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End of Inaugural Inclusive Development Network Cohort Is Just the Beginning for Its Lasting Potential

In March 2019, the U.S. unemployment rate was 3.8 percent, near record lows[1]. The economy had recently crossed the 100-month threshold en route to what would become a record 113 consecutive months of employment growth[2]. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the employment landscape, accelerating existing workforce challenges and creating new ones. Concurrently, a renewed national conversation around inequities has emerged. Against this backdrop, CAEL’s Inclusive Development Network (IDN) may seem prescient. We announced its inaugural cohort that same March month, during what now seems like fanciful economic growth. The five participating regions deserve credit for their leadership in integrating inclusion and equity within workforce and economic development strategies. With the 18-month period of formal IDN activities wrapping up in December of last year, we can look back on what we accomplished together and what lies ahead.

The IDN’s inaugural cohort included Cleveland, Ohio; Corpus Christi, Texas; Spokane, Washington; the Northeast Oklahoma Regional Alliance (NORA); and Pensacola, Florida. The cohort’s complement of five communities was made possible by grants from the ECMC Foundation and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Formed from a selection of more than 35 applications, they were united around the IDN mission to close equity gaps for working adults through a methodology of identifying and replicating strategies for revitalizing local economies. Central to this process would be translating educational experiences into economic opportunity. Amid the then-growing economy at large, the IDN and its members recognized that vulnerable populations were being left behind. They were challenged with poverty, underemployment, and stagnant wages. And, true to the concept of inclusivity, economic development planning that encompasses marginalized communities not only addresses the moral imperative of ensuring that every member of the community has the opportunity to thrive, it drives overall community prosperity.

The IDN’s collaborative model centered on a curated learning process. This took place through continual group engagement over the 18-month program. During this process, communities shared insights and developed common program elements that would propel workforce and economic development strategies that reduced equity gaps.

Each IDN community team was led by a regional economic development entity:

Pensacola: FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance

Cleveland: Greater Cleveland Partnership

Spokane: Greater Spokane Incorporated (GSI)

Northeast Oklahoma Regional Alliance

Corpus Christi: United Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce/ Nueces County

The IDN created a confluence of learning, best practices, common challenges, and other insights that sparked synergies among peers across the country as they learned, strategized, and built together. A regional economic development group represented each IDN community. Local workforce systems, postsecondary institutions, community organizations, and businesses from growing regional industries comprised these leadership teams. Countless other partners, including nonprofit workforce and education providers, labor organizations, local chambers, and other community groups, supported the core IDN leadership teams.

The five IDN communities met regularly (initially through convening visits to three of the communities, then in multi-day virtual convenings and shorter working sessions as travel became impossible due to the COVID-19 pandemic). CAEL, the International Economic Development Council (IEDC), BurningGlass Technologies, Quest Site Solutions, and other partners facilitated these meetings, which provided an opportunity for diverse stakeholders across the communities to align resources and develop common, but locally tailored, strategies.

The main deliverable from this approach was a comprehensive action plan for each community. Although designed by and for each community, IDN collaboration aided the development and production of these customized plans at each step of the way.

During the first phase of the cohort, we completed labor market analyses and workforce asset mapping for each region. Building on these tactics, we devoted the middle third of the project to strategy development. We identified goals for each community that rolled up into an inclusive regional workforce strategy. Over the final six months, communities prioritized execution of at least one key strategy identified in their community action plan, with support from CAEL for implementation and sustainability planning activities. Here is just a sampling of what our convenings and working sessions covered:

Operationalizing inclusive growth. Presentation by CAEL and Brookings on what inclusive growth means and how to put it into practice.

Data analysis workshop: Hosted by Burning Glass at the Spokane convening, experts worked with each community to address specific questions about labor market analysis data and provide tools to interpret, articulate, and present this data to key stakeholders.

Target populations and “good jobs”: For this session, communities shared with the larger group their target priority populations and a prioritized list of key industries and “good jobs” or target jobs. Participants shared best insights on methods of reaching and serving their target populations and career pathway insights being developed.

Barriers and strategies: During this session, communities shared some of the key barriers each of their target populations are facing and other updates about their strategies and tactics development.

Implementation guidance and follow up: CAEL provided further guidance, answered questions from communities about how to use their implementation plan guides, and provided assistance with further refinement. CAEL also provided individual feedback on draft implementation plans and recommendations for tailoring their strategies and initiatives.

Activating and sustaining long-term plans: Co-facilitated by Ernst & Young, this work focused on process, providing workshop and breakout discussions on moving projects beyond the planning stage, maintaining partnerships over the long term, and successful public engagement strategies.

Best practices: This topic covered the specific strategy goals of the participating communities. The International Economic Development Council brought a panel of experts and practitioners who have implemented projects like those pursued by the IDN communities to co-facilitate a series of breakouts on key topics in common among the IDN communities. CAEL facilitated a final day of breakouts to provide expanded time for cross-community dialogue on some of the major areas of work common among communities.

Rapid Response – COVID-19: Communities shared specific challenges they were dealing with, including potential solutions, funding sources, and other ways to pivot or adjust their IDN goals and strategies given the impact of the pandemic.

