Guest Editorial

Patrice Onwuka

Addressing a misalignment of skills and open jobs

“If you’re able to work with your hands, you’ll never be out of work,” wrote former NASCAR driver Richard Petty in a recent Washington Post op-ed, emphasizing the opportunity for young Americans to find abundant, good-paying jobs in the skilled trades as an older generation of workers ages out.
It’s not just the trades that are seeing a drop in workers, though. Worker shortages span industries, education levels, occupations and regions as two million fewer Americans are in the workforce today than before the pandemic.
By convening private and public partners for collaboration in funding new models of success, including those like the trade industries mentioned by Petty, and improving existing programs, the private donor community is getting more Americans to work. Workforce development is critical, but it takes localized solutions to make lasting impact.
While national workforce initiatives bring economies of scale, consistency, standards and broad policy alignment, they often lack the agility needed to help both employers and employees. Solving these workforce challenges requires a local approach that includes tailored programs, faster adaptation, better community engagement and collaboration that brings together industry, employers, school systems, civil society and government.
Thankfully, some employers and philanthropists have cracked the code by piloting and funding workforce development programs at the local level.
Individuals are struggling to get their foot in the door despite tens to hundreds of thousands of open jobs in each state. Harvard Business Review found that 44 percent of low- and middle-skill workers surveyed said finding work was “just as hard” pre-COVID-19 as afterward.
Meanwhile, businesses are struggling to fill open positions and keep up with inflation. A historically high 42 percent of small business owners reported job openings that were hard to fill. Nearly all of those hiring or attempting to hire in July had few or no qualified applicants.
This staggering misalignment of skills and open jobs in every state has sidelined millions of workers from pathways for economic mobility. Americans want to create a better life for themselves, however, less than one out of five adults possess the credentials to obtain jobs that would support a family. Millions of middle-skilled jobs in sectors as varied as IT, health care and skilled trades go unfilled. Additionally, millions of middle-skilled jobs also now require a four-year degree despite not needing a diploma prior. The job licenses, training, certifications and education required to work today can be hurdles for sidelined workers and future workers.
Philanthropy is making a way to bridge the gap.
For example, in the early 1990s, a group of construction CEOs foresaw the need to promote the trades in a positive way. They founded the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA), now Construction Ready, to provide training programs for entry-level construction jobs in their state. The program does not require a college degree, yet after completing a rigorous 20-day training program, graduates leave with the credentials for employment and 97percent of them land a job. In 2000, Construction Ready formalized its relationship with Georgia to bring its programs into K-12 schools. By creating talent pipelines from the public schools, young people are exposed to the construction industry at early ages while employers can build relationships with future workers.
Donors and foundations play pivotal roles in expanding and refining programs like these. For example, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation funded a Construction Ready pilot in Westside Atlanta for some of the city’s disadvantaged residents. Following the success in the Westside, Construction Ready spread to other areas of the city. This program is spurring a cultural shift to embrace the trades again.
National workforce development programs can also take a local approach. For over 40 years, Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) has helped the nation’s most vulnerable young people stay in school, graduate and acquire the pro¬fes¬sion¬al skills and cre¬den¬tials to gain employ¬ment or enter post¬sec¬ondary edu¬ca¬tion. The program builds collaboration across government, business and community leadership to better align education with employment.
JAG started in Delaware as a directive of Gov. Pete du Pont to design a program that would be “far more effective, far more accountable and far more cost-effective for the most challenged young people in [their] state.” JAG’s outstanding outcomes tell the story of their success: a 230 percent improvement in acquiring full-time jobs compared to all 18-to-20-year-olds, a 260 percent improvement in finding full-time jobs among female participants and a 290 percent improvement among black participants. Since its inception, JAG has served over 1.5 million youths and helps over 76,000 young people across 1,550 locations and 40 states.
Charitable giving is not just relegated to meeting basic human needs. Philanthropy drives and fuels solutions to ending poverty, strengthening businesses and creating opportunities for economic mobility that all can share in. Let’s leave no worker behind.

Patrice Onwuka is an adjunct senior fellow at Philanthropy Roundtable.


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