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How local leaders can prepare a workforce of the future: Three takeaways from the Transforming Cities Lab

By Lavea Brachman, Malia Xie

Despite the massive volume of funding currently flowing from multiple federal bills passed to invest in place and the national economy, officials in Washington, D.C. acknowledge a relatively small portion is directly earmarked for workforce training systems. This is despite the fact that high-functioning workforce training systems are core to enhanced economic mobility and community wealth-building.

In this period of tight labor markets and changing in-demand skills, there is a strong imperative to generate as large and nimble a workforce as possible. Doing so not only would address unfilled pre-pandemic jobs, but also fill the many jobs being created with new infrastructure investments and place-based expansions in advanced manufacturing and tech-based growth sectors (e.g., semiconductor and electric vehicle industries), among others. An unusual window of opportunity now exists for local, regional, and state workforce development leaders to upgrade and transform their training programs and talent pipelines—or risk falling behind. Systems that remain stuck in the status quo will fall short of meeting new employment needs and lose out in this competitive environment.

With this in mind, Brookings Metro recently assembled four top federal officials for a cross-agency discussion focused on the recent federal bills (the American Rescue Plan Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, CHIPS and Science Act, and Inflation Reduction Act) and their impacts on workforce development systems across the country. Convened as part of Metro’s Transforming Cities Lab, federal officials from the U.S. Departments of Labor, Commerce, Energy, and Transportation discussed their inter-agency efforts to streamline workforce funding and enable regional workforce leaders to better prepare workers for new jobs created by historic levels of federal investment.

Three takeaways on the transformation of workforce systems and talent pipelines

Despite better alignment at the federal level on outcomes and priorities, a lack of coordination on funding delivery poses a host of practical challenges on local and state workforce entities, on top of the many normal bureaucratic burdens often synonymous with federal funds. Moreover, the new federal resources explicitly dedicated to workforce entities and workforce development are woefully insufficient. For instance, in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), only a few relatively small grants are dedicated to workforce funding. This means that, generally, investing in workforce is permissible but not explicit—so it will be up to eligible local transportation agencies and infrastructure entities (e.g., utilities) to allocate resources in the workforce area.

During the Transforming Cities Lab panel, Kevin Gallagher, senior advisor to the secretary of the Department of Commerce, acknowledged the difficulty of navigating multiple federal funding

streams, but also their powerful potential for spurring innovation and change: “Each of these programs has its own statutory authorization, own requirements, own timelines. Much of this funding has come in waves…and I don’t think that in and of itself is new. What I would say is new…is the level of consistency and prioritization” around quality job creation, enhanced workforce partnerships and plans, and diversity and equity.

As workforce system leaders seize this chance to reimagine and strengthen their systems, three takeaways from the Transforming Cities Lab panel can guide them: 1) collaborate through silo-busting; 2) plan for the long term; and 3) innovate and build on existing assets and relationships. Cutting across these takeaways is centering diversity and equity, as well as increasing access to training programs that set workers up for both employment now and further career opportunities in the long term.

Collaborate through silo-busting

To take full advantage of the new funding as well as the opportunities for innovation, workforce agencies will need to collaborate both vertically and horizontally in new ways. This requires the breaking down of traditional government and policy silos that interfere with pursuing larger, common goals.

Competitive grant funds are the main avenue for federal officials to fund workforce efforts, and the Department of Transportation will disperse about $125 billion in competitive grants (of their total $650 billion in the IIJA). The department aims to use these grants to enhance regional collaboration and undertake the “silo-busting” needed to achieve the increased collaboration and planning that these new circumstances and funding call for.

Much of this funding will pass through states. However, labor markets are regional in nature, which means that states are not the ideal geography in which to undertake workforce planning. Stronger vertical relationships—between state and local governments and nonprofits—will therefore be crucial, as local governments and nonprofits are ultimately better positioned to generate effective programs that can lead to long-term impacts.

Furthermore, typical regional workforce planning efforts do not have the resources for full wraparound services, which are critical for low-income residents to access quality jobs. States can use their own resources to support wraparound programs that may not be eligible for federal funding, but can also enhance the outcomes of these efforts by making them more appealing for competitive federal dollars overall. These wraparound programs (e.g., child care, career counseling) remove barriers for certain populations, setting them up to participate in skill-building and the talent pipeline.