Site selection: Our technical partner, Quest Site Solutions, presented on the site-selection component of business planning and economic development as it relates to diversity and inclusion efforts and joined community check-in calls to support implementation plans and how to best tailor strategies and work with site selectors on future opportunities. Content focused on business investment in underserved communities, accessibility issues, and involvement in the site-selection process.

Promising practices in the time of COVID-19: In this workshop, led by Ernst & Young, some initial funding opportunities and rapid response strategies that showed promising results were presented and discussed across the communities.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion workshop: Hosted by Miguel Aviles-Perez (MJA International), this engaging and interactive workshop provided hands-on training, tools, and resources to share with community employers as well as customized case studies for communities to use in future diversity and inclusion efforts locally.

Peer dialogues on key elements of community projects including:

  • Industry-focused equity surveys and industry marketing strategies for residents and employers. Several communities worked together on supporting employers in recognizing the barriers to entry for disadvantaged populations alongside marketing and outreach to expand interest and understanding among targeted populations about lucrative but less diverse industries such as manufacturing.
  • Sector-driven workforce strategies in manufacturing and healthcare identifying key growth opportunities and building customized training to expand opportunities for entry and advancement.
  • Work-based learning and other adaptations of worker training focused on meeting the unique needs of disadvantaged populations and building new training models and services to reduce barriers preventing access.

Tours and community networking sessions: During the on-site convenings, host communities led tours of their communities and key workforce and education institutions and hosted networking socials to build local momentum and provide an opportunity for local leadership to meet the other communities and project partners.

The IDN provided value to the participating communities on a number of levels as attested by project closing interviews with team members from the five communities, with several positive impacts. Here are a few summaries:

Regional networks building unified strategies under a lens of equity: Participants identified the local partnerships they built with a broad array of stakeholders and are maintaining over time as the greatest benefit of the IDN. Participants saw real value in walking through a formal, structured, long-term process (an 18-month planning-and-doing process and an ongoing future implementation commitment) with “such a diverse set of decision makers sitting down together” and engaged in ongoing work. One participant noted, “The community is more aware across the board what everyone else is doing and working on. There is just a whole lot more sharing” compared to the sporadic contacts of the past.

Co-creation with a national team of peers: The five participating communities have built real and ongoing relationships with their peers around the country. Many reflected positively on learning from one another’s work and experiences and being able to go to a colleague in another community for help taking on challenges. The communities feel stronger by “continuing to build a network of communities that share similar values relative to leveraging and integrating diversity and inclusion efforts.” “All of us learned something from each other,” commented one participant, and another admitted hearing such great ideas from other regions that they plan to “shamelessly take those ideas and run with them” in their own community.

Long-term partnerships: An intensive group effort has spurred long-term system change in participating communities. The IDN formed “a structure and an accountability loop that we [the participating members] can adopt into the rest of the work we do as a region.” By building a way of working together, partner entities across the private, public, educational, and community development sectors have a framework to use when building future projects, such that each new initiative need not start from a blank slate but can build on the structures developed through the IDN initiative.

Measures of Success: The IDN initiative measured itself on a number of indicators.

  • Each IDN community has developed comprehensive action plans for new workforce development initiatives, has deployed at least one of its targeted initiatives into full implementation, and has begun to track project effectiveness and impact.
  • The communities’ planned postsecondary attainment efforts have focused on supporting individual workers’ access to good jobs as well as driving inclusive economic growth.
  •  Communities have continued to implement their goals - even in the midst of a massive economic crisis - and are building greater workforce alignment and inclusive growth, addressing local challenges and working to remove barriers to success.

Principles for Inclusive Development: While much of the work of the IDN was system building and development of new initiatives for workforce training and preparation, the core values of inclusivity and diversity in the workplace remained critical to success. Some key principles the communities identified included:

  • Strengths-based and asset-based perspectives that recognize the strengths each worker can bring to their workplace.
  • Different people bring different ideas and creative solutions. A broader range of worker perspectives resulting from a more diverse workforce can build new and creative solutions to real business challenges. Firms can reach a more diverse customer base through a workforce that reflects the community.
  • Simply accessing “the whole potential workforce” as opposed to only tapping a portion of potential employees is good for business. Providing resources to help companies draw from a broader pool of workers - and building access pathways for underrepresented workers into the workforce - maximizes productivity and capacity for industry and grows the economy.

Each IDN community is well on its way into implementation of its regional initiatives, which are moving toward systemic change across public institutions and the business community. Although the pandemic forced the IDN’s monthly meetings and quarterly regional convenings to shift to a virtual model about midway through the project, stakeholders were able to build strong partnerships that promise to persist well after the cohort’s formal conclusion. In fact, participants reported that the greatest benefit of the IDN was continuing to build a network of communities that share similar values relative to leveraging and integrating diversity and inclusion efforts into workforce and economic development strategies and initiatives. In a participant survey, more than 80 percent of respondents indicated that the partnerships they formed as a result of the IDN were “somewhat” or “very” strong. To that end, the IDN communities will remain connected through the personal relationships built over the past year and a half and via the IDN online portal of resources. Their collaboration promises to yield benefits long after the current economic crisis subsides and will leave them better prepared for the opportunities – and new challenges – that are sure to follow in its wake.


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