more quality jobs, greater access, and better support to prepare individuals to succeed in these jobs. The Foundation currently supports the Greater Richmond Workforce Coalition as a part of this broader strategy along the workforce continuum.