#2] Employer Engagement and the Myth of the Dual Customer — Steven L. Dawson
“Employer engagement” is the current battle cry of funders and policymakers as they urge workforce practitioners to become ever more “market driven”— meeting the needs of employers and, in the process, providing lasting benefits to low-income jobseekers.
National Fund for Workforce Solutions
As with Mr. Dawson’s previous paper, Make Bad Jobs Better, this essay highlights a critically important workforce development issue: the relationship between the workforce practitioner and the employer. As with that first Pinkerton essay, Mr. Dawson brings both light and heat. Mr. Dawson’s point of view is that this relationship is too one-sided: workforce organizations are simply too subservient in their interactions with employers and sometimes confuse means and ends.
By characterizing the relationship with the employer as one between a service provider and a customer, Dawson makes the persuasive case that this clarity brings a focus to the responsibility of the workforce organization. Workforce practitioners will actually perform better because they will want to continue the relationship by becoming a valued advisor.
But Dawson does not believe that the customer is always right. He correctly points out that the best way to serve an employer is to go beyond addressing immediate needs by presenting alternative solutions that the employer had not foreseen. Of course, this may require that the practitioner be well-informed and experienced.
What Dawson is really proposing with these essays is the development of the third generation of workforce professionals: those who are able to be highly valued consultants to the employer but who remain committed to the job seeker as their constituent. He does the workforce field a real service by parsing the distinction between the customer and the constituent. It struck me as guiding the way to a balance of excellent service to the employer while maintaining strong support for the workers and job seekers.
However, I wish Dawson had addressed two related issues that could impact the adoption of his philosophy.
The first concerns the evolution of workforce development from individual relationships with a handful of employers from four to six different industries to the strategy of organizing sectoral partnerships with groups of employers from one sector. The whole concept of sectoral organizing was to understand an entire industry and create talent supply chains to address that industry’s needs. Working one-on-one could help a few individuals, whereas addressing the aggregated needs of a regional industry could benefit hundreds of job seekers. While there are a few workforce organizations capable of organizing excellent industry partnerships as well as impacting the business strategies of individual customers, this is still the exception.
The other issue is also related to industry partnerships. Focusing on the business as customer can be tremendously rewarding and lead to a transformed company that sees its employees as assets and becomes more competitive in the marketplace. However, from an economic development point of view it does little to lift the regional industry. This approach would rarely lead to a group of employers working jointly to improve educational systems or training investments. It may also inhibit certain economic development strategies that lead to the development of Centers of Excellence in mechatronics or packaging that result from small firms working in partnership to generate new strategies that result in better training, more up-to-date equipment, and new markets.
That being said, Dawson has succeeded again in raising provocative questions and responding with intelligent and well-informed arguments. He is setting high performance standards for workforce professionals and lighting a fire under all of us to reach for that next level. We respect this provocation because as Dawson states in his essay: “For the majority of practitioners this is personal.”
Baltimore Workforce Funders Collaborative
This is a wonderful paper and I am so glad that it has been produced. Over the past few years, many well-meaning folks in the workforce development arena have adopted catch phrases such as “employer-driven,” “business-led,” and “dual-customer.” At times I have feared that the underlying implication is that workforce development is only effective when employers are the PRIMARY beneficiary of the efforts. This assumption has the potential to obscure the important work of systems change that is a part of effective workforce development practice.
For sure, the workforce development field has needed to shift towards greater strategic alignment with real labor market opportunities and to generate more extensive participation and investment by employers in the design and operation of workforce initiatives. But this work isn’t just about satisfying businesses and growing industries. In places like Baltimore, it’s about breaking down a profound disconnect between economic engines and groups of people who do not have real access to opportunity.
When I look at the good and effective workforce development practices in action around me, I see many committed organizations that are deeply dedicated to helping a range of adults and youth access good jobs while overcoming formidable historical, systemic and personal barriers to employment. In most cases, these organizations and the persistent men and women enrolled in the programs they offer are working to make a change- not only in an individual’s level of skill and experience– but in the range of opportunities afforded by local labor markets that have not been welcoming or accessible. They engage employers as investors and participants in the work, while catalyzing change in the way those employers interact with and hire from local communities.
Such change may require that workforce systems and providers identify new incentives and trigger levers that challenge industries and employers to go further to close opportunity gaps and improve the quality of entry-level work. This may involve efforts to change policies and practices in ways that address the long-standing impacts of structural racism, gender biases, and geographic disconnects. Such efforts often require advocacy to create mandates and enforcement of better job quality practices through wage & benefit requirements, community benefits agreements/local hiring directives and elimination of barriers to employment for individuals with criminal backgrounds.
