‘Good Jobs Challenge’ puts up $500M to focus local leaders, colleges, employers on training and wraparound supports

The new federal program emphasizes cross-sector collaborations and wraparound supports—aiming to ensure training programs are both accessible and aligned with good jobs in local markets.

The U.S. Economic Development Agency recently announced a new $500 million grant program that is specifically designed to get colleges, employers, and state and regional agencies to work together to solve local challenges around job training. The idea is not only to create new programs, but also new—and more effective—partnerships across sectors, as states and municipalities continue to deploy various pots of federal recovery money. 

“Working collaboratively is the only way we can ensure that workers are trained in skill sets that businesses actually need and that position America’s economy to lead on the global stage,” Don Graves, the U.S. deputy secretary of commerce, recently told a group of business leaders.

Previous federal programs have attempted to create a collaborative approach to workforce training and education, including a $2.5B grant program during the Obama administration focused on community colleges. But that program generally failed to meet its goal of creating lasting partnerships across sectors.

However, experts say this new initiative has a chance of going farther, in part because it brings together stakeholders up front, and has a focus on wraparound supports for students.  

What: The “Good Jobs Challenge,” will provide 25 to 50 grants to winning collaboratives that propose new training programs for good jobs or novel ways to expand existing ones. In addition to emphasizing cross-sector partnerships, the challenge is focused on:

  • Traditionally underserved populations, including women and people of color.
  • Geographic areas that have been systematically, or systemically, denied full participation in the country’s economic prosperity.
  • Wraparound supports, such as counseling and coaching, that help workers access and complete training.

Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said the focus on equity is both notable and needed.

“In addition to longstanding inequities in unemployment rates and income based on race, the pandemic took a disproportionate toll on Black and Hispanic workers,” he said. “It is essential to make intentional efforts to engage with these communities, identify stakeholders in their regions, and help them fill quality jobs.”

Training-plus: A focus on wraparound supports

The details: Collaborative groups of workforce agencies, education providers, and employers can apply for up to $10M for each project, or up to $20M if the project serves more than one industry sector.

Applicants must focus on expanding access to good jobs, which the agency defines as those that:

  • Have pay that exceeds the local prevailing wage for a given industry.
  • Include at least basic benefits, such as paid leave, health insurance, and retirement plans, or are unionized.
  • Help the employee develop the skills and experiences necessary to advance along a career path.

Selected projects will run for two to three years. (You can read the one-page overview here, and FAQ here.)

What they want: In a recent podcast Q&A session with Business Forward, a group focused on connecting local business leaders to policymakers in Washington, D.C., Graves stressed the importance of designing ‘good jobs’ programs with wraparound supports that are in place from the beginning.

“We have to focus on helping people complete workforce training through access to transportation, childcare, and anything else that they need,” Graves said. “So that we have, on one side, the training programs—but we’re also providing the support that folks need to get access to those programs and then complete those programs.”

As an example, he cited Project QUEST in San Antonio, which brings together regional workforce development agencies, businesses, and the Alamo Colleges District, to identify business needs and train residents for jobs in IT, healthcare, and other high-demand fields. The project has been successful, Graves said, because it not only provides much-needed technical training, but also focuses on developing “human” skills, provides coaching, and assigns case managers who track participants’ progress and connect them with additional support as needed.

“We believe—based on studies, on the science—that this combination of job training and career coaching works to help ensure that people have the skills they need,” he said.

‘Tremendous potential’

Why it matters: Both Harnisch, at SHEEO, and Tom Keily, senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, said the potential for the challenge funding is greater than the jobs programs it ultimately funds. State and regions could use it to create the much-needed connective tissue that would bring disparate actors together to focus on economic opportunity.

“There is tremendous potential for the ‘Good Jobs Challenge’ to foster more cross-sector collaborations around skills, training, and pathways to good jobs,” Harnisch said. 

And both he and Keily said it’s noteworthy that the program application focuses on having every stakeholder, from employers to service providers, at the table from the get-go. “The program has a lot in place to incentivize collaboration, which is a really positive thing,” Keily said.

In particular, Keily noted that the focus on including wraparound services from the start could help improve access, equity, and the overall design of training programs. “The emphasis on wraparound services presents an opportunity to bring those providers in early, rather than tacking them on, as often happens,” he said. “This appears, in spirit, to bring them in early to the collaborative process.”

What’s next: Applications for the challenge awards are open through late January 2022, and both Harnisch and Keily said it’s unclear how many collaboratives from across the country will ultimately apply.

In West Virginia, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin is touting the new challenge award programs. A large group of agencies, employer groups, and colleges in southern Nevada—including the College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College, and University of Nevada Las Vegas—has already announced its intent to apply for funds through the Good Jobs Challenge and a related initiative, the Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

And we might expect to see a coalition from Montgomery, Ala., put a proposal together. The city’s mayor, Steven Reed, hosted the recent Business Forward Q&A with Graves. He zeroed in on how the new challenge programs might help minority-owned businesses and people of color in places like Alabama get access to the capital and training they need to succeed. 

Not having that access, Reed said, holds places like Montgomery back. “It’s costing our economy workers; it’s costing our economy a lot of money.”

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