Marjorie Parker, President & CEO of JobsFirstNYC spoke to an audience of government policy-makers, funders, and practitioners in Toronto Canada in October 2018, as the keynote at the MetCal Foundation’s annual convening. She spoke to JobsFirstNYC’s last 10 years of work, highlighting the LESEN, Youth WINS, and the Seasonal Talent Exchange while pulling out lessons learned along the way — namely trust and patience — and speaking to the successes of the intermediary model. Turning towards the future, Parker spoke to JobsFirstNYC’s plans for the next 10 years to come, lifting up some of the challenges we’re beginning to see in our newest exploration of the data on out-of-school, out-of-work young adults.
(The following text has been edited slightly)
I emigrated from Jamaica to the U.S. in the 1980s. Growing up in a majority-black country, I was instantly struck by how different life was in New York City. For the first time in my life, I was labeled a “minority.” I remember clearly sitting in a class with a professor talking about the struggles of African Americans, and my classmates staring at me, as the only woman of color in the room, expecting me to speak to those experiences — to share my story and speak on behalf of the black community. I had never been confronted with a situation like that before.
I grew up seeing black folks in positions of power: They told me my news at night, they sang my favorite songs, they were my elected officials and they policed my streets. When my teachers asked me what I wanted to accomplish when I grew up, they did so without prejudice because they never expected that the color of my skin would hold me back.
In that classroom, when my American professor turned to me and asked me to speak for the people of my race —people who hail from hundreds of different countries, who have rich and unique cultures and histories, and people whose life experiences were so different from mine — I felt what it means to be black in America. To be black in America means to be type-cast, it means working twice as hard to get half the distance, and to be a minority.
The gravity of that label —minority — struck me that day, and that understanding clarified my life’s purpose. I have devoted my career to pushing back against the systems that institutionalized behaviors that have long term, debilitating impact on the lives of the people living in under-resourced communities. I have chosen to do so by fighting poverty and assisting in developing pathways to economic success in my home, New York City.
I spent many years at a nonprofit serving young adults, many of them of color, who hailed from low-income, under-resourced communities in Brooklyn, New York. For many of those young men and women, I came to realize, the minority label pushed on them, was their most significant barrier to success. I also understood that — without growing up seeing people who looked like them in positions of power —these young adults had come to expect a very different future than I had growing up. From an early age, they had been limited, from achieving fulfilling careers, from attaching to the economic life of New York City, from “dreaming big.”
I have long believed that poverty is a status quo that we accept that we do not have to. We have the capacity to build an economic system that works for all. One way to get there is to begin by finding ways to destigmatize the minority label. This label implies all that is negative in social and economic conditions.
Though I had the privilege of growing up without thinking about race, it was clear to me that I no longer had that option. The numbers in New York City paint a clear picture of the effect of race on a young adults’ employment prospects.
In New York City at the peak of the recession, there were 187,000 young adults who were out of school and out of work —that was 22 percent of the young adult population in the City at the time.
Unemployment for the 18- to 24-year-old population peaked at 24 percent in 2011, more than double the unemployment rate for all the city’s workers.
These were some of the young men and women I was working with in Brooklyn. For them, the statistics were much worse. At 29 percent unemployment in 2010, black youth were the hardest hit by the economic recession. Even today, despite gains in employment across racial lines, black youth continue to have the highest unemployment rates —meaning that, at 21 percent, they are roughly half as likely to find a job when looking than their white peers.
Despite the efforts of the many direct-service providers on the ground, there needed to be an entity working at a systemic level to address systemic problems like the ones I saw and experienced in Brooklyn.
JobsFirstNYC was born in response to this crisis of young adult unemployment and disengagement. Stakeholders across New York City gathered to develop a strategy to address what they recognized as a structural challenge.
Funders, thought leaders, workforce providers, and youth development experts articulated a need for a new kind of mechanism, to develop community-responsive partnerships to achieve better outcomes for the young adults who were being left behind. They theorized that —by focusing in on one population —this mechanism could ensure that systems were designed with them in mind.
