Workforce training programs are failing to prepare underprivileged youth for good jobs. It’s time to innovate.
By Peter Sloane
Soon, summer internships will wind down and recent college graduates will march off to their first entry-level jobs. As they jumpstart their careers, many young people from underserved backgrounds will be left behind, without the network, resources, or skill sets they need to compete in the job market.
Workforce training programs are meant to fill that gap by putting underserved youth on the path to full-time jobs with a living wage, benefits, and opportunities to move up. Right now, those programs are falling short.
In New York City, unemployment for workers of color is significantly higher than for white workers. This year, 12.2 percent of Black workers and 7.5 percent of workers of color overall are out of a job, compared to only 1.3 percent of white workers. Inequality is worsening—the difference in employment rates between Black and white workers, is skyrocketing, recently reaching its highest point in decades. The job search has been even more difficult for young people, with about 17 percent of New Yorkers unemployed, with young Black men disproportionately represented in that group.
If we’re going to narrow that gap, we need to increase rates of employment in high-quality jobs for underserved youth. That means workforce training programs need to innovate.
The Heckscher Foundation, the philanthropy I lead, is one organization aiming to do that through a new funding model. Heckscher works with New Yorkers under the age of 25 who spent time in foster care, have been through the court system, or have some or no college education. We fund programs offering full-time job commitments that help them achieve financial independence.
This month, we started the Heckscher Foundation Challenge, which is awarding $7.6 million in grants to New York high schools, colleges, and nonprofits that run workforce training programs for young adults from low-income communities and communities of color. We’ve funded workforce training programs in the past, but we made a commitment to only fund organizations that secure hiring commitments from employers—as a result, more than 1,100 young New Yorkers will have full-time jobs.
Tying funding to job guarantees from employers is one way to make programs more effective. One example is the model honed by the GAP and now Old Navy, called This Way ONward, where New York Youth are trained to manage the challenges of a career through jobs skills training provided by The Door, mentorship and with the employers committing to hire successful graduates of the training program.
Yet another promising new approach is the Career Readiness and Modern Youth Apprenticeship program recently announced by Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks, which will place 3,000 New York public school students in paid apprenticeships. As with all new workforce training programs, its success will depend on whether these apprenticeships result in full time employment.
Nonprofits and employers are hungry for innovations like these. Unclear communication from employers about the skills they’re looking for makes it difficult for providers to develop training curricula, while employers complain that they can’t find workers prepared for the demands of even entry-level jobs.
The job market is giving training programs an opening to break this stalemate. Some industries—like manufacturing, finance, and hospitality—don’t have nearly enough workers to keep their businesses producing, while others—like clean energy—are creating new jobs faster than they can fill them. These industries are all looking for workers ready to hit the ground running, which means that employers are willing to collaborate with training programs in ways they might not otherwise.
Trainers’ and hirers’ mutual desire for change was apparent in our inaugural Heckscher Foundation Challenge application cycle. Overwhelming numbers of nonprofits and employers participated—96 organizations applied for grants for their training programs and 234 companies offered to guarantee jobs to those programs’ graduates. Their enthusiasm about trying something new makes us confident that changing funding and training models can make a difference for the young people we work with.
At the same time, policymakers are beginning to recognize the dangers of failing to adequately train workers for critical jobs and investing millions of dollars in workforce training across the country. Those investments give us a unique chance to create a society where everyone can build a career that satisfies their needs and supports their family, regardless of the educational opportunities they got growing up.
These new commitments from government, philanthropy, nonprofits and businesses show the will exists to put underprivileged youth on the path to great jobs. Let’s give our workforce training programs a makeover so they can make the most of it.