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Case Study

What Works: Designing a Workforce Strategy to Meet Employer Needs

Objective: Highlighting how an industry-specific, industry-led workforce development initiative helps Hartford’s hardest-to-hire inner city residents access well-paying jobs in the construction industry.

Major Participants: City of Hartford, State of Connecticut Office for Workforce Competitiveness, Capital Workforce Partners (Regional WIB), Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, Capital City Economic Development Authority, South Arsenal Neighborhood Development Corporation, Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART), Urban League of Greater Hartford, Blue Hills Civic Association, Connecticut Labor Department, Organized Building Trades, Minority Construction Council, Laborers International Training Fund, Northeast Utilities/Connecticut Light and Power.

Background: In the late 1990s, the City of Hartford was embarking on a new civic infrastructure project in which they would be constructing six new civic buildings downtown. Struggling with a high unemployment rate (9.1% in an otherwise strong national economy) and more than 30% of its residents falling below the poverty line, the City saw construction as an opportunity to help train residents for new job opportunities.

In response, a range of stakeholders, including city and state government, local community development organizations, workforce development agencies and private industry, joined forces to create the Hartford Jobs Funnel in 1999.

How it Works: Hartford residents who are at least 18 years of age are eligible for the program, regardless of current income or employment status. On a rolling basis, candidates enter the program and begin with an orientation where they learn about the realities of construction jobs and the industry as a whole. Then, each candidate undergoes a thorough academic assessment to ascertain current skill levels. Those who pass the Test for Adult Basic Education (TABE) are then qualified to enter the Hartford Jobs Funnel. Those who do not pass the TABE are referred to other agencies for remedial training and additional job placement services.

Upon entering the Funnel, residents are assigned a case manager. Case managers work intensely with each participant to guide them through pre-employment life-skills workshops, such as resume writing, interviewing techniques, group dynamics and money management. Each person completes between 20 and 40 hours of this soft skill training, which better prepares residents for employment success. Then, residents move into customized, short-term pre-employment training in any one of a number of construction-related categories, including: drywall finishing/painting/glazing; heavy equipment operations; carpentry; iron works; masonry; general construction; and brownfields remediation.

After the skills training, participants move into the job placement phase. All Funnel staff and partnering organizations collaborate to identify appropriate matches. Depending on the job market, some find work immediately while others stay in the program to expand their skills even further. Some complete the training but then opt to take positions outside of the construction industry. Once finding employment, all participants are assigned a retention specialist—case managers who ensure job placements are successful and participants thrive on the job. In the event a participant becomes unemployed, the Funnel provides retraining and re-employment services.

Results for Local Economy: An evaluation of 3,581 individuals who enrolled in the Jobs Funnel since YEAR? finds that 80% of Jobs Funnel participants who took work in the construction industry were employed one year following program participation; this was slightly lower (73%) among those who took jobs in non-construction fields. Moreover, 53% of program participants landed a position that included benefits, and of these 95.7% were with unions.

Funnel participants in all fields show considerable gains in earnings compared to pre-employment. Pre-program earnings for those who took construction jobs averaged only $10,000; for those who took non-construction jobs this was just $7,814. After program completion, those who took construction jobs had a mean starting wage of $15/hour; non-construction placements averaged $13.30/hour. Assuming a full-time position, this translates to an annual salary of X for construction jobs and Y for non-construction jobs.

Importantly, the Jobs Funnel achieves success despite serving some of Hartford’s hardest-to-hire residents. A majority (54%) of the program participants are African American; more than half (56%) have felony convictions; nearly half (43%) lack access to transportation; over one-third (36%) lack a driver’s license and 15% admitted to having a problem with substance abuse.

Remaining Challenges: There are a few primary challenges still faced by the Jobs Funnel. First is data collection. Despite numerous efforts, tracking participants and collecting information – especially as it relates to employer wages and aggregate benefits for placements – is incredibly challenging. The demographic served is often transient and many employers, despite their willingness to participate by hiring local residents, are less likely to share information after hiring.

Second, as is the case with many social service programs, the staff is spread thin. The Program Manager devotes much of her time to daily operations and does not have sufficient time to pursue higher-level planning, fundraising and development of strategic partnerships. The case managers and retention specialists are incredibly important to the success of the program, but there are too few of these to provide the intensity of the case management necessary to serve large numbers of residents.

Finally, the construction industry provides a great opportunity for inner city residents to access well-paying jobs; many construction jobs require the training that the Jobs Funnel offers but do not require more than a high school degree. But construction jobs are often seasonal, with work picking up during the summer and falling off in the winter. And as the Great Recession proved, the construction industry is not infallible. When the economy slows, construction often bears the brunt of the economic decline.

Lessons Learned: Partnerships have been key to the program’s success. The Steering Committee includes members from across sectors, union and non-union employers. Committee members help to design the training curricula, place program participants into employment, and provide timely industry expertise and technical knowledge as the industry evolves. Moreover, by involving other workforce agencies, such as Capital Workforce Partners (the regional workforce investment board), the Jobs Funnel ensures that it does not duplicate existing services, but rather compliments those that already exist.

Another important lesson is to secure flexible funding. The program costs anywhere between $750,000 to $1 million each year, and funders have ranged from the State of Connecticut’s Office of Workforce Competitiveness to the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Unlike many other workforce development programs, which often have many restrictions, funding for the Jobs Funnel is relatively relaxed, allowing for dollars to be strategically invested as priorities, needs and opportunities change. This is a critical reason for the program’s success.

 

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