In recognition that City government wasn’t equipped to play the role, a group of influential funders, who were intrigued by the idea, put up the resources to launch such an organization in 2007. They envisioned it as a youth workforce development intermediary to focus on the disjointed factions of the system serving this very specific, high-need population in New York City.
As an intermediary, JobsFirstNYC raises consciousness about the challenges young adults face, coordinates and leverages community assets, builds institutional and field capacity, and convenes stakeholders. We sit at the intersection of workforce and economic development, philanthropy, policy-makers and practitioners, and is able to operate at the systems level, rather than provide direct-services on the ground.
By zeroing in on raising consciousness of the crisis of youth unemployment in the city, engaging employers and aligning their efforts, building the capacity of the field, and advancing practice, JobsFirstNYC was the agent of change needed to address the systemic and structural problems we were seeing.
Since its founding 10 years ago, JobsFirstNYC has built and tested demonstration projects to improve outcomes. Many of these are now being replicated and influencing public policy.
We have convened funders, practitioners, young adults, policy-makers, employers and thought-leaders to innovate, create and learn together.
We have researched and shared reports on the promising practice, effective policies and deep challenges for our targeted population and the communities they live in. For example, in our latest research we investigated the impact of online job applications with pre-employment personality tests, which we found to challenging for young adults.
We have worked with the philanthropic community to advance thinking on measures and metrics, and ways for them to function as partners to the workforce field.
We have delved deep into communities, identifying the 18 in New York City with the highest concentrations of out-of-school, out-of-work young adults, and we have informed City agencies in program design and implementation to maximize effectiveness.
We have engaged the business community, aligning forward-thinking employers in order to advance the case for young adults as employees and helped to deepen the field’s understanding of aligning workforce and economic development practice.
Throughout, we have come to understand the core principles that make this work effective. First among them is trust —we have a saying that “partnerships develop at the speed of trust,” and we work to maintain our reputation of neutrality, in order to ensure that the communities with which we engage and the partnerships that we develop are able to rely on us.
Second is a willingness to fail. As an organization that takes on risky propositions in the name of innovation, JobsFirstNYC must position itself to be more risk-tolerant than other organizations, and this requires deep connections and resilient relationships with our partners and our colleagues.
And third is patience. We have to understand what it means for a community to be ready for intervention. A community may have all of the condition-markers for why an organization like JobsFirstNYC should partner with them, but if they are not ready, we wait.
Intermediary work is challenging on many levels. We are not a direct service provider and we are not a funder. If you need immediate satisfaction from your work, we might not be the place you chose to work. The rewards are usually in the longer term.
So how do we do our work?
I will start with the Lower East Side Employment Network. We call it the LESEN. Our first initiative that aligned economic and workforce development — an employer-facing network.
The LESEN is a neighborhood-based partnership of eight agencies with experience in workforce development, education, and community engagement. LESEN works collaboratively with their local governing body, Manhattan’s Community Board 3, which supports the Network’s community interests in local hiring and employment opportunities.
The Lower East Side is a neighborhood that has seen rapid gentrification in the past 10 years, and although the member organizations have worked together for several decades, they formally joined forces and came together as a network in 2007, in order to improve connections between work-ready candidates and quality jobs.
Seeing the economic development that was happening in their neighborhood, these community-based organizations wanted to work to ensure that their constituents were not displaced as rents rose and the neighborhood changed. Foremost among their priorities — was the institutionalization of a local hiring effort.
Thus, LESEN connects key employers to a diverse pool of jobseekers from the neighborhood, for employment opportunities in high-demand economic growth sectors. Working together, the Network is able to negotiate with developers for local hire arrangements, to ensure that neighborhood economic investments benefit residents.
In fact, the first check JobsFirstNYC wrote was to the LESEN, providing funds to support the planning process. Later, we funded a Network Coordinator. The Coordinator’s main responsibilities are to develop and manage employer relationships, and engage the partner organizations, employers and community stakeholders.
