July | August 2017


States Reinvent Workforce Programs with Innovation Grant

by Lisa McKinney
States that received a portion of the $35 million in federal funds awarded last fall through the Workforce Innovation Fund, or WIF, are starting to put their proposed program innovations into action to modernize the way they get people the training and assistance they need to obtain family-supporting jobs and develop a strong workforce for local businesses. In September 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded WIF grants to five states—Connecticut, Minnesota, Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania—and one inter-tribal council to integrate their workforce systems through approaches consistent with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, or WIOA. Three of those states—Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania—shared how they are working to develop systems to support job seekers in a holistic manner and connect them with employers through interdepartmental and industry partnerships.
These awards are the third round of WIF grants since their inception and the first round of grants since the passage of WIOA in 2014. The act aims to coordinate and share resources and ideas for workforce development between federal, state and local agencies.
The problems facing job seekers are multi-faceted and take coordination between multiple agencies—and often the private sector—to address. The unemployed may need help keeping food on the table while they search for work, training in in-demand fields, and efficient and accessible ways to connect with employers. States hope to tackle this complex problem by integrating services in a way that addresses needs more holistically through comprehensive interagency cooperation, private sector partnerships and utilizing technology in inventive ways.
The grant solicitation required partnerships across programs both within and outside of WIOA and collaboration between at least two core programs under WIOA, such as Wagner-Peyser employment services, adult education and literacy programs, and vocational rehabilitation state grant programs that assist individuals with disabilities in obtaining employment. Additionally, at least one non-core program, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP; Employment and Training program, or E&T; and state Jobs for Veterans programs, needed to be included in proposals.
The project period for the grant began on Oct. 1, 2015, and provides for one year of planning, two years for implementation and a final year for independent evaluation. These evaluations are expected to produce new evidence and best practices to stimulate innovation throughout the broader workforce system, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Labor.
The WIF grant application provided states with a framework to build out programs that make sense for their particular workforce population and business landscape. For example, states with large populations of unemployed young people clustered in cities need different solutions than states with more experienced workforces spread out in rural areas. Through the WIF grant, each state is able to approach their workforce development programs a little differently, based on their unique needs.

Ohio Builds Their Future Workforce by Focusing on Youth

Ohio chose to focus on young workers and directs one-third of its WIF grant to TANF and WIOA youth programs. Their grant funds will be used to implement a new Comprehensive Case Management and Employment Program, or CCMEP, on July 1, which will integrate both of those programs into one, focusing on 16 to 24-year-olds who are out of school. The implementation of CCMEP will run concurrently with the state’s Wage Pathway Model, which focuses on skills rather than credentials to place low-income, low-skill youth and young adults into job vacancies in high-demand industries. Running these two programs side-by-side provides an opportunity for third-party insight and rigorous review of the program as it relates to the Wage Pathway Model, said Benjamin Johnson, director of communications for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Ohio will use tools such as individualized assessments and individual opportunity plans to identify participants in two pilot areas—Ohio’s Summit/Medina and Cuyahoga counties. The grant funding will support activities such as case management, on-the-job training, apprenticeships and support services.
“Ohio is especially innovative in workforce development program design,” said Johnson. “CCMEP is an all-encompassing approach to assisting a vulnerable and vital demographic. If successful, it could change the dynamics of generational poverty.”
The grant also will fund technology identifying wage pathway data and models on OhioMeansJobs.com, the state’s online career and employment center with Monster Government Solutions, that can be used statewide. The Wage Pathway Model will use data-mapping technology from OhioMeansJobs.com to compare real-time data for in-demand jobs with the skill assessment scores of program participants to place them in jobs and help them build careers in in-demand occupations, said Johnson.
“Workforce development is an essential component of community economic development in any economic climate,” he said. “Through multiple programs designed to meet the needs of both job seekers and employers, it can bridge the gap between individuals’ skills and employers’ needs. Workforce development is based on the concept that a better educated and skilled workforce can contribute to employers’ success. Successful employers bring economic growth, innovative ideas and strategies, and improved infrastructure to their communities, and that’s good not only for their communities, but for the state as a whole.”

