We’ve just been reading an interesting study from the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at UC-Berkeley titled “Building Institutions from the Region Up: Regional Workforce Development Collaboratives in California.” Although the paper is over two years old and describes initiatives that began in 2001, its insights into the regional collaboration remain as relevant as ever.
The study examined the outcomes of workforce development projects run by a handful of Collaborative Regional Initiatives (CRIs), which bring together government, industry, economic development organizations, colleges, and the workforce investment system. Its conclusions provide encouragement, but also a needed reality check, for those attempting to improve collaboration in regional workforce development projects.
Here are some selections from its conclusions (each paragraph is a separate quotation):
Regional collaboration can make workforce development programs more effective if the right partners are involved—from both inside and outside the current system. At their best, the CRIs produce more effective program and system outcomes than the other collaboratives studied. But as relative newcomers in the complex landscape of the workforce development system, they may be more effective as catalysts for long-term system change than as implementers of workforce development programs. Unless CRIs are able to organize broad and flexible workforce development networks so they can tap into existing expertise and resources as needed, these collaborations function essentially only on paper and thus do not make CRIs more effective than other institutions.
All of the CRIs are engaging with business in ongoing conversations that are helping to generate new employer interest in—and ownership of—workforce development.
But collaboration alone is not enough, without ownership. Whether the collaboration is broad and cross-sectoral (as in Fresno) or narrow (as in the SFITC), whether the organization functions as a collaborative or an intermediary, members need to have clear roles and responsibilities, with high levels of expertise. Collaboratives with a clear division of labor are better able to adapt when obstacles emerge . . . [and] including experts is critical to avoid reinventing the wheel.
It seems to matter little who conducts day-to-day management of the workforce development program, as long as accountability is clear.
A regional approach is also important, but not critical. Although economies work regionally, the labor market intermediaries that help disadvantaged jobseekers transition into the workforce may be located in a network across a region or at one organization
Developing career ladders is critical for upward mobility in a time when low-wage dead-end jobs dominate the landscape of low-skill work. . . . Nonetheless, these projects have revealed some contradictions that should be addressed. First, as the OCBC case showed, the career ladder for disadvantaged workers doesn’t necessarily begin where research is pointing it. Second, as the experience of the SFITC showed, ascending a rung or two in the career ladder is a process that takes years, especially for workers who have family obligations or no college degree. If a career ladder into a high-skilled job paying a family wage will take a decade to accomplish, this by definition is not an economic development strategy that responds to regional labor demand, but a supply-side policy.
Cross-sectoral (i.e., including business, government, education, and CBOs) participation is important, particularly if the partners are truly committed to the program—enough to help with internships. One key element in mobilizing such participation is the use of information, as in the OCBC and Fresno cases. The crosssectoral discussion about clusters, framed within a clear economic development orientation, resulted in the buy-in of stakeholders; . . . career ladders perform a similar function.
These cases raise questions about whether a focus on clusters, which is clearly valuable for economic development, can also work for workforce development. For instance, OCBC’s training program was part of an economic development strategy to enhance the competitiveness of local businesses within several growing industry clusters by producing high-skilled IT workers. The contradiction was that businesses saw it as meeting their short-term need for employees, while the career ladders approach is a long-term solution.
A final unresolved contradiction is the scale at which economic and workforce development goals are realized. Successful economic development strategies are regional in scale because the economy works across jurisdictional boundaries. . . . In contrast, successful placement of disadvantaged training program graduates works primarily at a local scale through local relationships.
These cases suggest that policymakers need to think more carefully about economic development approaches, questioning the assumption that workforce development needs to be regional and based upon clusters and career ladders. The regional approach clearly makes sense where there are support institutions, but where there aren’t, it can create an uphill battle.
Most of the collaboratives have not come to terms with the essential contradiction of the workforce development problem: the goals of regional economic competitiveness and access to employment opportunity for the disadvantaged are not necessarily
The lessons for the workforce development system are twofold: rethink the relationship between the collaboratives, the WIBs, and the community colleges in order to maximize the impact of workforce development innovations on the system; and make
the system responsive to outside innovation, such as that produced by the CRIs.