by Dr. Quintin Bullock
History will surely recall the first year of this decade as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the year when large portions of our economy stopped, when institutions that defined our everyday lives – from schools to grocery stores, from offices to playgrounds – changed. Economists will undoubtedly look back and see the business cycle at work, characterized in the broadest sense as recession followed by recovery, unemployment followed by opportunity.
But there are communities within our society that don’t see life in terms of business cycles. They are stuck at the bottom and the only cycle they see is multi-generational poverty, inadequate educational opportunities, and high levels of long-term unemployment.
As our country recovers from the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19, the government and private sector are undoubtedly going to expend enormous amounts of energy and money to train members of the workforce whose jobs no longer exist and whose industries have been forever altered. We need programs to prepare those individuals for new jobs in new industries that are going to be in demand in the future.
But what about the underserved and economically disadvantaged communities that have experienced long-term poverty and unemployment? Over the next decade, as we reach new peaks of economic prosperity in this country, will we demonstrate the same level of commitment to building a path to prosperity for those who have been left behind for decades?
Leaders in the Pittsburgh region should feel particularly motivated. Our economy has transitioned from its industrial past to one driven by robotics and artificial intelligence, life sciences, energy and advanced manufacturing. Even with our many great two- and four-year colleges and universities, skilled workers have been in short supply and projections indicate a looming workforce gap in the future. We need to expand our pool of talent.
Individuals in underserved communities have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. The pandemic will likely exacerbate the already wide employment gap. We are going to need to build innovative new partnerships with government, industry, foundations and educational institutions to close that gap.
Job training programs will need to be creative and include community-based organizations that are trusted among their neighbors, that are familiar with the complex array of obstacles holding their communities back, that can identify resident needs and develop wrap-around services that support participants.
A lack of access to transportation, childcare, mental health support and housing are often barriers for populations that include individuals without high school diplomas, ex-offenders, veterans, and single parents. But there are successful models for cost-effective solutions.
One of these is the Caring Connections to Careers program, a comprehensive career-readiness and training initiative created by Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and the Community Empowerment Association, Inc. (CEA), and supported by a grant from RK Mellon Foundation. Launched in 2019, members of several low-income, predominantly African-American communities in Allegheny County have been receiving:
* Customized GED preparation and testing.
* Career counseling.
* Training in one of four in-demand industry clusters: Allied Health, Business, Information/Applied Technology and various Trades.
* Life skills training.
* Work culture/environment training.
* Interpersonal communications training.
* Financial literacy training.
* Stipends, financial incentives, and bus passes.
* A case manager who checks in with program participants regularly to make sure they stay on track.
The results to date: almost 100% of participants are completing their program and getting a job in a related field shortly thereafter. The cost is approximately $5,600 per student– a small investment that is yielding big results.
Individuals who were unemployed or underemployed before now have careers, can support their families and be financial independent. Even this year, which was disrupted by COVID-19, our newest student cohort is still on track to complete their training this summer.
But we can’t do this work alone. One program isn’t enough to tackle regional unemployment and underemployment concerns post-COVID-19, especially for our hardest hit communities and residents. We need to support the creation and growth of such comprehensive programs so that we can reach a larger number of individuals and help them and their communities get back on their feet. We need partnerships – community colleges have the tools to train the future workforce, community organizations know the pulse of their communities and can provide the everyday support their residents need, and a combination of government, businesses and foundations will be needed to provide the funding.
Together, we can rise to the occasion and replicate this work on a widespread basis. That is the key to preparing the region’s workforce for the challenging times ahead and facilitating our economy’s rebound.
(Dr. Quintin Bullock is president of Community College of Allegheny County.)