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Redefining Pathways: Paid Internships and Public-Sector Labor Shortages

On-the-job training can serve as one way for states and localities to meet ongoing public- and private-sector labor shortages.

a Pipeline Program Intern stands in front of the Springfield, Mass., Water and Sewer Commission
Pipeline Program Intern Anthony Nguyen, 18, says the internship at the Springfield, Mass., Water and Sewer Commission changed his perspective on water management. (Jonah Snowden / The Republican)
In Brief:
  • Internships are often associated with college students and high schoolers but can have wider applications in public-sector employment.
  • San Antonio’s workforce development organization provides an example of public agencies collaborating with nonprofits to deal with the ongoing labor shortage.
  • Potential employers should focus on widening their pool of potential employees – including underserved or underrepresented communities – rather than utilizing a smaller pool of applicants to speed up their time to success.

  • While internships are seen as the stuff of college students or high school seniors trying to get course credits, internships can provide necessary on-the-job training for underrepresented populations looking for work in the private and public sectors. In the public sector, on-the-job training programs such as the America Works partnership have served as a pipeline for potential employees in underserved or underrepresented communities to receive training that will help them meet the requirements for jobs they’re interested in but fall just short of qualifying for when applying. On-the-job training in the public sector aligns well with a renewed focus on skills-based hiring in the public sector, a shift that seeks to widen the hiring pool to fill the gap and bring in new workers to the public-sector workforce.

    Government Work After the Pandemic

    As a result of a post-pandemic shortage of workers, workforce development departments nationwide are working on best practices for shrinking established labor shortages, testing different ways to bring in more people to the workforce. Some states, such as Maryland, have chosen to prioritize apprenticeships in the public sector while major cities like Los Angeles have focused on job creation pipelines to help that often center on houseless populations. Another such program is San Antonio, Texas’ “Pay It Forward” program that is built off of their “Ready To Work” education initiative. The “Ready To Work” program helps residents find education and jobs, working to manage the inaccessibility of systemic barriers to stable work in the public and private sector such as degree requirements. “Here in San Antonio, only 26 percent of the population has a four-year degree or higher, so immediately that's 74 percent of the population that is excluded from many job requirements. A population of mostly Black and brown people that are not even eligible. They won't be considered, applications won't go through,” says Michael Ramsey, the executive director of Workforce Development for the city of San Antonio. “If you focus on skills versus degrees, you [give] people a fighting chance, and the majority of people going through the Ready To Work program are pursuing credential pathways. They have a plethora of life experiences that are transferable skills that we just have to translate into what employers are looking for.”

    Pay It Forward,” Ready to Work’s follow-up program, is a collaboration with the nonprofit Social Finance that places participants who completed that initial workplace education initiative into a six-week-long internship in a field related to their avenue of study or training. What stands out is the way that this program seeks to keep the job pipeline going, with a goal of moving people who’ve completed the first program into the second and, as a result, directly into the workforce through paid internships. While many of the employers tapped for the first round of the pilot program are in the private sector, there are currently plans to build out the program to health care and finance in addition to the city of San Antonio’s IT department, one of the employers in the pilot program as well as its host. Why is Social Finance doing all this? To make potential employees aware of what public-sector jobs can look like.

    Introducing Prospects to Public Service

    “As someone who is now increasingly working in the nonprofit and public sector, I think there are misconceptions about what these jobs look like, and in particular, what the career paths are,” says Matt Latimer, the director of Social Finance. “There are really great career paths within the public sector, but there’s less public knowledge about how to get and stay in those careers. And so, this internship is a way to get candidates in the door, not only to assess their capabilities, but also educate them on what the potential is within some of these kind of public-sector careers.”

    As more and more public-sector employers look to replace an aging workforce and court underrepresented communities such as ethnic minorities and veterans, paid internships such as the model proposed by the pilot program of “Pay It Forward” can serve as models for other workforce development departments to develop their own programs that prioritize making job hunting and job training more accessible. However, there are some things that these departments should keep in mind when developing and implementing these internships, especially at the beginning.

    “The most important thing that officials developing these internships should do is to really make sure that they're reaching out to a wide variety of potential audiences for this type of work program and not to limit themselves so that they can get enough people into the program to make it successful,” says Cara Woodson Welch, CEO of the Public Sector HR Association, “because you do need a large enough pool to really judge whether or not it's actually a successful program.” She notes that on-the-job programs are useful for bringing in people who are interested in certain kinds of jobs, but who lack skills or licenses to even apply for those jobs, describing on-the-job training programs as “just that little bit of help to really get the leg up and get in the door.”
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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