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D.C. Policy Center - Washington, DC

From employment to “employability”: A new way to look at workforce development

May 23, 2017

Workforce development is often characterized as an economic development strategy, of which education and training is a crucial component to connect a job seeker with a job.  As a result, we often measure the performance of workforce development entities, such as the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES), on the basis of the number of job placements they facilitate.  This framing is also present in the measures that the U.S. Department of Labor uses to evaluate the agency’s effectiveness. However, I would like to suggest that this simplistic framework is not a full or accurate depiction of what workforce development actually entails or what it should strive to achieve.

To be sure, job placement is one of the goals of workforce development, and education and training are vital tools.  But solely focusing on employment without fully addressing the vertical needs of job seekers actually repeats old cycles of job-loss and re-employment, as the same underlying barriers continue to reassert themselves. A more comprehensive definition of workforce development is necessary to incorporate the employability of job seekers, a framework that I will explain below.

“Employment” versus “employability”

If we look at the big picture, we see that the end goal of DOES and other workforce entities in the District is to move individuals to a state where job seekers (whether youth, unemployed adults, or those already in the workforce) are closer to entering and/or advancing in the labor market—in other words, their employability. This is different from employment because it looks at the improvement of the individual’s circumstances, not just a short-term outcome (i.e., obtaining a job).

The distinction between employment and employability may seem minor, but it has important implications for how we measure and pursue success in our workforce development programs. To begin with, the employability framework recognizes that job seekers often face both direct and indirect barriers to employment:

  • Direct barriers are impediments to employment such as job history, experience, or skills capacity, as well those challenges that address the means to access and means to employment (e.g., lack of or a poorly written resume or limited knowledge of where to find job opportunities).
  • Indirect barriers include more environmentally-based factors (e.g., transportation, internet access, poor housing), as well as specific individual challenges related to social, family or support (e.g., lack of dependent care, limited or no medical insurance to address chronic health concerns).

Moving to an employability framework allows for a more holistic approach

In D.C., job seekers’ main point of contact with DOES is at its American Job Centers, “one-stop shops” that are meant to connect District residents with the full array of workforce development resources available. Given the complexity of the direct and indirect barriers that job seekers face, it may at first seem understandable that the placement rates at the District’s American Job Centers fall below the levels that other community-based or non-profit centers achieve.  But part of the ineffectiveness of the American Job Centers is due to the fact that they do not have the financial resources to address the needs of the high number of job seekers who come in the door every single business day.

This is not simply a suggestion that more funding should be allocated to the American Job Centers, or that it should improve the staff counts to provide a greater level of individualized attention to those who seek out assistance. There has been a mindset within the District – one that is common among jurisdictions with large numbers of underserved populations who seek to enter the labor market – that more resources and more case managers is all that is needed to address the unemployment and underemployment of residents, particularly those in Wards 7 and 8. However, this approach will not address the many indirect barriers that job seekers face; it is focused on the goal of employment, but misses the foundation of employability.

An employability framework offers an alternative program and policy response: That D.C.’s American Job Centers must emerge to become genuine One-Stop Centers where the resources of other District and government partners are leveraged and collocated within the American Job Centers locations.

Employability in practice

Under this framework, not only would a job seeker use an American Job Center to register for unemployment insurance, to sign up for job listings, or to receive a referral for supportive services—the traditional services addressing direct barriers to employment—but also receive personalized guidance and assistance from supportive services at the same location.

For example, a job seeker at an American Job Center in need of food assistance would not only be given a SNAP application by a DOES case manager, but would also have access to a field agent from the Department of Human Services. Similarly, a job seeker with transportation challenges might be escorted to an on-site Metro representative who can help them purchase a SmartTrip card or get directions.

Many job seekers face more pervasive challenges, many of which require a high level of confidentiality and privacy. In these cases, the job seeker could be given a list of counselors in their community with whom they can set up an appointment to discuss more sensitive topics, such as specific family needs or substance abuse addiction.  And a job seeker who only faces limited barriers to employment would have access to career libraries and videos to learn how to improve their resumes or learn about the skill sets needed for an industry’s set of occupations.

All this to say that under an employability framework, DOES would act as the hub for the spoke to address the challenges faced by the job seeker before they can even be ready for work. A common thread throughout all of these examples is that they require no additional fiscal resources to DOES; rather, the framework of employability promotes a coordinated strategy that brings together many different agencies under one roof. This allows D.C. to leverage existing resources, and only requires the input and support from agency Directors to execute working MOUs between DOES and the sister agencies.

Finally, in order to measure this dynamic process of moving individual job seekers along a pathway toward greater employability, tracking would need to be conducted by DOES case managers and reported as outcomes to the U.S. Department of Labor. Measuring this individualized progression is also consistent with the outcomes that are allowed under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, as they address outcomes framework that looks at customer satisfaction of job seekers. If we implement a systems view that looks at the broader picture under this employability definition, evaluation of the effect of workforce development will be more positive and the connection between job seeker and the labor market will be narrower as barriers are more comprehensively addressed.