April 20, 2016

Designed to Work: A Neighborhood-Based Strategy to Connect People to Jobs

By Rosanne Haggerty and Katie Gordon

In New York City, unemployment has fallen well below the 10%-plus peak it reached after the global financial meltdown and recession of 2008. While that’s hopeful news, it obscures a glaring divide: This recovery hasn’t benefitted the city’s neighborhoods equally. Take Brownsville, Brooklyn, for example, where only 56% of the working-age population is employed or actively looking for work, compared with 63% citywide. Largely overlooked in the headlines, the neighborhood’s longstanding gap in labor force participation contributes to trapping more than a third of the local population below the federal poverty line.
Traditionally, efforts to improve employment outcomes have centered on policy debates: Should the City fund one approach to job training or another? Toward which fields should agencies steer job seekers? These debates matter, but they too often overlook the equally important question of how each approach is implemented and delivered-- that is to say, the design of the system itself.
The fact is that Brownsville residents don’t lack the motivation to work; the neighborhood has among the highest usage rates of the City’s workforce services. Yet placements into jobs happen at a far lower rate for Brownsville residents. A neighborhood-level view of unemployment “hot spots” like Brownsville helps to explain why: large gaps in access to basic employment services and supports like child care; missing or broken linkages between existing programs; and program rules ill-suited to the particular challenges faced by job seekers from high-poverty neighborhoods.
It doesn't have to be this way.
When we look outside the human services sector, we quickly find excellent solutions for designing high-performing systems and experiences rooted in the needs and attributes of specific users. Urgent care centers are good examples.  Patients are seen quickly and cost effectively, they are triaged intelligently on the basis of their circumstances, and most people leave having secured the help they needed when they arrived. If these facilities can be navigated so simply and reliably by a variety of different users, why do employment programs, in which we invest billions of taxpayer dollars each year, routinely confound the people most in need of their help while failing to deliver results for many users?
In Brownsville, this reality may be changing now that a group of strong workforce players is coming together to build a neighborhood-specific employment strategy focused on the community’s distinct challenges. The strategy is rooted in a user-centered redesign of the workforce development system and has implications for low-income neighborhoods throughout the city.
The team driving this shift is strikingly broad, encompassing nonprofit and for-profit workforce training and placement programs, the City Department of Small Business Services (which oversees employment programs), private employers, and a growing group of Brownsville residents. This diverse group is bringing a sense of urgency to the question of what it would take to bring neighborhood employment levels in line with the rest of the city.
So far, we know that reaching this goal within three years will require at least three changes.
First, a locally tailored, in-neighborhood approach makes sense in communities like Brownsville. Neighborhood-focused strategies can creatively and more efficiently remove barriers like unaffordable transportation, the need for childcare, and basic information and preparation steps for job seeking. Each of these barriers becomes significantly easier to address when residents can access job training and placement services in their own communities, rather than traveling long distances. Neighborhood-focused strategies can also help discrete workforce programs in the same community function as a more connected and accountable system while improving responsiveness to local context. 
To this end, the Department of Small Business Services has announced it will bring a branch of Workforce1, the City’s largest job placement program, to the Brownsville/East New York area this year. It will connect to other new employment infrastructure in the neighborhood, including Jobs Plus, an evidence-based program that assists residents from two of Brownsville's public housing developments find work, and new entrepreneurial ventures like Made in Brownsville and the Dream Big Foundation, that are providing skilled training within the neighborhood.
Second, as noted in the 2014 NYC Career Pathways report (nyc.gov/careerpathways) of the cross-sector Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force, the City's workforce system must shift its incentive structure. Currently, City-funded programs measure success on quantity and speed of placements, an approach that favors those who need the least amount of assistance. Improving the success rates of these programs for all job seekers, and especially those least able to find a job without help, should be a matter of concern for all New Yorkers. This will require new system incentives to allow workforce agencies greater flexibility and time helping job seekers who have greater challenges to overcome. Refining the incentive structure to reward agencies for helping less prepared New Yorkers find work would help close the employment gap in neighborhoods like Brownsville.
Lastly, we cannot significantly improve employment system outcomes without real-time data on how the system is working for job seekers. That’s why our partner network is developing a common way of tracking job seekers through the entire training and placement process. This effort is still in the early stages, but one thing is already clear: The burden to ensure that the system functions effectively currently falls on job seekers themselves, who must navigate a puzzling array of distinct workforce programs, each with their own unique requirements. A common database-- again, imagine the urgent care experience-- would allow workforce programs to connect with each other, simplify or share common process steps, home in on system bottlenecks, customize next steps for each job seeker, and seamlessly assist individuals in effectively moving through the process of securing work.
When it comes to tackling inequality in New York City, the stakes are especially high for those who live in neighborhoods of high unemployment like Brownsville. A laser-focused effort to increase employment in these neighborhoods through a better-designed workforce system is one way to strike a powerful blow.
Rosanne Haggerty is President of Community Solutions, where Katie Gordon is Director of the 5,000 Jobs Campaign, a collective action campaign aimed at improving New York City’s existing workforce development system to connect 5,000 Brownsville residents to jobs by 2018.

Photo by: Reed Young