10 Principles to Build More Effective, Equitable Workforce Systems

Published on Apr 12, 2022

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Lightcast

They’re a dynamic husband-wife duo on opposite ends of the political spectrum: Stephen Goldsmith is the former Republican mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor of New York; Kate Markin Coleman, a former executive of the national YMCA and business leader, is a progressive Democrat.

Their political differences, however, fade into the background when they talk and write about workforce issues. That’s because workforce development isn’t a partisan issue, as Goldsmith and Markin Coleman argue in their new book, Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

“As a joint project of a Republican and a Democrat,” they write in the introduction, “this book rejects choosing between conservative views that assume that anyone who works hard will succeed and more progressive views that simply demand more government support. We argue, instead, for a broader shared narrative about potential, one that demonstrates how greater cross-sector collaboration can enhance upward economic mobility for those whose prospects have dimmed.”

A Book for Workforce Practitioners

At its core, Growly Fairly is about people and potential—specifically how cities can unlock the potential of more of their people (and grow in the process) by implementing 10 design principles to build more effective, equitable workforce systems. 

The design principles outlined in the book are far from theoretical or academic. Goldsmith and Markin Coleman built their framework and recommendations after interviewing dozens of leaders and practitioners from the highest-performing workforce organizations. 

This is a book for local workforce practitioners and leaders, written through a practitioner’s lens. And its implications are far-reaching. 

Goldsmith and Coleman started research for Growing Fairly in 2019, before the pandemic, only to see COVID-19 exacerbate the economic divides and “tale of two cities” evident in most urban areas. Goldsmith, now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs Data-Smart City Solutions, saw this plainly in Indianapolis. The city has blossomed in part because of healthy, high-wage job growth in the tech and knowledge sectors. Yet 16.4% of Marion County residents are below the poverty level, and it was 21% a few years ago. 

“If anything, we believe more strongly that our current economy, which enriches some while leaving many behind, demands a reimagining of the labor-market skilling system,” the co-authors write. “That was our topic in 2019, and it remains our topic today.”

Three Ways the Current Workforce System Falls Short

Goldsmith and Markin Coleman argue that the current workforce development system—and they take an expansive view of workforce, looking at more than just federally funded workforce investment boards—is not effective or equitable for a few reasons. 

For one, regional workforce systems are often not “systems,” at least not connected systems in the local areas they serve. This fragmentation in many cities “produces serious obstacles that cannot be overcome at the level of a single institution,” the co-authors write in arguing for a network approach to the problem.

Second, the organizations that comprise regional workforce systems (workforce investment boards, training providers, nonprofits, government agencies) suffer from inadequate, outdated information on regional in-demand jobs and skills. These organizations and career seekers also lack data on the outcomes and ROI of training programs. Goldsmith and Markin Coleman cite economist Friedrich Hayek, who “observed that market economies operate most efficiently with better information. Imperfect information is a problem that particularly impacts labor markets struggling to price the skills of workers who do not have post-secondary degrees. The highly fragmented approach to workforce initiatives in the United States aggravates these inefficiencies.” 

Third, regional workforce systems tend to focus too much on employment and not enough on upward mobility, limiting the potential of people trapped in low-wage jobs. 

As a whole, the co-authors argue, the workforce system does not meet the modern-day needs of individuals or employers. Even with record-high job openings, far too many people are disengaged from the labor market.

So, how do cities engage the unengaged? How can they reimagine their labor market skilling systems to not just benefit portions of their population bases? This is where the Growing Fairly turns much more hopeful and solutions-oriented.

Principles Centered on People

For more than two years, Goldsmith and Markin Coleman interviewed hundreds of workers and would-be workers. They traveled the country in search of the best workforce organizations and skills-training entities that infuse data, research, wraparound services, and personalization into their services. Once the pandemic hit, they turned to video conferencing to learn from leaders, staff, and participants at these organizations. 

Goldsmith and Markin Coleman started to spot patterns during their research—patterns that turned into the organizational principles that frame the book. These principles (see accompanying graphic) begin with two people-focused recommendations: start with people and offer meaningful choices.

