A record 30+ million people have filed for unemployment in recent months, leading to a massive increase in demand for employment-related assistance in the midst of a pandemic, an economic crisis, and the ongoing social and racial justice movements, all while facing a sector-wide drop in fundraising events and overall decrease in individual giving. In our webinar Rebuilding our Communities: Workforce Development, we dug deep into the challenges that organizations in this field are facing and how pro bono can best assist them.
This conversation was the first webinar of our U.S. Pro Bono Summit Virtual Series this June. The annual U.S. Pro Bono Summit brings together leaders from across sectors to explore how pro bono service can drive social change. This year, to ensure the health, safety, and comfort of Taproot’s guests and esteemed speakers, we designed the 2020 Pro Bono Summit to be a fully virtual event and held the first-ever U.S. Pro Bono Summit Virtual Series.
Workforce development experts Damien Howard, Executive Vice President, Social Ventures at Per Scholas; Jennifer Mitchell, Executive Director at The HOPE Program; and Laura Roberts, Deputy Director, Corporate Leadership, JFFLabs at Jobs for the Future joined us to explore the needs, challenges, and opportunities their nonprofits—and the field as a whole—are facing in the current climate.
How have your organizations shifted to meet the changing needs of your beneficiaries?
“Challenges bring opportunities” Damien told us when discussing the work his team has done to keep students connected to their programs. Per Scholas has shifted to entirely remote training in response to the pandemic, which has been a major challenge as many of their students did not initially have the technology required.
Per Scholas’ in-person tuition-free technology training to unemployed or underemployed adults guarantees a workstation for each student, so to keep programs running during the pandemic they needed to arrange hardware and high-speed internet access for participants. Damien shared that altogether they loaned out nearly 500 devices and transferred 530 students to a fully-remote environment. Strong vendor relationships pre-dating the pandemic made the purchase of that additional equipment possible.
Laura at JFF Labs noted that one-stop local employment centers are where the majority of job seekers are going, and that these centers have been among the last service providers to go virtual. The need for a computer and stable internet access is a major barrier for unemployed people, and nonprofits need technical assistance to figure out ways to overcome that hurdle. These centers also become resources for wraparound services (childcare, SNAP food assistance, etc.) which are essential for getting communities back to work.
At The HOPE Program, Jennifer saw the digital divide widening for the people they serve, so at the beginning of the pandemic they dedicated time to figuring out the digital needs of their program clients and staff. They shifted classes that were in progress to be remote but took time ahead of their next cycle of professional coursework to get additional resources and materials into everyone’s hands. Their team has also been conducting wellness checks, connecting people to mental health services, and getting people signed up for direct deposit payments. The HOPE Program has even provided cash assistance—in partnership with Robin Hood—to get people money, food, diapers, and PPE to meet immediate and emerging needs.
Jennifer pointed out that while their programs provide training and connect clients to jobs, people have urgent needs and may be understandably scared right now. Many of their clients could be facing a gap between the completion of their training and the start of a new job.
How can we center equity and inclusion as we think about rebuilding in the workforce development field?
The compounding crises of 2020 have disproportionately harmed communities of color, especially Black communities. “Going back to the old normal is not palatable or acceptable in any way,” Jennifer stated. “We have an opportunity now to rebuild and address recovery in creative and out-of-the-box ways.”
Jennifer explained that small businesses make up the bulk of the employment opportunities for those graduating from The HOPE Program, so it’s imperative to plan how to nonprofits like theirs can collaborate with small businesses effectively. Employers could be incentivized to re-hire with an equity lens and address the needs of communities of color with good-paying jobs, safe working environments, and stable schedules.
Damien pointed out that right now people are paying more attention to racial inequity and inequality—but that this interest is cyclical and won’t always be center stage in the public eye. In order to make real, sustained progress in these areas, we will need additional intentionality around diversity and inclusion, particularly in the field of workforce development.
Communities of color have been hit hardest by COVID-19; the pandemic exposed and intensified economic inequalities that have historically limited people of color’s access to sustainable careers. Workforce development organizations need to make the message to employers, especially larger corporations, clear:
You’re not losing anything by investing in diversity; you’re getting the best talent from a variety of sources.
Laura emphasized that there is more opportunity for intentional collaboration in these moments of crisis. One of the initiatives they’ve been focused on at Jobs for the Future is finding ways to bring newer, tech-based solutions to their projects. Companies and educators that may have done their trainings in person in the past are now switching to an entirely digital model, while their clients are often using their smart phone for all tech-related work. Jobs for the Future has been stepping up to assist these groups in negotiating the challenging transition.
How can pro bono help workforce development organizations bounce back?
- Our panelists shared a number of recommendations on how pro bono could help them build capacity behind the scenes and respond to the ongoing crises:
- Corporate coaching for students: This need has always existed in the field; resume reviews, virtual mock interviews, etc. all encourage students developing these soft skills.
- Technical skills: With organizations quickly pivoting to virtual work and program delivery, technical skills are needed to set up and/or operate these remote solutions. The ability to train support staff and program beneficiaries in developing those tech competencies is also valuable.
- Financial re-forecasting: Scenario planning is needed for organizations re-evaluating their budgets in light of all the changes they’ve had to make in the past six months.
- HR resources: Many nonprofits are dealing with HR issues that they’ve never faced before, like salary cuts and layoffs. Recruitment is also changing in major ways, and HR insights into those changes will be incredibly useful.
- Strategic planning: Social good organizations need strategy-building guidance and research to plan for the future, build resiliency, and recover from the current crises.
- DEI initiatives: Pro bono could be genuinely helpful here, both for employers looking inward at their own systems and for organizations evaluating their programming. The need for DEI expertise is extremely high but the funds available to pay for it might not be.
- Safety planning: Figuring out how and when to bring people back to in-person programming safely will be a huge and vitally important investment.
- Market research: Employment-focused organizations need to make sure they’re targeting the right areas with the right messaging, particularly now when the needs of the workforce are shifting and so many are under-employed and unemployed.
As unprecedented as this moment may be, these workforce development nonprofits are well versed in creating opportunities through connection. Pro bono service has an important role to play in creating scalable solutions for sustainable employment and rebuilding a more secure future—building capacity for these nonprofits and ultimately strengthening communities.
Right now we are all facing the same crises together, but with different skills to share and resources at our fingertips. Volunteers and companies alike have an opportunity to think about how they are meeting the same challenges that workforce development nonprofits are facing, from HR to IT. The question then becomes a simple one—what can you do to help?