Pennsylvania Reinvents Workforce Training

Pennsylvania chose to target out-of-school youth, as well as adults with low-skills and significant barriers to education and employment through its WIF grant. The state took a cooperative and integrative approach, partnering the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry with seven community colleges, seven local workforce development boards, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Department of Education Division of Adult Education and the Department of Human Services, which administers the federal SNAP, employment and training, and TANF programs, to develop micro-credentials that demonstrate measurable skill gains and are part of a clearly defined career pathway for individuals with barriers to employment, said Stephanie Larkin, director of the Pennsylvania Workforce Investment Board.
“Given the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act’s increased focus on ensuring the success of persons with barriers to employment, micro-credentials are an emerging concept that provides measurable skill gains in shorter segments and allow an individual to show specific skills, knowledge or experience to potential employers in order to more quickly enter the job market,” said Larkin.
The seven local partnerships, which each consist of one local workforce board and one community college, are given the flexibility to determine which participants they will target. The populations they will serve include ex-offenders, individuals with disabilities, out-of-school youth, displaced workers, low-income individuals, single parents, adults with low basic skills, and the unemployed and underemployed.
The goals of the project are to improve the educational and employment outcomes of students with barriers and to make micro-credentials an integral part of career pathways for individuals.
Specifically, the grantees aim to increase student retention, credential obtainment and job placement. They plan to do this by establishing several career pathway models that include multiple industry-recognized micro-credentials. Additionally, the project will catalog interventions and supportive services available to assist students at risk of not completing their micro-credentials, whether it is due to education issues or other factors. Various assessment tools will be considered in evaluating what interventions might be necessary for program participants, said Larkin.
Partnership with business is also an essential component of the program. Partnering employers will agree to consider program participants for employment.
“Employers are an integral partner in establishing career pathways models and the micro-credentials to be made available along the career pathway,” said Larkin. “This direct alignment to employer soft skill, job readiness and occupational skill needs will ensure meaningful micro-credentials that improve employability of credential earners.”

Kansas Seeks to Bridge the Rural-Urban Divide

In Kansas, a state with a low population density and with population centers concentrated in the eastern third of the state, program administrators often find it difficult to reach Kansans in rural areas, according to Susan R. Weidenbach, manager of workforce development and special projects in the Kansas Department of Commerce. The state is also home to businesses ranging from large international firms to local businesses with fewer than 50 employees, and wages and unemployment rates vary widely across the state.
These wide variations in needs and access across the state complicated the designing of a statewide project to meet the requirements of participants, systems, industry and performance, said Weidenbach. The state addressed this by focusing on local and digital solutions to create customized and integrated services for all their residents.
The state will partner with local workforce development boards to provide postsecondary scholarships, on-the-job training and other work-based training and supportive services to job seekers with multiple barriers to employment, such as a disability or lack of high-demand skills and access to services. Cross-program and interagency staff training will be developed by and provided to state and local staff members who deliver programs serving job seekers most in need of skill development, employment preparation and other supportive services such as adult education, vocational rehabilitation, TANF and SNAP.
The state plans to utilize technology to simplify interagency communication and make the process of accessing services and information easier for Kansas residents. The greatest portion of WIF funding will support the development of an electronic participant portal, START HERE, which provides a single entry point for any individual seeking services in Kansas, said Weidenbach. Users will be able to enter basic identification and demographic information and answer general questions about their needs and interests. Based on this information, the user will be directed to information about available services tailored to their specific needs. For example, if someone indicates an interest in working as a welder, the customer will have access to information about all welding certification programs available throughout the state as well as a score card of each training program describing the graduation rates, employment placement rates, entry-level wage averages and other indicators of success.
“Currently, a customer would have to visit more than a dozen websites separately to view similar information about welding certification programs in Kansas,” said Weidenbach. “START HERE provides all of the information in one place.”
START HERE will also serve as a repository of users’ data so that when someone seeks services from a WIF partner, the partner staff can integrate the customer’s information into their own data system, providing a single point of entry for multiple services and preventing the customer from having to provide the same information multiple times, added Weidenbach.
“Both through this grant and the Workforce Data Quality Initiative, it is hoped Kansas will be able to crack the code for data sharing across multiple programs,” said Weidenbach. “It would be most helpful for FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) reform to allow all state departments serving common customers to have access to all data regarding those common customers.”