Opportunity, Representation, and Participation In Workforce Development

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) challenges in workforce development often fall along the lines of opportunity and representation which ultimately impact participation. Limited access to the education and training opportunities needed to acquire the skills necessary for high-demand jobs leads to skills gaps and reduced competitiveness among marginalized groups, such as women, minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, returning residents, and people of varying abilities. Underrepresentation in the workforce, particularly within some professional fields, is often due to systemic biases and discrimination in hiring and job advancement. Limited access to opportunity and underrepresentation—whether due to skills gaps or recruitment practices—hinder full workforce participation, perpetuating inequities for individuals and impeding broader economic resilience and prosperity.

The wage disparities that persist among different demographic groups ultimately stunt the potential for economic growth and stability and negatively impact individual well-being. From the economic developer’s perspective, income inequality impacts the tax base through reduced consumer spending, lower worker participation and productivity, fewer startups and expansions, and lower levels of innovation, just to name a few detrimental effects. As a result, understanding the implications and intricacies of DEI-related workforce development issues and crafting actionable solutions can transform economies and create more robust, competitive, resilient, and inclusive environments. In today’s dynamic economic landscape, fostering a diverse workforce and talent pipeline is not just a moral imperative but a strategic necessity for thriving communities and regions.

“Successful workforce programs meet people where they are and address wraparound needs. For example, economic developers can fundraise to offer scholarships for a worker to gain skills to become a manufacturing technician. But gainful employment as a manufacturing technician will be impacted if that worker uses public transportation and their job location is not on or near public transportation stops. As economic development professionals, we must consider the full context of our work in helping people thrive economically, financially, and socially.”
— TIP senior consultant Katrina Parkey Fraser, CWDP

The solutions and strategies needed to address equity in the workforce vary by community and by the needs of the populations served. However, there are best practices economic developers can follow to expand access to opportunities and improve representation for economic advancement.

First, economic developers can join nonprofits and community service organizations in collaborative efforts to bridge the education and skills gaps in communities impacted by disinvestment. Doing so requires the strategic design and funding of training programs tailored to the specific needs of these populations. Apprenticeships, mentorship programs, and partnerships with local educational institutions can provide critical pathways to high-demand careers, but are often underutilized due to a lack of awareness or financial barriers. By partnering with local organizations economic developers can not only better understand the education and training needs of groups that are often marginalized, but also play a role in connecting employers, partners, and other stakeholders with available resources.

One example of a tailored, community-based solution is United We Work, a job shadowing event for students with disabilities hosted by TIP client Workforce Solutions for North Central Texas (WSNCT). During the event, local employers show students what a day of work is like at their companies. In addition to on-the-job experiences, students receive job-readiness training like interactive presentations of “What and What Not to Wear.” Giving young people with disabilities an opportunity to learn more about possible career options and see job duties first-hand is a win-win for all involved. Employers get to share more about openings at their companies, and students get to develop skills that help them as they prepare to enter the workforce.

Targeted recruitment programs represent another popular practice where economic development practitioners can play a role. These initiatives can address the underrepresentation of minorities and women or the exclusion of individuals with prior justice system involvement by creating pathways for diverse talent to enter and advance within industries. Partnerships with historically black colleges and universities, women’s colleges, and nonprofits that serve marginalized groups serve as excellent models for expanding access to opportunity, attracting diverse talent, and, ultimately, strengthening the talent pipeline by increasing representation to meet industry needs. Participating in the structuring and promotion of these recruitment efforts is another avenue where practitioners could help increase access to economic advancement.

Programs that target nontraditional sources of labor, like the San Diego Workforce Partnership Reentry Works program, addresses equity on multiple fronts. The comprehensive program provides pre-release employment and training services, links to jobs and post-release employment services, earn and learn opportunities, supportive services, and community-based connections to people returning from incarceration. With career centers located in the East Mesa Reentry Facility and the Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility, Reentry Works brings resources directly to individuals in the justice system. While the State of California’s average recidivism rate is 65 percent, participants of the career centers in these locations have a recidivism rate of 18 percent.

Economic developers can play a pivotal role in improving workforce participation by understanding the DEI-related workforce challenges that exist in their communities. Be it leading targeted recruitment campaigns, encouraging inclusive policies among employers, or advocating for tailored educational investments, practitioners can create vibrant, innovative, and equitable economies by championing workforce inclusion. Such efforts will help to ensure that a broader portion of the population has greater access to opportunities for upward mobility. This is the rising tide that ultimately increases overall productivity and stimulates the type of innovation that strengthens economies and sustainably grows a tax base over time.

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