Silo-busting also needs to occur horizontally, among unions, nonprofits, transportation agencies, other infrastructure employers, and the public sector. For instance, the IIJA is funding billions of dollars of infrastructure projects, primarily overseen by local and state transportation

agencies that have rarely, if ever, needed to coordinate directly with state and local workforce agencies or departments. And states can deploy some tools to encourage more horizontal integration, such as including local workforce considerations in infrastructure initiatives or funding workforce planning initiatives.

Such multi-stakeholder processes are challenging, but not impossible. In Ramsey County, Minn., for instance, the local workforce board is leveraging its Construction-Green Jobs Committee, chaired by the Saint Paul Building and Construction Trades Council and comprised of both union and non-union representatives. The committee is assessing the ecosystem from a broader perspective to reimagine a better and more sustainable economy and agree on fundamental principles to support strong and equitable programs, such as the Inclusive Construction Training Program, which utilizes new federal funding opportunities.

During the panel, Betony Jones, director of the Office of Energy Jobs at the Department of Energy, endorsed this type of coordination among stakeholders spanning workforce and infrastructure: “Twenty percent of the [competitive grant] points are set aside for plans that address quality job creation, workforce partnership, diversity, equity, inclusion, and access…Applicants are much less likely to receive DOE funding if they aren’t addressing those things.”

Plan for the long term

The COVID-19 pandemic forced local leaders to craft emergency responses on very short timelines to utilize resources from the CARES Act and their first tranche of American Rescue Plan Act funding. Now, with large infrastructure grants, the multiyear timelines between when funding is awarded and project groundbreaking allow for longer planning times.

During the Transforming Cities Lab panel, federal officials advised local leaders to take the time to understand funding opportunities and how they can be paired with local labor force demands. They encouraged analysts to use data to plan backward—accounting for the attrition in workers predating the pandemic—while also looking forward to prepare their workforce for future opportunities created by new infrastructure projects. Lenita Jacobs-Simmons, deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, observed that the department is working with the Commerce and Transportation departments and “want to see state and local workforce plans incorporate these funding opportunities, infrastructure initiatives, commerce initiatives, and sector strategies.”

Longer time horizons create more possibilities for upskilling and reskilling existing workers for new jobs and repositioning workforce training talent pipelines to serve workers and employers in an evolving job market. For example, programs could provide broad occupational training, so that electricians, pipefitters, or plumbers can convert their skills to solar installers in the energy sector and gain experience to boost their broader career pathway opportunities, including taking on management roles.

Innovate and build on existing assets and relationships

While there is time to plan, regional leaders do not have the time or resources to create everything from scratch. Leveraging existing programs and leaders in this space will be critical. Workforce boards are designed to house and lead multisector collaboratives that address workforce needs holistically, such as what the Workforce Innovation Board of Ramsey County, Minn. (in partnership with the city of Saint Paul) or EmployIndy (serving Marion County, Ind.) have been doing. Transportation authorities as well as utilities and other infrastructure employers also hold significant power through their funding flows and roles as employers, and thus can exert meaningful influence on the workforce system. For instance, if more transportation entities were to adopt policies that required a minimum percentage of their workforce to come through registered apprenticeship programs or implemented local hiring preferences, it could reap positive rewards for the system overall.

While funded projects will have lasting impacts on communities, equally important are the partnerships that will outlast the funding and changes in administrations. The Transforming Cities Lab panelists talked of how they are working to institutionalize the more collaborative way they are working across agencies. Similar to this federal-level collaboration, states and local governments can also build relationships that outlast any one project and become the basis for redesigning their approach to future complex, large-scale projects that require buy-in from a range of stakeholders.

Scaling a workforce system takes immense capacity that many smaller localities simply do not have. To reach all communities in equitable ways, states, counties, and metropolitan planning organizations need to step in to provide added capacity in the places that currently have the fewest resources to apply for funding and meet compliance expectations. Each state has infrastructure coordinators. What would it look like for counties or regions to create similar local coordinator roles?

Workforce is a shared responsibility and can be a powerful connector. A spectrum of workforce system players should be brought to the table—not just because of the resources they bring, but more importantly, because of the connections they facilitate. Coming together now ensures that the nation is prepared for this rare opportunity to improve its infrastructure, advance clean energy, and enhance the lives of the millions of workers who will do this work.

This blog previews themes reflected in a forthcoming report from Metro colleagues identifying workforce funding streams embedded in the federal legislation.

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