We recognized early on the value of this kind of network alignment. By formally working together, the Network members create a single, easy-to-find, central point of access for businesses to connect to an expanded pool of qualified candidates.
These promising efficiencies —reflect the Network’s overall mission to collaboratively improve workforce development practices — and reduce operational costs for employers and the agencies, streamlining hiring processes, while effectively connecting candidates to high-demand jobs.
LESEN’s outcomes show that its collaborative, inter-organizational, and employer-centered approach to responding to economic development is a groundbreaking new model for workforce development. By organizing pre-emptively in advance of the changes in the neighborhood, the network partners were able to develop pipelines for coming jobs. This is a completely revolutionary model for workforce and economic development: The first employer-facing network of its kind.
For example, when the Essex Crossing, a billion-dollar residential and commercial development, started to plan their work in the Lower East Side, the LESEN was able to negotiate with the developers as they sought to secure community buy-in. As a result of these nonprofits speaking as one voice, their collaboration secured MOUs with the developers guaranteeing local hire priority. Up to 30 percent of the job openings would go to participants from the LESEN. In addition, one LESEN partner secured the rights to a café space for a social enterprise initiative that will train young adults on the job, while the proceeds from the business will go to support the activities of the nonprofit that runs it.
Helping the LESEN establish its model taught us some important, lasting lessons on how to work in partnership with a community.
First, we saw the importance of being invited in. As an intermediary focused on the systems that serve New York City as a whole, JobsFirstNYC has access to a broader network and community of practice than locally-based organizations, but we do not seek to compete with community-based organizations in their knowledge of the unique needs of their neighborhoods. Ever-wary of the “parachuting” effect, we have been careful to only enter a community that asks for our assistance.
Additionally, we’ve developed a framework for how we intervene. Organized into four phases, we leverage this structure to pace the process and to ensure that each decision is made thoughtfully throughout.
The four phases we have articulated are DISCOVERY, PLANNING, DESIGN, and IMPLEMENTATION.
Watching the organic way in which the partners of the LESEN came together, we knew we had to integrate trust and relationship development into this process, and we also noted the critical importance of a project developing in tandem with local economic development activity.
Thus, our first phase — Discovery — is a comprehensive data scan of the geographic area. We look at the supply-side elements: How many young adults live in the community? How many are out of school and out of work? What kinds of education opportunities exist?
Then we dig into the demand-side it’s: Which businesses hire from that area? What are the major projects coming online? What do we see in the local labor market?
We compile this information and compare it with qualitative elements. We hold focus groups with employers, young adults and practitioners. We look at the programs that serve the community, the nonprofits that exist there, and the public and private dollars at play.
All of this culminates in a set of recommendations, which we use to leverage community buy-in and, sometimes, an early invitation in.
Upon securing an invitation, we move into Planning. Planning calls together interested parties to do a deeper dive on the research, assess broader interest in solving the problem identified, and discuss the different ways a collaboration might work to serve the local community. Are there unique needs that must be considered in the potential development of a partnership? On Staten Island, New York, this phase lifted up the unique issues the borough has with transportation. With some of the longest commute times in the country, the partners pointed out that getting to work was often one of the largest barriers that young people on the Island faced in accessing employment.
It is critical that our community partners drive this process. JobsFirstNYC works to remain neutral throughout, facilitating without bias, and offering support, effective practices, and resources that help to propel the work by meeting the community’s needs.
Out of the Planning phase, we are able to iterate an early agreement on developing a partnership, and identify the potential partners who will help to move it from concept to practice.
Throughout the process, we engage diverse stakeholders, seeking opinions from policy-makers, funders, and young adults who live in the communities. We speak to employers early and often on their needs, and ensure that partnerships keep this feedback at the top of their minds, when identifying the sector-paths that they train young adults to work in.
