Changing Workforce Development Systems to Improve Outcomes for Young People of Color

The Annie E. Casey Foundation launched the Generation Work initiative in 2016 to connect more of America’s young adults—especially those of color from low-income families—with meaningful employment by changing the way public and private systems prepare them for and support them in jobs. Generation Work asked grantees to form partnerships of organizations in workforce development systems (such as training programs, government agencies, funders, employers, and trade unions) to better serve young people ages 18 to 29 years. These partnerships were expected to align the system’s education, training, and support services, and weave into it best practices related to employer and youth engagement. Though the local Generation Work partnerships worked to identify and bolster opportunities for all young people, they explicitly focused on serving the specific needs of young people of color who have been disconnected from the labor market.

The first phase of the initiative was implemented in five cities: Cleveland, Hartford, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Seattle. In each city, diverse groups of actors in the workforce development system formed partnerships aimed at helping young people develop the skills required to succeed in the labor force, linking them with employers, and increasing opportunities for them to advance and earn more in their careers. The initiative explicitly encouraged partnership organizations to work collaboratively to incorporate demand-driven youth employment and positive youth development practices into their workforce development system. This Issue Focus explores some of the ways Generation Work partnerships sought to change their local workforce development systems.

MDRC—a nonprofit, nonpartisan, education and social policy research organization—was selected by the Casey Foundation to study the Generation Work initiative and investigate how it unfolded, uncover challenges, and identify best practices. For the past five years, an MDRC research team has met with members of each of the five Generation Work partnerships to learn about their perspectives on the implementation of this initiative. Additionally, the research team has spoken with program participants and frontline staff members and examined data that partnership organizations collected to measure the progress of their work. MDRC is preparing a report that documents many of the strategies that the Generation Work partnerships undertook to advance racial equity in their workforce development systems, particularly for the young adults they serve. The research team also explored factors influencing the progress of this initiative, in order to build knowledge within the Casey Foundation and for the field more broadly as others may consider similar initiatives to advance racial equity by changing the workforce development system. This Issue Focus previews some of the study’s findings.

What is a workforce development system?

A workforce development system can be thought of as a network of multilayered, diverse actors (organizations and the people who work in them) that in some way help ensure that employers hire and retain skilled workers and that workers have good jobs and opportunities for advancement.[1] Organizations that assist job seekers with preparing résumés, community colleges that train workers to advance in their careers, job placement agencies, trade unions, and industry associations are all examples of actors in a workforce development system. But a system is made not only of the actors that participate in it; a workforce development system also encompasses the practices of the various actors and the relationships among them, as well as the laws and policies that regulate those actors’ behaviors. As such, a workforce development system is complex and multidimensional.

How do you change a system?

In systems, the “ways of doing things” are often deeply entrenched and, in some cases, institutionalized as part of policies and laws. Therefore, systems change—that is, the process of changing how individual and organizational actors within a system interact with one another to improve the outcomes for people who are most affected by the system—is usually difficult to coordinate, may take different forms, and may take a long time to achieve. How then can actors in a system bring about change?

Those who study organizational and systems change have found that several factors drive successful large-scale change processes. They include the following:

  1. A clear vision of what actors want to see changed that serves to guide the initiative and that is flexible and adaptable to the everyday realities of implementation and to new leaders joining
  2. Strong senior leadership that moves the initiative forward by:
    1. inspiring others to become champions of the initiative
    2. actively engaging and communicating with others to encourage them to try new ways of doing things
    3. helping orchestrate early visible actions and generate “small wins” to engage others
    4. offering staff members professional development opportunities to enable them to competently work in new ways
    5. advocating to other system leaders, legislators, and funders to increase financial and nonfinancial resources for new activities
    6. allocating resources to support new ways of doing business

The literature finds that, over time, these behaviors and practices contribute to systems change directly, as well as by inducing staff to see the purpose of their jobs differently and to act differently.[2] With that in mind, the subsequent sections describe the role that some of these factors played in the Generation Work partnerships’ efforts to change their workforce development systems during the initiative’s first five years.

Strong senior leadership and a clearly articulated vision shared by leaders and staff across the partner organizations facilitated success.

