Job creation: It’s a phrase on the lips of every politician and public official in America. But what can localities actually do to encourage it? That was the question considered at a panel discussion Monday during the National League of Cities (NLC) 2012 Congressional City Conference.
Workforce development experts offered dual strategies for municipalities to put their unemployed back to work: utilize all available funding opportunities and partner with local businesses to fill their needs.
The former requires awareness about what resources are available to local workforce development boards (which go by numerous names depending on the state), said Mary Gardner Clagett, director of the workforce and education policy group at Jobs for the Future, a non-profit group with a stated goal of doubling the number of low-income adults and youth with postsecondary credentials by 2020.
For example, Congress approved a $125 million Workforce Innovation Fund last year, designed to support local workforce program delivery. She encouraged local officials to work with their workforce development boards and put proposals together.
“There aren’t a lot of new resources available,” Clagett said. “This is something that’s actually out there.” She expressed frustration that Congress had not acted to reauthorize the Workforce Reinvestment Act, which covers a variety of career and technical training programs that are administered at the state and local level. The law has been overdue for reauthorization since 2003, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Clagett said she is also skeptical that the divided legislative branch would take up President Barack Obama’s proposal for an $8 billion program to support job training in community colleges. A political climate centered on deficit reduction isn’t conducive to such investments. “We’re anticipating a tough road ahead,” she said.
But local governments have opportunities outside of federal grants, said Steve Corona, president of Hoosier Workforce Solutions in Fort Wayne, Ind. A focus on communication with area businesses and gathering information about their needs is crucial, he explained, and those efforts can be as simple as informal conversations with business leaders.
“One of the things that money can’t fix is having a better understanding in your community of what employers are looking for,” Corona said.
That information can then be used to improve and target the efforts of local workforce development offices beyond the typical resume-and-interview skills workshops. Take the information and “turn it into something valuable,” Corona said.
He offered the hypothetical example of a local official talking with a major area hospital and learning that the hospital is planning to hire an assortment of workers in the near future. With that information in hand, Corona said, local employment offices or career centers could tell unemployed people looking for work what jobs would be available and what skills are necessary. The end result is more people working and a business filling its openings.
Major “anchor institutions,” such as hospitals and universities, are generally “an untapped resource,” said Steve Dubb, director of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland. Dubb defined an anchor institution as a large, often non-profit, employer that serves as a “local economic engine… with a vested interest in the surrounding community.” Beyond directly employing local residents, they have an investment in ensuring their neighboring city or town thrives, he said.
Harnessing those institutions’ resources and enlisting them in the effort to put people back to work should be a priority for local officials, Dubb said. He gave the Henry Ford Memorial Hospital in Detroit as an example of the potential of these partnerships. Local hiring has been incentivized by the hospital: 7 percent of executive bonuses are linked to the number of hires that come from the area. The hospital has also set a policy of paying local vendors in advance, which allows those companies to make more capital investments sooner. The entire initiative has been branded as “Live Local, Buy Local, Hire Local.”
These institutions’ resources expand to endowments, local purchasing, real estate investments and non-profit support work, Dubb said. Because of this integration they have with the community, local officials should be able to make the case that such initiatives will be mutually beneficial, he asserted.
“Don’t take no for an answer,” Dubb said. “Be creative.”
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