Once these foundational questions are answered, we move into Design, taking the ideas from Planning and putting pen to paper. We work with the partners who have opted-in to develop a clear mission and vision statement, MOUs, governance structures, and a program model.
We convene local elected officials, city agencies, and philanthropies to pitch the model and secure funding for it; and we develop reporting structures and goals for which they will be responsible in a pilot year.
Upon officially launching the partnership, we shift from development to the Implementation phase. With all the foundational thought-work complete, partners begin delivering services.
On Staten Island, our partners identified a systemic goal of reducing the young adult population by 3 percent in 3 years. In a borough with nearly a 24 percent disconnection rate in some areas, this is a clear statement on the power of partnership and the increased capacity that comes from collaborating.
In recognition that this work is hard, and that it requires a complete shift in thinking for providers, who are used to competing to secure scarce resources, JobsFirstNYC stays with newly launched partnerships for at least three years. We provide ongoing technical assistance, linking them to financial support trainers, program experts, and facilitation experts to ensure that the partnership stays connected and the bonds between organizations strengthen.
We work to institutionalize this shift at an organizational level, convening executives, middle-management, and frontline staff, and we help to lift up the work on a national, and — in this case — international stage.
So these are the four phases we move through as we do our work: Discovery, planning, design, and implementation.
The other key lesson we learned from LESEN was that economic development and workforce development have natural overlaps that are too often ignored. In fact, though we often discuss dual customer management, at JobsFirstNYC we have shifted towards referring to this as the “double bottom line,” in recognition that — in almost every instance — by best serving the needs of young adults, we are already doing much to advance services to employers.
As we have matured as an organization we have developed a number of partnerships that serve employers, but we have also expanded the ways we work directly with employers ourselves.
We have moved towards working with them on their operational practices, helping them to recognize and profit from the value of young workers by improving their retention and advancement programs to — most recently — collaborating directly on a program serving young adult employees.
The Seasonal Talent Exchange, a pilot project launched last year, was conceived of by four of JobsFirstNYC’s employer partners that had a common reliance on seasonal workers. All for customer service positions.
All four agreed, philosophically, that while they have a corporate commitment to managing labor costs by levering seasonal support staff each year during peak seasons, they wished to offer more steady opportunities for their seasonal employees. They developed a model wherein they offer their seasonal talent workforce opportunities to connect to year-round employment.
They recognized the value of workers that have organically transitioned from seasonal, to part time regular, to full time, and even to management positions. Having a track record of hiring such individuals over time, they wondered if there was a way to formalize that process and support young adults through it.
JobsFirstNYC convened these employers to facilitate conversations around job quality, wage differences, and worker benefits. Due to long-standing relationships with the companies involved, we had access to senior management; leaders who could authorize a pilot and move forward with the work, making necessary changes in the organization to customize an alignment strategy that would meet the goals of this effort.
The Seasonal Talent Exchange emerged out of these conversations. It is an employer-informed, demand-led, innovative approach to developing, sourcing, and strengthening seasonal employee talent by creating a seamless, integrated exchange between prominent New York City employers, each of which have a sizable seasonal workforce.
The partnership model involves the intentional “exchange” or sharing of common workers across these companies, with the intent of creating a year-round work experience, supported by training and development. By formally aligning strategies between organizations, as one major employer off-boards their seasonal workforce, they can refer them directly to another who is just beginning their seasonal hiring. For example, one partner brings on young adults for a summer-season engagement, working in high-traffic customer service roles, then — as fall begins — talent is referred to a company that sees high traffic during winter.
As we build out a year-long employment experience with multiple handoffs for peak seasons, all companies benefit from this exchange, reducing the costs of recruitment and ensuring that their seasonal hires have an additional layer of vetting, before bringing them on.
Seasonal jobs typically have a higher rate of turnover, resulting in a number of additional costs for employers. For a young person working a job they know will last only a few months, there is little incentive to stay if another opportunity comes along. In this model, with the assurance that there is another experience ahead and increased job security, employers see higher retention with a workforce that is less likely to look for something more permanent in the near-term.
