Rethinking Lessons Learned in Workforce Development: The case for partnerships with small businesses and a global economic outlook

January 26, 2022
Dr. Kara Whitman
kara@midwesturbanstrategies.comRethinking Lessons Learned in Workforce Development: The case for partnerships with small businesses and a global economic outlook

Our AmeriCorps VISTA Member for Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (REDI), Dr. Kara Whitman, attended a webinar about critical partnerships for sustainable development. The webinar was held on January 11, 2022 by the London School of Economics and Political Science at the University of London and featured remarks by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator, Achim Steiner.  

Importantly, Administrator Steiner’s remarks were centered upon key sector partnerships, inclusive development practices and emerging strategies - with a view to decrease risk and inequalities in complex emergencies, protracted crises and pandemic contexts. In addition, he underscored the types of trust relationships that are necessitated by and sustained through recovery projects at the national level. The Administrator also noted, “The countries that fared most effectively with COVID-19, were actually the countries where the greatest trust exists between citizens and their governments because that allowed countries to effectively respond and act on what needed to be done.”  

The Administrator further inspired attendees, with a focus on the limitless potential of engaged citizens. Indeed, he asserted, “If you care about something, you can begin to change what happens next.”

Kara agreed, noting “Participating in these networks and events is important because I derive lessons learned from a broader, cross-section of stakeholders. For instance, the Administrator spoke powerfully about small businesses and detailed why they are key to decreasing economic and social inequalities. Home-based, individual, first generation and family-owned businesses in particular, were evoked as drivers of growth and stability. Yet unfortunately, small businesses like these are not prioritized in many of the employer services workforce development organizations provide. Moreover, they are seldom featured in the partnerships they promote or the performance reporting and discourse they generate. Therefore, the knowledge-sharing and best practices discussed at events like these is especially critical. This is where I am encouraged to examine workforce partnerships and redefine them.”

Indeed, as workforce development organizations, we often highlight our services to larger employers as evidence of our position as key partners on workforce matters and leaders in the broader field of economic development. Quite frequently, we offer labor intelligence data and contribute resources toward the recruitment, training and testing of job candidates, among other supports. These are valuable contributions. However, in most instances, workforce development organizations have been locally focused. We are not found among the participants at many global convenings. Subsequently, we are less informed about the global marketplace in which employers navigate, the risks they manage to remain globally competitive or the conditions required to achieve growth in foreign economies amidst a global pandemic. In sum, we do not deliver labor intelligence relative to the global economic environment in which our partners are situated. This is important because what goes on overseas directly impacts what takes place here.

Kara also noted, “This absence from international venues limits the capacity of workforce development organizations to become thought leaders. It further prohibits activities necessary for inclusive economic development. For example, workforce development organizations are disconnected from global best practices in minority and small business incubation. They are also distant from knowledge-sharing relative to workforce partnerships with family-owned or home-based small businesses, including women-owned and minority-owned businesses. As a consequence, the representation of minorities and women among our partner employers and in our networks of contractors, mentors, investors and executives is deemphasized. Diversity in the workforce ecosystem is now more abstract than it otherwise should be and minimized furthest at the partner level, where we have been the least intentional. Minority communities especially, take note and engage less often. We see this disconnect and call it low enrollment and retention, never asking, how can we expect to build trust in minority communities when there are few if any minority businesses or other success models made accessible to the people we serve?”

Kara’s assertions are significant in part, because it compels us to change our current service model. The current model of service at most job centers for example, is a limited-time transaction. People register, receive services and apply for employment opportunities in linear fashion and in accord with a compliance framework that predetermines the process. Job-seekers are alone in this process, navigating complicated eligibility and program requirements often amidst isolating unemployment, underemployment and associated financial hardships. They are not assigned a mentor, alumnus or interest group at the point of registration and the belonging and togetherness pertinent to many minority cultures is tangential to the transactions we undertake. In addition, realities like gig economics, interests in self-employment and the need for disaster-resilient professional networks are set aside.

Job-seekers are not situated in these realities or connected to peers. Rather, they are connected to food benefits, transportation vouchers, childcare and other supports, which make training, testing and employment more accessible. However, the narrow typology associated with care-seekers and aid recipients obscures other identities and makes it harder to acknowledge the people we register as partners. In this context, recognition as entrepreneurs and future employers is counterintuitive and connections to minority business leaders and other success models is at best, optional. Therefore, the potential medium to long-term trust relationships upon which many communities rely, are quelled before they ever get started. Alarmingly, we seem to have defined the success model narrowly, to help large employers test, train and hire people who want to work for others - all within a pre-pandemic context and lessons learned that are already obsolete. Our relevance to unemployed and underemployed workers is a reflection of this service model. And to remain relevant, we must rethink it.

Dr. Kara Whitman came to Midwest Urban Strategies (MUS), to develop tools and resources which improve REDI performance and innovation throughout our consortium.  Her approach is based in part, on broadening the networks, partners and fora to which she collects, shares and disseminates workforce development information. She is participating in forthcoming events in Black History Month and Women’s History Month among others, to enhance these tools and help stakeholders rethink the lessons learned in the workforce ecosystem.