Their thesis is simple yet powerful: “System design starts not with available programs and specific policies but with people, recognizing that individuals’ skill-building needs vary widely depending upon their lived experiences.” 

Further, the co-authors found the best organizations and systems “flex to meet individual needs and reflect local and regional demand for skills.” Here they highlight Roca, Inc., an organization that works with young adults in urban areas to disrupt incarceration, poverty, and racism, and New Moms, which partners with young mothers to help them with housing stability and economic mobility. Both organizations address what Goldsmith and Markin Coleman see as a critical component for workforce systems: serving the diverse needs of all potential workers, including potentially harder-to-serve populations. 

At the program level, Goldsmith and Markin Coleman hit on four principles: personalizationsupport and coachingcontextualized learning (e.g., tying courses or programs to a career), and offering bridges to employment like internships, apprenticeships, and sectoral training.For these program-level recommendations, the book goes deep on nearly 15 organizations and programs across the country, from City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Association Programs (ASAP), which offers personalized services through advisors to help students overcome barriers, to Capital IDEA, an Austin-based coaching program anchored in labor market data, to San Diego Workforce Partnership.

Using Skills as a Currency and Other Systems-Level Principles

A central theme of Growing Fairly is that individuals often don’t have the information they need to navigate the fragmented workforce system and labor market. The same goes for career advisers helping individuals and leaders designing programs to connect people to opportunity.

There’s an information gap, yes, but the problem runs deeper. Goldsmith and Markin Coleman argue that educators, employers, government agencies, and nonprofit intermediaries lack a common currency to make decisions based on skills, not degrees.

The first of four system-level principles in the book is: use skills as the currency for training and advancement to better match learners’ skills to better-paying jobs. This skills framework, the co-authors write, should not just include technical or hard skills but also hybrid or human skills and executive functioning skills development. (The concept of skills as currency is what drove our development of SkillFt, which enables people to identify their skills and find their best career option or reskilling path based on those skills.) 

Growly Fairly highlights a project led by UNCF and the Atlanta Mayor’s Office to identify pathways of opportunity for people of color who “possess a work history but find themselves trapped in lower-paying jobs.” Using our SkillScape platform, Lightcast supplied an analysis of the skills clusters, layered by race and ethnicity, that present the most opportunity to transition into higher-demand, higher-wage fields.

Atlanta MSA Regional Skills Analysis, July 2020

In addition to skills as currency, the book makes the case that workforce systems need to commit to transparency, focus on strategies for housing and infrastructure to make places work, and collaborate with an intermediary serving as a network manager.

Lessons from Houston, Other Cities that Inspire Local Action

Goldsmith and Markin Coleman devote the book’s last chapter to chronicling how Houston, driven by the Greater Houston Partnership as the key intermediary, is putting the organizational principles together to advance a common goal: increase upward mobility through middle-skill employment. The Upskill Houston program includes hundreds of employers, educational institutions, and community-based organizations to both help raise awareness of mid-skill careers and close the skills gap.

The stellar work in Houston is one reason why Goldsmith and Markin Coleman came away from their Growing Fairly project inspired and humbled. Through a practitioner’s lens, they surfaced the cities, organizations, and programs that are leading the way in opening opportunity and mobility for individuals.

They also were encouraged, after they finished the book, to see the Economic Development Administration’s Good Jobs Challenge embed many of the same design principles in the $500 million grant competition. 

“We met people working in government and nonprofits who have dedicated themselves to helping others,” they write, “all with an eye toward doing more wherever possible. We spoke with dozens of people who, when given the opportunity, overcame personal challenges and neighborhood barriers, lifting themselves and their families out of poverty. These chapters bring together lessons from city leaders, program officers, and once-struggling Americans. We weave them into design principles for a more equitable workforce development system. We hope it will inspire local action that allows communities to grow together fairly.” 

To order Growing Fairly, check out Brookings Institution Press or wherever you order books. Lightcast hosted a webinar with Steve Goldsmith and Kate Markin Coleman on Growing Fairly, which you can access here

There has perhaps never been a better time to reimagine how our workforce systems are designed and built. If you are inspired by the possibilities of this book and our current moment, we’d love to hear how we can help. Fill out the form below to get in touch.