THE BLOG
06/12/2014 03:51 pm ET | Updated Aug 12, 2014

Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies

Work is an organizing principle of American life. Most American households rely on the wages and benefits from work for their income. Work is often a source of identity and pride for Americans, and an important point of social contact. Work schedules frequently set the basic structure that patterns our daily lives. We are in a moment now, however, when many Americans are struggling with their connection to work; too many are unemployed or underemployed, and many more struggle to acquire skills, credentials and degrees that they hope will help them find work or find better work.

Across America, there are local initiatives that seek to help struggling Americans connect to work. Over the past decade, the "sector" approach to helping workers gain skills and connect to work has taken root in a number of regional labor markets. Organizations employing this approach, often called workforce intermediaries, work with a set of companies within a particular industry sector or that have a common occupational need, and then develop strategies to help workers acquire the skills needed to be successful in these companies, while also helping the companies find the talent they need.

While the concept may sound simple, the work is increasingly complex. The workforce intermediaries employing this approach need to understand the industry dynamics of their companies. At the same time, they must also help workers build skills that meet these needs, often working within education institutions whose timelines and goals may differ from those of industry. Because workforce intermediaries typically focus on economically struggling workers, who often lack the resources for such basic necessities as childcare, transportation, and other essentials, workforce intermediaries need to be familiar with the local landscape of human services and social supports necessary to allowing workers the opportunity to learn new skills and facilitating their ability to make a successful start in a new job.

While the seeds of sector strategies and workforce intermediaries were sown several decades ago, the past decade has seen a concerted effort to deepen this field of practice. A new book released today, Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies, documents the evolution of this approach to addressing employment challenges. This volume, which I had the pleasure of co-editing with Robert P. Giloth of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, includes chapters by a variety of leaders in this work, including perspectives from philanthropy, policy, research, and practice.

The book captures much of the accomplishments of the field over the past decade. Organizations such as the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership can boast of well-documented wage gains for the workers that they've touched. The Health Collaborative in Cincinnati has sustained the investment and engagement of local hospitals as it reduced their recruitment costs and met their need for skilled workers. And many more companies and workers have benefited from this approach.

Connecting People to Work documents successes of sector strategies and workforce intermediaries over the past decade, but it also points to challenges ahead. Three challenges in particular stand out: resources, organizational capacity and job quality. On the resource front, workforce intermediaries face an uphill battle in a policy environment trending towards disinvestment in this work, even as the needs for service have grown. Philanthropy has helped fill the gap in places, but their resources cannot replace those of the public sector, and while there has been some success, more needs to be done to engage private industry as an investor in this work. The resource challenge often leads to thinly financed organizations that struggle to retain strong staff and develop strong operations, and yet the complexity of the work and the need to be responsive to a changing regional economy requires strong organizations that can learn and adapt.

Finally, the goal of the work is to connect workers and employers in ways that support thriving businesses, thriving workers and thriving communities. The large share of jobs today that do not provide wages and benefits that will lift a family out of poverty challenges workforce intermediaries to think of new strategies for engaging with these industries to find ways that improvements in worker skill and productivity can lead to a decent living for workers. -

While sector strategies alone certainly are not sufficient to addressing all of the economic challenges Americans now face, they have demonstrated they have much to contribute. We hope this book begins a new conversation among local program leaders, policy makers, leaders in philanthropy and others about the role of workforce intermediaries in connecting people to work.

This post by Maureen Conway, executive director of the Aspen Institute's Economic Opportunities Program. The blog is part of a special blog series inspired by the release of the edited volume, “Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies” and focused on the question: what do we know about what works in connecting people to work? In the coming weeks, the blog series will include perspectives from several authors featured in Connecting People to Work.