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Conference Season Insights: Three Evidence-Building Priorities for Workforce Development

October 23, 2023

Since the onset of COVID-19, changes in the labor market—such as worker shortages and a renewed focus on worker protection and rights—have highlighted the importance of focusing on job quality in workforce development programs.  Those with the lowest wages—who are disproportionately people of color and women—often face the least job stability, agency, and opportunities for advancement to quality jobs. For example, lack of access to what are the hallmarks of quality jobs—benefits like health insurance, retirement savings, and paid (and unpaid) family and medical leave—limits low-wage workers’ abilities to improve their economic stability and build savings and wealth. Workforce development programs are therefore increasingly tailoring their approaches to both focus on quality jobs and recognize disparities in job quality based on race and gender.

As researchers studying these efforts, we are also increasingly emphasizing job quality and equity in our studies.  As we integrate our takeaways from the recent National Association for Welfare Research and Statistics (NAWRS) Workshop ahead of gathering with other policy researchers at the Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management’s (APPAM) Fall Research Conference, here are three priorities on our minds for equitable approaches to evidence-building on workforce development:

1. Start with the needs of workers and what they want out of their jobs. It might seem obvious: people work to earn money and higher wages. But research on workforce development requires understanding the fuller picture: how workers feel about their jobs, why they decide to pursue a particular job, barriers they face on the job, and what their job means to them in the context of their family life. Centering the experiences of workers in our research has shed light on what their priorities are. For example, in Abt’s evaluation of the Health Profession Opportunity Grants (HPOG) program—components of which we presented at NAWRS and will also share at APPAM—we learned that participants in training programs persisted not just to earn more money, but also to be a role model for their children, to earn a higher wage in order to work fewer jobs and spend time with family, and to gain greater job satisfaction. Insights presented at NAWRS from our Guaranteed Income team’s research with low-income parents illustrated the careful decisions parents make about factors like job schedules and commute times so that they can participate fully in their children’s lives.

2. Center the experiences of workers of color, women, and especially women of color. Disparities in labor market outcomes by race, ethnicity, and gender are well documented, but understanding how and why these disparities occur is key to developing effective policy solutions. What is clear is that while there is no single mechanism that accounts for all inequities, some arise from the types of jobs workers hold and train for. For example, Abt’s 2018 Family and Medical Leave Act Surveys showed that a much higher proportion of low-wage workers (who are primarily women of color) do not receive pay—and even lose their jobs—after they take leave for a family and medical reason. Another recent Abt evaluation of the Department of Labor’s American Apprenticeship Initiative found that, while apprentices who were women and/or people of color saw the greatest earnings growth relative to their earnings prior to their apprenticeship, white women apprentices saw greater growth in earnings than Black women. This was due in part to white women opting fortraining in registered nursing while Black women focused on pharmacy technician, a field that pays less on average.  And we also know from our Career Trajectories and Occupational Transitions study that even when workers do enter the same occupation, women and workers of color earn less over time. These gaps are especially striking for women of color.

3. Address needs in the “care” economy. As discussed at the closing panel Abt moderated at NAWRS, women, especially women of color, are overrepresented in “care” economy jobs: in childcare, education, healthcare, and social services. Many of these jobs, which are essential to providing supports needed by workers across industries, are low-wage. Care workforce shortages and lack of access to care hurt all of us, but especially low-income families of color, who are more likely to experience care-related job disruptions than white families. Federal agencies have launched efforts to better understand and address this crisis, which has been elevated by the Biden-Harris Administration’s Executive Order, Increasing Access to High-Quality Care and Supporting Caregivers. To support, retain, and diversify workforces in the care economy, we need strategies to make care economy jobs good jobs for all. 

As we bring our conference season insights—particularly from our partners in the federal government—back to our daily work, we’re eager to move these priorities forward.   And if you will be at APPAM, please join us for these relevant sessions:

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