JobsFirstNYC provides technical and logistical supports, and works directly with the hiring managers and executives at each location, to ensure that employees successfully transition between work settings — and works to connect employees to ongoing social, educational, and financial supports with community partners.
In this way, we accomplish our “double-bottom line” with one comprehensive approach. Employers improve their recruitment and retention and young workers have greater job security year-round.
This demand-driven service delivery approach has been engrained in JobsFirstNYC’s DNA. We borrowed lessons learned from our employer partners and the network members of the LESEN, as we turned to the power of sectoral programming in 2012, first articulating the design for a project that came to be known as the Young Adult Sectoral Employment Project, or YASEP.
The YASEP is a first-of-its-kind effort to test whether sector strategies, previously established through research to directly benefit adult jobseekers, can be specifically applied to organizations serving young adults who are out of school and out of work and the employers that hire them.
Sector strategies are a unique career pathways approach, developed with employers at the table from inception to ensure training results in connection to jobs with growth opportunities.
JobsFirstNYC saw potential to create a network of sector partnerships, allowing for inter-network referrals, ensuring that young adults aren’t turned away, while allowing for an opportunity to train and place them in higher-wage jobs, with more advancement potential.
This pilot and implementation project involved the development of multiple, sector-specific partnerships. Collaborations that applied to participate in the project were required to have at least one CBO partner, one industry skills training entity, and one (or more) sector-specific employer at the table. The goal — for these diverse stakeholders to work together to create customized pathways to employment for young adults.
The project involved two phases, the first year included planning, development, and the provision of intensive technical assistance for the proposed partnerships. The next two years focused on implementation of program services. By convening regular learning communities in which practitioners, employers, funders, and others were brought together to build organizational capacity, we deepened the connections of the partners, establishing what is known today at the YASEP Network.
Through two cohorts, we brought on a total of 11 partnerships. Ten have gone on to implement their programs, and the eleventh acting as an integral partner in the Seasonal Talent Exchange, described earlier.
These partnerships place young adults in growing employment sectors, like Tech, Healthcare, and the Green Economy, and all of them received intensive consulting services on labor market intelligence through their engagement with the project.
Critically, we have engaged our funder “champion” in this effort, as an early thought partner and a consistent advocate. Laurie Dien, Vice President of Programs at The Pinkerton Foundation, has supported our work on YASEP since the beginning, and has gone on to fund these partnership upon implementation of their programs.
Our relationship with Laurie, and with other funders who support our work, is unique given their involvement in our founding. We are lucky in New York City to have a robust philanthropic community, and we strive to push their thinking, and they ours, on ways to lift up and pilot effective practice and expand upon the wide field of work.
We have also delved deeper into our work with providers at the community-level.
JobsFirstNYC began the planning for place-based partnerships after the release of our 2013 report, Barriers to Entry, in which we identified the 18 communities wherein more than 50 percent of New York City’s out-of-school, out-of-work young adults reside, and we believe the key to systems change starts on the ground in these areas.
Focusing our attention on these communities, this initiative draws on the frameworks and lessons learned from existing JobsFirstNYC partnerships, including the Bronx Opportunity Network, known as the BON — a college access and completion network — and the YASEP mentioned earlier.
Place-based Partnerships focuses on a community-level, systems approach; this involves open calls to any and every one in a community interested in young adult unemployment — from churches to corner businesses; engages employers from the initial stages of discussions; and, uses data to inform decisions. These efforts also emphasize collaboration between community-based organizations and community college partners.
By providing convening opportunities and customized technical assistance, guided by JobsFirstNYC’s four-phase process: Discovery, Planning, Design, and Implementation, we are able to facilitate transformations from competitive or unaligned groups of organizations that operate in silos, to partnerships that better connect young adults to economic opportunity.
