Closing Workforce Equity Gaps

Published on Sep 21, 2020

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Drew Repp

Closing Workforce Equity Gaps

People often say the key to doing a job right (and getting it done in a timely manner) is having the right tools. For workforce development programs targeting disadvantaged populations, they often work with inadequate tools. The result is lagging performance of programs and initiatives. 

What’s been missing? Actionable data on the local skills that are in demand. 

Solving this problem and getting the right tools in place is the idea behind a recent Strada Education Network grant. Awarded to UNCF, the goal is to close workforce opportunity gaps for students of color and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Leaders are desperate for a quality, accessible, easy-to-share, easy-to-engage-with, deeper level if needed by their analysts, way to process and engage new workforce information,” says Julian Thompson, senior program manager at UNCF. 

Leaders being able to engage with their workforce data is what makes this project so unique. In the end it not only delivered a report, but a device which demonstrates career pathways depending on user inputs. With the insights garnered, Atlanta can clearly pinpoint workforce strategies to address equity gaps in the Black community. And longer-term, move beyond strategies, to leverage a new learning ecosystem driven by skills. Such an ecosystem could more effectively identify career pathways, moving high-schoolers and young adults through training into meaningful work in high-demand fields.

The team and network

For project management, UNCF engaged the Harvard Kennedy School and their partner, the Institute for Excellence in Government. Emsi was brought onboard to provide economic and workforce data insights. With the team in place, Atlanta, GA was selected as one of two pilot cities (Columbus, OH, the other). 

“The Emsi team is grateful for the opportunity to serve UNCF and the Atlanta region through this important project. We benefited greatly from their wisdom and leadership, along with the expertise of Harvard,” says Dustin Lester, vice president of consulting, Community Insights at Emsi. 

A network approach, and galvanizing that network around data, was a primary tenant of the project. The network of stakeholders on the ground in Atlanta stretches across K-12, higher education, workforce/economic development, business, and government. With all these entities working on skill development, there is recognition of a huge opportunity to align them for better outcomes. 

“Most folks have the same goals: improve quality of life, improve people’s ability to enter the workforce and sustain themselves in the workforce successfully. So, if you have those overlapping goals, if you have those overlapping instincts about what makes the most sense and what’s important, then it only follows that people should be using the same information to track what’s up, what’s down, and what’s possible,” says Thompson.

Not traditional workforce data

That same information Thompson refers to is data on Atlanta’s labor market. But data was needed at a nuanced and localized level that could reveal the current situation for Blacks in Atlanta, and more importantly, the career pathways needed to better opportunities.

In order to accomplish this task, Emsi aggregates detailed Standard Occupations Codes (SOCs) into career areas and career sub-areas. Skills data in jobs postings are then analyzed using statistical methods to identify relationships between skills in postings. The result: sets of skill clusters for a given region (Atlanta) and career sub-areas, reflecting the unique roles local employers need based on the skills they seek. Going one step further, Emsi leverages its database of over 130 million online profiles and resumes to estimate the supply of skills in-demand. By comparing the supply to the demand from postings, one of the most valuable pieces of information can be unearthed: skill gaps. 

“The biggest advantage of Emsi Skills is going beyond the rigidity of traditional occupation data,” says Hector Acosta, senior consultant at Emsi. “For example, everyone knows software developers are in-demand, but the common constraint with SOCs is trying to understand what kind of software developer? With our skills data, we can break down that software developer into specialized roles based on the skills needed—now we know that Atlanta has an oversupply of developers with a UI/UX design focus, but a gap for developers in Java development and cloud computing.”

Analyzing a region’s workforce in this way provides an additional and incredibly useful insight: how skills crossover and interrelate among roles and industries. Within a company, Amazon for example, roles aren’t isolated but rather span across departments.  

Similarly, the career area of Business/Finance (financial accountant, logistics analysts, human resources representatives, etc.) doesn’t just represent roles within banks, financial advising firms, etc. But instead captures roles and occupations across all industries. 

That is, the Business/Finance career area is formed based on the skills needed for such  roles, not occupations within the business and finance industry. Roles requiring Business/Finance skills stretch across industries. Accounting skills are needed in every industry, not just at CPA firms. As a result, leaders in Atlanta gain valuable information on how a worker’s career path can move across industries.

