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Realizing the Blazing Potential of Promising Workforce Programs

Workforce skill, training, knowledge ability
Credit: iStock/relif

I remember well when the phrase “a thousand points of light” entered regular usage. Popularized by President George H. W. Bush, the phrase referred to individuals and organizations that provide valuable and even life-saving work in communities around the country. In 1990, President Bush founded the Points of Light Foundation. As a kid interested in social justice, this fascinated me. I saw these thousand points of light bringing hope and comfort to those in need. That said, while disparate groups deliver aid that is meaningful and valuable, they can often have an even greater impact when they work together and emulate and build upon each other’s successful approaches to common problems.

Today, when I think of manufacturing workforce development programs, I imagine them as “a thousand points of light” too. They are obviously doing tremendous work in communities around the country. However, these programs are fragmented, disjointed and rarely scale outside the cities and states that invested in their creation. 

“A thousand points of light” might be a great metaphor for inspiring social action, but it’s no way to run national workforce development.

Let’s explore some examples of these points of light and examine how to rapidly shift our decentralized approach – which simply isn’t working as we see more and more manufacturing job openings going unfilled today, with a possible shortage of 2.1 million workers by 2030 – to a more coordinated one that can identify and lift up promising programs for national replication.

First, the facts: The United States has 7.2 million workers who are either underemployed or unemployed. And while the overall unemployment rate for white workers is 3.2 percent, Black and Hispanic populations face significantly higher unemployment rates of 6.6 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.

To respond to the current workforce crisis, a growing movement has swept across universities, community colleges, workforce development boards and nonprofits nationwide: the non-degree training program (NDTP). NDTPs, from week-long bootcamps to multi-year apprenticeships, award students with a certification, badge, journeyman card or other non-degree credential. NDTPs have shown tremendous potential to accomplish a wide range of goals, including rapidly training a worker for an in-demand job, increasing diversity, equity and inclusion by intentionally serving underrepresented minorities, and better aligning workers’ and employers’ interests in quality jobs and career paths.

As part of the America Works initiative, I’m tracking promising manufacturing training programs nationally. One excellent example is Project QUEST in San Antonio, Texas. The program offers skills training, career coaching and job placement in high-demand careers, such as manufacturing, plus wraparound services such as tuition and textbook assistance, childcare support and personal and academic counseling. The results are clear: Participants in this program earned $31,395 more than a control group over 11 years. A cost-benefit study found a $19.32 return for every dollar spent on the program during a 25-year period. This included $3.77 per dollar spent in savings to the government because of reductions in food and income assistance and unemployment insurance. Though the program is nearly 30 years old and has a clear ROI for workers, companies and society, it has scaled to just four locations outside Texas.

Another great program you’ve probably never heard of (although I’ve mentioned it before) is Manufacturing Renaissance (MR). Since 2007, MR has worked in the greater Chicago area to teach machining to inner-city high school students. Its four programs cover everything from career awareness and training to apprenticeship and career pathways consulting. Young people can prepare for manufacturing careers, receive assistance along the way, connect with peers through the Young Manufacturers Association, and get support for up to a full year after job placement. What separates MR from other programs is its grassroots approach, which includes doing community outreach, fostering one-on-one conversations, building local coalitions, and more. And this approach works. To date, MR has worked with 439 participants and 153 companies and placed 117 individuals in manufacturing jobs that pay a living wage. But has MR scaled outside Chicago? No. Despite its local success, the funding and partnerships haven’t been there for it to expand nationally.

These are just two examples. If you want to see more local programs that are making a real difference, I have tons of them listed in the MEP Workforce Database. Outside of the MEP National Network™, I would suggest looking into Career Launch Kalamazoo, the Readiness Institute at Penn State, the Jane Addams Resource Corporation’s programs in Baltimore, Maryland, and Chicago, Portland, Oregon’s Pathways to Manufacturing, and West Virginia Women Work, to name just a few. This number will only increase as a growing network of grassroots programs led by MR advocate for more support for locally focused training programs. The one thing uniting almost every program listed here is that they all stand ready to scale nationally but haven’t been given the resources.

So how do we collect these individual points of light into one nationally unified, coordinated galaxy of successful workforce training programs?

It all starts with connection. To realize the economic benefits these programs bring through filling open positions, increasing the talent available to companies, and improving the knowledge and skills of future and current workers, we need a platform where they can interact and be studied, nurtured and promoted. In my recent profile on one company that intentionally hires disadvantaged workers, I show that these programs strengthen a company’s culture and help with the hiring and retention of motivated, skilled employees.

The problem is clear, and the solution is well within our grasp. To build the capacity of both manufacturing workforce development practitioners and manufacturers, I propose the creation of a national manufacturing workforce development community of practice. Made up of workforce development practitioners, researchers, companies and other stakeholders, this community would provide opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, increasing equity and inclusion, and identifying resources through virtual and in-person events and workshops, grants, and more. Beyond this, establishing such a community of practice will demonstrate a shared national commitment to inclusive, future-focused and responsive manufacturing workforce development.

A thousand points of light won’t turn nighttime into day; we’ll need a much more coordinated approach to accomplish that. Only through investing in scaling successful local programs and building the connections necessary to identify and share their models nationally can we move from the darkness to the light.

About the author

Matt Fieldman

Matthew Fieldman is currently Executive Director of America Works, a nationwide initiative to coordinate the American manufacturing industry's training efforts, generating a more capable, skilled, and...

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