07/24/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2014

Collaborating to Connect People to Work

SkillWorks: Partners for a Productive Workforce, a regional workforce funder collaborative in Boston, has been connecting people to work in Massachusetts over the last decade. Along the way, we have learned some valuable lessons about addressing the needs of businesses; building career pathways for low-wage workers; and leveraging the power of the funder collaborative for systems change.

SkillWorks' chapter in Connecting to Work, a new book edited by Maureen Conway of the Aspen Institute and Bob Giloth of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, tells the initiative's story from 2003-2013, as it has changed to meet different economic circumstances, employer needs, and funder interests.

By most measures, SkillWorks has had an incredibly successful run. The combined support of public and private funders has resulted in $25 million in direct public-private investment, as well as an additional $60 million of state investments leveraged to support workforce training and adult basic education.

Our efforts have directly helped more than 4,500 people obtain skills training over the last 10 years, resulted in more than 1,000 job placements, nearly 1,500 wage increases, more than 600 promotions, and more than 1,000 industry-recognized credentials. The state investment we have leveraged has helped hundreds of businesses fill their skills gap and has trained, placed and advanced thousands more individuals throughout the Commonwealth.

As I reflect back on these efforts, I am proud of what we have accomplished and humbled by what remains to be done.

Income inequality is at an all time high in Massachusetts, with an ever-increasing premium placed on higher education and skills. In 2012, the median hourly wage for a Massachusetts worker with a Bachelor's degree or higher was almost twice the wage for a worker with a high school degree. Workers aren't the only ones struggling to get ahead. According to a recent report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), two-thirds of businesses said they experienced difficulty in hiring employees with the appropriate skills needed to grow and stay competitive.

What is the role of a funder collaborative like SkillWorks in addressing these tremendous challenges in a time of constrained resources, gridlocked politics and economic uncertainty? SkillWorks' experience over the last few years offers a few ideas.

1. Highlight needs and focus attention on solutions. By bringing together the leading philanthropic and public voices in workforce development, the regional workforce funder collaborative has a natural, nonpartisan platform from which it can gather and share data with stakeholders and policymakers about business and worker needs and promising ways to address them.

2. Take a few risks--innovate with flexible dollars. Particularly when funders are able to pool their funding, it can be easier and more palatable to take some calculated risks and support projects that might not find mainstream funding but that have the potential to address system gaps, expand our knowledge of what works, and lead to greater change. In this spirit, SkillWorks has invested in new industry sectors, developed a new state jobs and workforce budget browser, piloted a college navigation coach, and tested outreach strategies for disconnected young adults.

3. Identify what works. Push public and philanthropic funders to sustain proven practices and programs over the long term. Investment in the SkillWorks collaborative often represents just a small portion of each individual funder's workforce development portfolio. However as each funder learns from their participation in SkillWorks, the lessons can extend to the rest of their grant making. Through SkillWorks' advocacy efforts, we have been able to impact our state's approach to workforce development as well.

4. Share what doesn't work. Failure can accompany risk, and funder collaboratives can advance the field by being unafraid to acknowledge what didn't work--and why. SkillWorks has tried to use its evaluation resources thoughtfully as a way to share learning of this kind as well as to make adjustments to its grant making and other strategies in real time, if things do not go as expected.

5. Set and maintain a table for learning at all levels of the collaborative. SkillWorks has had the opportunity to touch hundreds of community-based organizations, educational institutions, businesses, policymakers, and funders in its ten-year history. We have engaged in an intentional strategy of building learning communities within and across these audiences that has extended our reach and contributed to stronger workforce networks and partnerships across different sectors of our community.

While a local or regional workforce funder collaborative may not itself have the scale or resources to close the skills gap, its ability to take on the tasks outlined above points to its importance as a credible and powerful funder and convener. By shaping the dialogue about workforce training, sharing learning, building expertise, and strategically directing workforce resources, the collaborative can influence workforce policy and marshal the resources needed for systems change that creates greater opportunity for individuals and businesses.

This post is by Loh-Sze Leung, executive director of SkillWorks. 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 the book, Connecting People to Work.