The Baltimore Center for Green Careers (www.baltimoregreencareers.civicworks.com) is a great example of an organization that embodies the constituent/customer orientation described by Steve Dawson. BCGC trains disadvantaged jobseekers for green jobs. Through its social enterprise, it simultaneously secures weatherization and solar installation contracts from public and private sources. It then sub-contracts this work out to small local businesses that sign-on to agreements that include wage/benefit standards, a commitment to inclusive hiring practices that reduce barriers for individuals with a criminal background and more. Because BCGC engages in intentional efforts to change industry practice, the small businesses in its network are able to access work contracts and strong talent through BCGC, while constituent jobseekers are offered a new pathway to high quality family-sustaining careers.
President and CEO
Thank you for getting a long-overdue conversation underway about a topic that could not be of greater urgency. You have stimulated comments from admirable, pragmatic innovators who are driving the kinds of urgently needed systemic changes your though-provoking papers call for. I wholeheartedly agree with the ‘harsh truth’ you lay out in the “Bad Jobs” paper that while the economy is now producing many more job openings, there are simply not enough good jobs available, and that an education-only strategy will ‘always leave the vast majority of low-income job seekers trapped in poor-quality jobs—or having no jobs at all’. As you note, REDF has been targeting funding and advisory services to employers – primarily nonprofits – that run social enterprises. The social mission of these businesses is to offer wage-paid employment with supportive services to prepare people who are overcoming tough challenges (histories of incarceration, homelessness, etc.) for long-term employment. We are working with the leaders of these entrepreneurial organizations to “craft a combination of business and labor strategies that benefit both the employer and the frontline workers” so that those initially employed by social enterprise make a successful transition into the competitive workforce; and also to partner on advocacy to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, and do what we can to erode the public benefits cliffs many commentators have discussed.
We wanted to offer one observation about your comment that, “Crafting a competitive business model comes first, followed by high-road labor practices that then help drive the financial success of that business model.” While we agree with the basic idea that without a successful business, you won’t have jobs, let alone high road labor practices, our experience indicates that many businesses essentially bake ‘bad jobs’ into their business model, and don’t see a path to success using high-road labor practices. Rather than taking a sequential approach, we need business recipes that bake ‘good jobs’ into the strategy from the start.
We also really appreciated your ‘employer engagement’ paper, and are especially attuned to your suggestion that workforce organizations as intermediaries can benefit employers by coordinating direct to consumer marketing or ‘value chains’ of small producers to fulfill larger contracts – something we and our partners are working on now. We will hold further comments until we see your upcoming, “Social Enterprises Are Important, and Will Not Save the World”. Can’t wait.
Local Enterprise Assistance Fund (LEAF)
It is refreshing to come across this fascinating article not only because of its insights but also because of its practical applications. My organization, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund (LEAF), is a community development financial institution that provides financing to cooperatives and social purpose ventures, including “alternative staffing organizations.” This growing group of staffing companies aligns with what the author describes as the “becoming the employer” model in the workforce development field.
The corporate graveyard is littered with former great organizations that at some point during their life-span forgot to continuously ask two basic questions that drive strategy: “Who is our customer?” and “What is our product?” I find this to be one of the great contributions of the article. It highlights the importance of making the right call about who the customer is, who the constituents are, and who the stakeholders are. This complex interaction is particularly important in the non-profit world where confusion about “who is who” is so frequently encountered. This confusion lies at the heart of flawed strategic decisions.
LEAF is currently financing a successful Atlanta based alternative staffing organization. The organization, with annual revenues in excess of $30 million (most of it earned income), provides a path that allows formerly homeless persons to enter the labor market. Its strategic goals call for the expansion of its successful model to five cities within the next five years. This article will certainly
inform the strategy design to achieve such an ambitious goal.
At a broader level, the article’s contribution to the workforce development field is particularly important at a time when the field is at the forefront of initiatives to redress economic grievances and to boost living standards.
In many respects, this is a paper that speaks to the heart of the work at JobsFirstNYC, where we have defined ourselves as a constituency intermediary since our earliest days given our very specific mission with respect to out-of-school and out-of-work young adults. While much of our work as of late has been systems-level focused as well as business-focused, our every decision considers the welfare of this group of young people first. The call in this paper for all of us in the field to not lose sight of that deeply felt social purpose that drives our passion and commitment for this work is fundamental and right.
