Notes From the Field: In Community at the NAWB and NYEC 2023 Forums

Notes From the Field: In Community at the NAWB and NYEC 2023 Forums

I’m now in the thick of my second conference season since joining SkyHive a year ago, and after the whirlwind that was SXSW-EDU and SXSW in Austin in February and March, I was looking forward to a wave of convenings where I could truly be in community with colleagues and luminaries in the workforce development space. Over the past three weeks, I joined the National Association of Workforce Boards (NAWB) Forum in Washington, D.C., followed by the National Youth Employment Coalition Forum in Indianapolis.  

This was my first year attending both convenings, and these programs didn’t disappoint.  

In Washington, the energy was palpable – not the least of which because the cherry blossoms were in peak bloom, but also because assembling the potpourri of passionate cross-sector leaders and changemakers that is the U.S. workforce system at the local level in a moment when workforce is finally getting some (long-overdue) airtime makes for a heady brew!

Some reflections and highlights from this year’s NAWB Forum 23 included:

  • Skills-based hiring is officially a movement. The "Paper Ceiling" is steadily being dismantled, and it's not just a viral trend or messaging campaign. "Skills > Degrees" and "Potential Over Proxies" (which the workforce system has been championing for decades) are regularly appearing in the talking points of Corporate America, and it's starting to happen in practice as well across both public and private sectors. That said ...
  • Workforce developers were surprisingly unaware of the movement’s momentum. Perhaps it's because they live it day in and day out, or because it's common-sense knowledge that they've been preaching for ages, but the recent attention to the work to Hire STARS (people who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes) didn't have as much recall with the NAWB audience as I would have anticipated. It was surprising given that workforce-development boards are some of the most powerful levers we have to promote skills-based hiring and pushing city, state, and federal government to #TearThePaperCeiling.
  • Skills-based hiring <> Skills-based practice. A lion's share of the emphasis in skills-based practice remains on the "hiring" part, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. While indicative of a rather urgent need by employers and jobseekers, we must quickly push to adopt a mindset shift to skills across the experience of work and learning, and avoid piecemeal adoption of this concept. If we don't, we'll undermine our overall chances at successful skills transformation. Shameless plug: in about two weeks, we'll publish a white paper on becoming a skills-driven organization (interviewing, onboarding, pay, performance, and more), so let us know if you'd like us to send it to you.
  • Our cross-sector ecosystem still doesn't align on skills. So much of the conversation surrounded the mechanics of how to capture, how to measure, how to evaluate, and how to “prove” skills. While skills intelligence was not absent from the conversation, it was clear that in many communities, the constellation of stakeholders (example: >150+ in Indianapolis alone!) still speak many different dialects of skills, and translation remains a challenge. If we can’t align on how to talk about skills, how are we supposed to level up to more sophisticated applications of skills data and technology?  
  • Workforce developers need to become recognized evangelists in their own right. Time and again, we heard of novel and innovative local and regional approaches to solving the challenges of the future of work, yet the unsung heroes of the workforce system don't seem to achieve much altitude beyond their immediate networks or conferences like this one. There was a small cult of online workforce "evangelists" present at NAWB who I think could really help the field do more with less, amplify their results and impact, and get the recognition they so richly deserve, including additional resources to scale their work.

As the conference in D.C. wound down, nearby the Coleridge Initiative for multi-state data consortia was hosting its 3rd Annual National Convening for Cross-Agency Collaboration. While unable to fathom how our community sustains so many events in such a concentrated timeline, knowing that academia, statisticians, and policymakers were continuing to carry the mantle as I left consciousness on the Northeast Regional back to New York gave me peaceful and restorative rest.

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With respect to youth employment, I went into NYEC Forum 23 last week with different expectations. Youth workforce development is a field unto itself, with unique challenges to serve vulnerable populations and opportunity youth that aren’t perfect corollaries to what we see in adult reskilling and employment programs.  

While I was a presenter this year alongside our partners at JobsFirstNYC in Indianapolis, sharing initial findings and lessons learned from our work to map the skills topography of New York neighborhoods, I also launched my career in workforce development building youth apprenticeships and campus-to-career pipelines in San Antonio, so I wanted to check in on current best practices and challenges.  

Throughout the NYEC program, I found myself with three broad takeaways:

  • Invest where it matters most: YOUTH workforce development. If the workforce system is chronically underfunded, then even more so are youth development programs. Considering the potential returns to investing in a future workforce that will face some of the gravest social, technological, and economic challenges our world has known, watching today's talented leadership struggle to thread funding for youth programming strikes me as "penny wise, pound foolish" on the parts of government and philanthropy.
  • We need to prioritize the right support to young people, and do so with accuracy and precision. Several sessions at this year's Forum underscored the potential misalignment of our theories of change with what young people really need to thrive. From the potential mismatch of sectoral training to underserved communities surfaced by comparing residents’ skills with high-level labor data, to a failure to focus on the social capital that helps most workforce participants connect to employment, the challenges that surfaced showed that our system is structured to solve rote problems using legacy data in a world that is increasingly becoming more intersectional, nuanced, and dynamic. We have to get ahead of the curve in order to bend it for our next generation of workers.    
  • When in doubt, go to the source and center youth directly. Young people know more about what the future holds and are more conversant with technology and tools than most of the workforce leaders and coaches attempting to guide them towards opportunities. How can we harness this potential of young people to solution for them in the workforce system? By ASKING THEM what they think, feel, and need to thrive. Young attendees spoke to us about entrepreneurship, launching social ventures, self-employment, financial literacy, and how to connect with them on their terms (yes, TikTok was mentioned!)

Whitney Houston said it best, but the children *are* our literal future, and so is youth employment and youth workforce development. The seeds we plant and cultivate today will be the harvest that nourishes us tomorrow. Feast or famine is still our decision to make.

Conference season rolls on ... but gathering in community this past month to celebrate best practices and support one another resulted in a flow of energy that carried us right back into the office the following week – not depleted, but instead raring to go to tackle the critical work ahead, and do so armed with new insights, tools, and partners.

I hope we cross paths at this year’s workforce and skills convenings – connect with me on LinkedIn if you’ll be on the conference circuit this year!

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