A different kind of workforce analytics tool

But how do you reveal those career paths and transitions? And what would it mean if you could? Thompson put it this way: “If you have a tool that shows you that your hospitality skills translate into retail jobs or translate into manufacturing jobs in a certain context, and then you can use skills data to build relationships between those industries. That ends up being the unlocked power that I think could be transformative.”

So the Atlanta team set out to do just that: harness the skills data, reveal the career transition possibilities, and make this new approach to labor market analysis accessible. The result was SkillScape, an interactive tool that allows stakeholders to engage with Emsi Skills, visualize needed career pathways, and make data-informed decisions.

And while the project analyzed the Atlanta MSA market, it was specifically seeking to find solutions to the workforce equity gaps facing the Black community in Atlanta. SkillScape can isolate the skills data based on high, medium, or low Black employment and by posted salary. The result is a “behind the curtain” view of the situation and pathway challenges of the targeted population. 

“SkillScape differentiates from other labor insight tools in that it empowers the user to find answers to their questions. Rather than presenting immediate insights, SkillScape provides the user a blank slate of skills data in their region. With such a magnitude of data, it is more akin to a ‘choose your own adventure’, with nearly limitless opportunities to uncover data about the Atlanta region,” says Acosta.

What SkillScape revealed

Business/Finance, IT/Math, Sales/Customer Service, and Healthcare emerged as the largest career areas. These are the categories with the greatest supply of talent—workers who have skills which employers need. However, while most Black workers are employed in these areas, they are still underrepresented (except for in healthcare) when comparing against their share of the overall workforce (33%). Additionally, within lower-paying roles in these career areas they tend to be overrepresented, while at the same time being underrepresented in higher-paying roles.

In determining career pathways—and the necessary upskilling or reskilling—an accurate picture of the existing landscape is a prerequisite. But details on future growth are also needed to ensure jobseekers are set on the right training and education paths.

The data revealed strong growth is expected in sub-career areas of IT/Math, Healthcare, and Business/Finance. The aforementioned skills gap analysis was also used to determine gaps which need to be addressed.

With this SkillScape data, as well as input from regional stakeholders, four target career areas were determined: IT/Math, Business/Finance, Healthcare, and Production/Manufacturing. UNCF, the City of Atlanta, and the many stakeholders across economic and workforce development and education were able to then examine how equity gaps in these areas could be addressed.

1. Upskilling Opportunities

Roles ideal for upskilling were examined using the criteria of: being in a targeted career area, having greater supply than demand, having high projected growth over the next five years, and requiring an evolving skillset. Within this criteria, four specific roles emerged:

  • Healthcare: Home Care, Hospice, and Case Management

  • Software Development: User Interface and Experience Design

  • Finance: Investments, Wealth Management, and Financial Planning

  • Production: Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma Methods, and Product Quality

Workers within these roles or seeking to transition into them, would benefit from upskilling.

With supply outpacing demand, upskilling will be needed for workers to remain competitive. But these roles also represent a continued opportunity, as they are projected to have above average growth over the next five years. Workforce leaders in Atlanta now have greater clarity on the training program areas which would best meet market demand in the region and provide pathways to higher wage roles.

2. Reskilling Opportunities

The criteria for identifying reskilling opportunities included roles experiencing slow growth and with low wages, lack of a career growth path, and an average or above-average representation of Black workers.

In determining reskilling opportunities, key to the analysis is moving workers out of likely career transitions and into aligned transitions. In every industry, likely transitions are most strong within the same role. This is okay in high-wage roles, where workers may simply be seeking a different location or change in company culture. But for workers in low-wage roles, continuing in likely transitions doesn’t help them on a career path. 

Aligned transitions, on the other hand, take the relationship of the skills required for two roles and uncovers probable pathway opportunities. Put another way, it takes the skills present in one role and links them to skills present in another, perhaps even in a different career area.

“The tool has this ability to identify if you’re in a skill area that has declining demand or has low wages, some of the attributes you have that could apply within a totally separate career or industry area. I think that ends up being one of the real possibilities of a networked approach, is that you don’t have skill development happening within an industry silo,” said Thompson.