The Generation Work initiative provided each partnership with funding to bring the member organizations together to develop a shared vision and a plan to achieve it. Early interviews with staff members from partner organizations showed that having dedicated time outside of their regular workload to meet and create a shared vision—and funding to support these meetings—was invaluable. A clear vision can help guide the partnership in implementing the initiative, and having one is the first step to achieving goals.

Strong leadership was also central to effecting change. For example, in Philadelphia, leaders of the Generation Work partnership were able to claim a seat at the table when the newly elected mayor decided to design a new workforce development plan for the city. The plan that the partner organizations had developed during Year 1 of the Generation Work initiative helped shape the city’s workforce development plan. These leaders advocated for elements in the city’s plan that were pillars of Generation Work: (a) focusing on opportunity youth, especially their specific needs and circumstances, when designing strategies for young people ages 18 to 29 years, (b) advancing racial equity as an explicit goal, and (c) creating a data infrastructure for identifying local problems, evaluating results, and changing practices. Similarly, in Hartford, leaders of the Generation Work partnership helped the new mayor craft his workforce development priorities. 

Leaders of the Generation Work partnerships encouraged experimentation, which allowed the partnerships to develop and pilot new approaches to working with young adults.

In various ways, leaders of the Generation Work partnerships actively encouraged experimentation with new approaches to serving young adults. In Philadelphia, for instance, the partnership piloted a training workshop for employers that opened up a dialogue with them about their hiring and workplace practices. The training introduced employers to issues of racial equity and ways of working with young adults of color who have experienced trauma in order to provide a supportive work environment.

In Cleveland, the partnership experimented with braiding services for young adults, paid for through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, in a one-stop center focused exclusively on connecting young people to social services and employment. The passage of state legislation—the Comprehensive Case Management Employment Program—allowed for this braiding of funding and services. However, it took leaders concerted effort to make it a reality.

In Seattle, leaders of the Generation Work partnership used their grant funds to bring staff from the partner organization Northwest Education Access to Port Jobs, the workforce development center at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport where most of the partnership’s activities were based. These staff members, known as navigators, typically work with young adults from low-income backgrounds to create a career and academic achievement plan tailored to their talents and goals. At Port Jobs, they also provided support, guidance, and additional resources to young adults enrolled in training and apprenticeship programs at the airport.

Professional development activities funded by Generation Work taught staff in partner organizations new skills to help them work with young people of color in new ways.

Staff training and professional development were staples of all the Generation Work partnerships. Early in the initiative, several partnerships created learning communities, forums designed to regularly bring together practitioners to learn from each other and share best practices. In some cases, these learning communities also served as spaces for practitioners to get to know one another, brainstorm new ways of working with youth, and build connections among organizations.

All the partnerships allocated resources to and invested in trainings on racial equity. The Annie E. Casey Foundation played an important role in supporting such initiatives. The trainings on racial equity catalyzed an internal reckoning within several organizations and prompted new conversations among their leaders and staff about racial equity. Moving from an awareness of the need for racial equity to developing concrete actions to advance it often required professional development paired with a strong commitment to change from leadership. Sometimes, additional technical assistance was needed.

In summary, the Generation Work partnerships incorporated many of the behaviors and practices associated with successful systems change. Specifically, they developed and adhered to a clear, shared vision for their work; they had strong senior and mid-level leaders committed to change; they created incentives for partner organizations and their staff to adopt new practices; and they allocated resources to professional development so that staff could acquire the new required skills. MDRC’s forthcoming research report, to be published in late May 2023, describes in more depth the strategies that the five Generation Work partnerships pursued to change their workforce development systems, the challenges they faced, and their early successes. The report will provide important lessons for the field about implementing an initiative aimed at changing a system to better serve young people and advance racial equity.  

[1] Hamutal Bernstein and Ananda Martin-Caughey, Changing Workforce Systems: A Framework for Describing and Measuring Systems Change (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2017), 11.

[2] Dennis A. Gioia and Kumar Chittipeddi, “Sensemaking and Sensegiving in Strategic Change Initiation,” Strategic Management Journal 12, 6 (1991): 433­–448; Adrianna Kezar, “Understanding Sensemaking/Sensegiving in Transformational Change Processes from the Bottom Up,” Higher Education 65, 6 (2013): 761–780.

Quiroz Becerra, M. Victoria and Betsy L. Tessler. 2023. “Changing Workforce Development Systems to Improve Outcomes for Young People of Color.” New York: MDRC.