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Workforce agency picked for $6M employment challenge

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Angela Jackson. Courtesy New Profit

West Michigan Works! has been selected along with workforce boards in five other states to receive tailored support and funding to pilot innovations that will help put more than 25,000 COVID-impacted workers back to work.

Launched in June in response to the pandemic-induced labor market crisis, the Future of Work Grand Challenge was created through a collaboration between the social impact organizations New Profit and JFF in Boston; MIT Solve and Jobcase in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and XPRIZE in Culver City, California, to identify and fund the most promising ideas and solutions to support a more equitable economic recovery and better meet the needs of low-income, middle-skill and underserved workers at the local level.

The $6 million Grand Challenge will empower social entrepreneurs to pilot their solutions through workforce boards with at least $100,000 in funding; rapidly reskill 25,000 displaced workers into living-wage jobs in the next 24 months (5,000 in Michigan); equip workforce boards with vetted tools to support the wave of displaced workers in six months; and achieve broader systemic change to help prepare 12 million Americans from underinvested communities for workforce success by 2025.

“Across the country, future-focused workforce boards are evolving their operations, strategies and services to the changing world of work and the ever-shifting labor market brought on by COVID-19,” said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of JFF. “The Future of Work Grand Challenge is bringing together the best of emerging technology with the critical infrastructure of local workforce organizations to build a better career navigation and employment experience for workers in need of support.”

The Grand Challenge team last month selected workforce boards, or regional economic and workforce development agencies, in six states as pilot partners to connect project teams with employers to inform the development of solutions that reflect real-time local or regional labor market demand. The boards will be responsible for recruiting participants for each pilot project.

West Michigan Works! in partnership with Michigan Works! Southwest and Michigan Works! Berrien-Cass-Van Buren, was chosen as the Michigan workforce board pilot partner, along with agencies in Connecticut, Virginia, Massachusetts, California and Texas.

According to Angela Jackson, who holds a doctorate in education leadership and is a partner at New Profit, the Future of Work Grand Challenge is an “unprecedented” collaboration between entrepreneurs, philanthropy, employers and workforce developers designed to put equity at the core.

“This is about breaking down historic silos within our public workforce system to help better serve the needs of employers and unemployed workers alike,” she said.

Jackson said the Grand Challenge encompasses two separate competitions under one banner: Rapid Reskilling, administered by XPRIZE, and Reimagining Pathways to Employment, led by MIT Solve.

The former will help workers overcome systemic barriers to learning, progress and mobility “to reduce the time it takes to train for and land higher wage jobs by 50%,” she said.

“We did this, especially in COVID, because what we’ve heard from job seekers is they didn’t have time to go back to get a four-year degree; the rent was due next month, and they needed ways to have accelerated learning programs that would increase their salary to at least living wages.”

The second challenge, Reimagining Pathways to Employment, is a six-month competition “to find and support the most promising solutions that will help workers assess their skills, find high-growth jobs (and) get placement support and … essential support to help them sustain employment,” Jackson said.

Patrick Diamond is program lead for the Reimagining Pathways challenge at MIT Solve, and he said its goal is to “find social entrepreneurs from around the United States who are already doing great work with either an innovative technology or business process to help displaced workers access a better life.” Selected entrepreneurs will go through a matchmaking process and will bring their service or product to the workforce agency they are matched with to help benefit that agency’s community.

Applications for the Grand Challenge closed last month, and the review process is underway.

Jackson said the group received about 1,200 applications from interested entrepreneurs for both challenges, and it will work to narrow that pool, selecting 20 entrepreneurs who will each get $100,000 to do deep dives with the workforce agencies to understand their problem and to prototype products and services free of charge for those markets. From there, five entrepreneurs will be chosen for the finalist phase, and in the final round, one to three winning organizations will split $1.5 million. She said the overall challenge is expected to take 30 months.

Diamond said the partners hope to use the results of the challenges to create a playbook of best practices that can be replicated and solutions that can be scaled across the U.S.

Brittany Lenertz is talent solutions director at West Michigan Works!, and she said the agency is excited to receive assistance that will be free, both to the agency and to the trainees/job seekers.

West Michigan Works! funds job training and skills development for the region’s high-demand industries of IT, construction, skilled manufacturing, health care and agribusiness, and the challenge will focus on solutions in those industries, Lenertz said.

“This really is in alignment with what we do all day, every day,” she said. “For some people, it’s just a matter of soft skill development or help retooling themselves a little bit, looking at what transferrable skills they have and helping connect them to those in-demand jobs. For other job seekers, we know that they need training. They don’t have the skills that employers need to fill those high-demand positions.”

She said apart from the free funding, the main difference between what the Grand Challenge will offer and what the workforce boards already have is the virtual training focus.

“It will be a high-tech solution, and there’s this very heavy concentration on a quick deployment, so really quickly getting job seekers through it and connected to those skilled jobs,” she said.

“If we can quickly identify people to do short-term trainings and access those virtually on this bigger scale, especially during this time, I think we are putting our workforce ahead of some other (geographic) areas.”

On the other hand, she added, “We would love to be the ones who pilot the solution that gets selected to be scaled nationally and really assist the nation’s workforce, not just West Michigan’s.”

The Future of Work Grand Challenge is supported by major funding from Walmart.org and Strada Education Network, with additional funders including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Comcast, Morgridge Family Foundation, CSU Global and others.

More information about the Future of Work Grand Challenge is at newprofit.org/go/fow-grand-challenge.

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