For Hospitality roles, here are some aligned opportunities (nationally):

While maybe not immediately apparent, the skills of Hospitality workers aligns them well for a transition to Sales positions. And this is what makes skills data so valuable. By examining a worker through their abilities, they are no longer pigeonholed by their occupation title, type of work, or even degree. In the case of a Hospitality worker, most of the necessary skills center around customer service. But this is also true of Sales roles. Thus, with the right training, the skills of the Hospitality worker can be leveraged for a successful transition into Sales.

3. Business and Talent Attraction for Targeted Career Areas

The skills analysis also showcased market sectors that are ripe for business attraction or expansion, and also areas that are in need of either talent attraction or the above reskilling and upskilling.

While a community’s workforce is the number one factor driving investment decisions by business, economic development strategies based simply on the current supply of workers in a SOC or expected degree awards is insufficient. Skills data provides a far more nuanced picture of where a community should “push and pull” depending on their skills gaps.   

The graph below, with labor supply on the x-axis and the estimated demand on the y-axis, depicts how skills data can optimize economic development strategies. Low demand/high supply (lower right quadrant) are where business attraction opportunities lie. These may also be the areas to have sector focused entrepreneurial programming, as business startups will have a healthy supply of talent at affordable wages. Conversely, high demand/low supply (upper left quadrant) roles are where existing businesses are likely hurting, and where opportunities exist for local workers. Training programs for these roles greatly serve business retention efforts and help workers move into high demand, better paying jobs.

In the case of Atlanta, various career areas have a low demand/high supply. Business/Finance is one which presents a unique opportunity, as these roles are integral to operations across all industries. Either attracting businesses seeking such workers or helping existing businesses grow by leveraging the surplus would serve as an effective economic development strategy.

Healthcare roles present a much different problem, and opportunity, for Atlanta. Many of these roles fill the upper left quadrant, with high demand and low supply. Employers in Healthcare are struggling to meet their growing demand as their need for talent far outpaces supply. Whether it’s Pharmacy Tech or Speech Language Pathologists, the region needs to fill this gap.

As leaders seek policies and programs which help close the equity gap for Black students and workers, the skills data reveals Healthcare as an ideal place for focused talent development training and education. These roles are already in demand and many have expected above average growth. As training and education is deployed to fill this pipeline, it may be determined that a gap still exists. Attracting talent with these skills to the region could be considered as well.


Atlanta and UNCF have set out to tackle a difficult challenge: create sustainable, equitable growth by identifying opportunities for disadvantaged populations, particularly the Black community. While there is no single solution for such a challenge, in SkillScape Atlanta now has the data and insights for the job. And that’s a testament to the collaborative nature of the project. 

“One particularly unique aspect of this project was the level of engagement from stakeholders. In all, we had 17 organizations involved in helping us shape SkillScape into the powerful tool that it is now,” said Acosta.

Workforce development is complex, the additional hurdles involved when working with disadvantaged groups makes it even more so. But actionable data that can speak to the unique situation of those groups has long been missing. Now skills cluster data can help identify specific gaps that strain Atlanta employers and prevent equitable growth. 

“What I suspect will be a really interesting learning here is how a municipality or a government who’s interested in influencing those skills spaces can use a data source that has a focus on equity in order to center what they hope will be a priority or a conversation. So, I think that’s one of the really promising aspects of what this work can do,” added Thompson. 

As with all projects of this nature, taking action will determine the final outcomes. But stakeholders can now engage with the Atlanta community with the best possible information. The next step for Atlanta, as with all communities tackling their workforce issues, is implementing the findings of the data across government, training, and employers. 

“We look forward to staying engaged with the regional leadership in Atlanta to help achieve measurable results in closing workforce equity gaps,” said Lester.

For UNCF, Harvard Kennedy, and Emsi, the next stop is Columbus, Ohio. “There are so many synergies that are possible by using data and being deliberate and focusing on equity,” concluded Thompson.

Want to learn more about this project and its use of skills? UNCF provided lessons learned from the project at our Emsi 2020 Conference