The Youth Workforce Initiative Network of Staten Island, which we call Youth WINS, is one such partnership. A collaboration of several Staten Island-based organizations with long histories of delivering social, educational and career services to young adults on the Island, Youth WINS serves out-of-school, out-of-work young adults by connecting them to employment and education.
In 2015, JobsFirstNYC was invited into the community by the Staten Island Foundation. They requested we work on a Staten Island Young Adult Workforce Partnership after seeing that — in the North Shore of the borough — the concentration of 18- to 24-year-olds who were not in school and not working had reached 24 percent. To come up with ways of tackling this issue, we invited local stakeholders to develop a partnership to address the out-of-school, out-of-work young adult crisis on Staten Island.
Youth WINS formally launched a year ago. Having followed JobsFirstNYC’s four phases of partnership development, DISCOVERY, PLANNING, DESIGN, and IMPLEMENTATION, the launch represented the culmination of almost two years of work, and the beginning of countless more.
Throughout the establishment of Youth WINS, JobsFirstNYC conducted labor market research showing that tech and healthcare were the two sectors with the greatest career-path potential on the Island. We held design labs with the providers on the Island and city agency representatives overseeing the borough. We convened employer focus groups in collaboration with the local Chamber of Commerce, which is a member of the Youth WINS Steering Committee.
We invited philanthropy for a tour of the island which included a briefing for local government, representatives from foundations, and press, where we presented the model.
A lot of hard work went into the process, but the model that came out is very intuitive. Participating community-based organizations partner with the College of Staten Island to offer educational bridges, customized training, and wraparound support services to out-of-school, out-of-work young adults on Staten Island, while the Chamber of Commerce connects with employers to inform those trainings and ultimately place the young adults into jobs in high-demand employment sectors.
The partners have developed a model that emphasizes the long-term career readiness needs of young adults by weighing educational attainment, certification, labor market intelligence, and the immediate needs of jobseekers.
Acting collectively, the partners of Youth WINS are able to offer more comprehensive services than when working in silos. Furthermore, by collaborating rather than competing, the organizations have increased capacity to serve those in need.
Our work has taught us how cautious one must be when working on systemic change at the community level. Every decision has a consequence, and — in order to remain neutral and refrain from creating an exclusionary process — we must put great thought into how we operate.
To ensure that the model reflects the community’s values and is appropriately customized to its geography, we must be careful to listen often and talk less, and to truly value the ideas and contributions of our partners.
Too often solutions proposed from above view communities as a collective, (such as giving them wholesale labels, like “minorities”, with all its negative connotations… or for that matter, expecting me to speak for all black people). Communities are diverse, complex, and resourceful. Communities can best decide what works for them. Our job at JobsFirstNYC, is to help them get there.
So, where are we today after 10 years?
Through these efforts and hard work, progress has been made. The number and share of young New Yorkers who are out of school and out of work has dropped significantly over the last 10 years. In 2010, it was over 187,000. Today, it has dropped to 136,483 – lower, but still much too high.
But we are up against a new set of structural challenges. Young adults aged 18–24 are getting jobs, but in what industries?
- 18% are working in retail positions.
- A further 12% are in food prep and food service jobs
- And a final 5% are in personal care services, such as Home Health Aids
These sectors can be challenging, as they provide limited opportunities for advancement, are notorious for long hours and inflexible scheduling, and offer few worker protections for a population that is often vulnerable. On top of this, wages are declining.
We are looking at 35 percent of young adult employment in these three sectors alone. In 2014, we released a report titled, Unleashing the Economic Power of the 35 Percent. At the time, the “35 percent” referred to the number of young adults who were out of school and out of work combined with the number of young adults in low-wage jobs with limited career-path potential.
These numbers might be a little less troubling, if they reflected a population that was increasingly taking part-time work, while they complete postsecondary education, but they don’t. This part-time work trend holds the same for young adults who are in school and those who are not.
So, it is clear that, despite some gains, there is much work to be done.