What We’re Learning: Workforce Development

This spring, the Knott Foundation focused staff and trustee learning around workforce development.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that the country continues to face challenges finding workers to fill open positions. A recent study by the Chamber of Commerce found that Maryland is one of twelve states facing a “most severe” crisis filling open positions, with 44 available workers for every 100 jobs.

To learn more about the state of the workforce sector in Maryland, the Knott Foundation sought out the insights and experiences of several sector workers during our spring Joint Grant Committee and June Board Meetings.

From funders focused on making an impact in this sector, we learned the importance of:

  • Providing general operating support to build the capacity of selected organizations and promote the success of their clients.
  • Acknowledging the time commitment required by foundation staff and trustees to move a strategy forward in a meaningful and impactful way.
  • Accepting that it is an iterative process; the board should be on a learning journey, adjusting as we learn.
  • Streamlining and adapting requirements (e.g., zoom calls, video submissions) levied upon grantee partners.
  • Being community driven and community led.
  • The need to support the sector, not just individual programs (e.g., engaging in advocacy through membership organizations such as Maryland Philanthropy Network and their Workforce Development Funders Collaborative).

From organizations providing workforce development programs, we learned that:

  • Policy and advocacy work are inextricably linked to the success and failure of low wage/low skilled workers and the programs that provide training.
  • Funders need to create safe spaces for partners to take risks and have honest conversations.
  • The most sustainable programs create opportunities rather than give handouts.
  • Providing wrap-around services to clients and employers is key to success. Support and education need to take place in both directions for a placement to be lasting and productive.
  • Public education and outreach around the challenges faced by low wage/low skilled workers and the collateral damage of a criminal record is essential.
  • To be successful in a labor market that increasingly emphasizes workplace culture, autonomy, and flexibility, programs need to consider people’s passions alongside their skills sets.

Each expert echoed that while a program might focus on a specific area of workforce development, the sector should be viewed as an ecosystem and consideration given to the many different ways in which people find meaningful, sustainable, and family-supporting work. In essence, workforce development must be treated as more than placing a person in a job and walking away. The same can be said of the relationship between the funder and the grant partner as well; deep relationships take time to build but will prove to be a key component in success for all parties.

By Kathleen McCarthy i