Over the years of my career I have had several roles. I, too, have marked our transition as a field as the pendulum has swung from a supply to a demand side focus. One of my earliest roles was that of a job developer and a supervisor of job development, and then later as a trainer and mentor to many job developers. So both the systemic and transactional elements of employer relationship-building are things I bring to my own work at JobsFirstNYC, and are central to our work overall. In considering both of these elements of employer engagement, this paper serves as an excellent primer inclusive of a range of strategies that can be useful for all of us in the field.
My one consideration is to underscore the importance of a high-level field conversation about the development of tools and technical assistance our field needs and will continue to need to help individual institutions and collaborations of institutions do this work more effectively over time. There are many tools and resources, I have found precious few to be truly effective in supporting this work. We can and must do better.
Employer engagement is fundamentally about relationship-building and trust, and those are often best taught through modeling and direct experience paired with training and best practice exchange. This takes a real time commitment to do well and organizations often make less-than-linear progress in their efforts to build these practices. It is an iterative process.
From my perspective, supporting the field’s efforts to engage employers more effectively needs to happen at four levels: a) first with line-level practitioners such as job developers (I say this with clear recognition that in our field, we substantially undervalue the role of job development given pay scales, available training/professional development, the overall working conditions of people working in this role); b) second with institutions (far too few in my experience actually institutionalize their employer relationships so they can endure even when personnel changes happen on either side of the relationship); c) third with institutional collaborations (where we have spent many years of effort at JobsFirstNYC); and d) fourth with respect to the “system” itself (bringing employer engagement to the level where business leaders themselves are actually systems change agents, advocates and ambassadors who can demonstrate through their relationships with workforce developers how job seekers and businesses alike benefit from the relationships in a structural and consistent manner).
I think developing a rubric for effective employer relationship-building/engagement practices that factors these four levels of engagement would be of great benefit to our field. All of this can and should be done with the specific intention of improving circumstances for our constituents. This is one area where key investments in our people will result in the progress we seek, some important examples of which are cited in this paper.
Thank you for sharing these ideas and for the opportunity for this exchange.
President and Chief Executive Officer
Your paper on employers is the best things I’ve read on the subject, and captures a great deal that I’ve learned, thought about, and said to whoever will listen, but you say it much more elegantly. I do have a couple of reactions.
1. I’ve come to believe that the most important element of our success in this realm and one of the most important measure of workforce development effectiveness is the willingness of employers to pay us for our work of advancing lower-skill, lower-paid workers. We’ve been getting paid for training incumbents for many years, and that is now a very important part of our business, involving 25 paying companies, nearly 2,000 incumbent students a year, and nearly $2 million annually in earned revenue. In addition to being scalable, and financially sustainable, getting paid is critically important because it forces us to be a very customer responsive, high quality vendor. It is the ultimate measure of real value. It also leads to employers bringing us “inside the tent”, both because they are paying us and want to maximize their investment, and they grow to trust us.
With the Mass unemployment rate now at 4%, we are beginning to get paid by employers for our pre-employment training and staffing services, not just incumbent training. This is just starting, and it is small, but a huge breakthrough for us. It is my goal, assuming unemployment stays low, to do no training and placement that employers aren’t willing to pay for. We are still far from this goal, but this is where I hope/think we are heading.
2. I am even more skeptical than you are about the state of the WFD field and its ability to seize the moment, truly engage companies as customers, and provide the quality of service that is needed. There are a lot of reasons for this, and you’ve mentioned some. I think that scale (most are tiny), capacity (most are very limited and this takes a lot), the right staff, are a few. But perhaps more important is culture. In my experience, many in our field come from a political or cultural perspective in which they view employers with suspicion, in spite of what they might say. At best, they talk about employers as a means to an ends. Employers (anyone for that matter) can smell this a mile off. So unless the field gets comfortable with the idea that employers are genuine, and necessary customers, it will fail.
You discuss the idea of improving company practices in your paper on job quality and I think you get at the challenge here in this paper. In my experience, we are best able to work with companies when we are “brought inside the tent.” This typically happens when, over years, our employer partners pay us to do progressively more sophisticated projects with them until we reach the point at which we are seen as an extension of their HR department and HR strategy. This has happened with about 10 of the 25 companies that pay us to train their employees, the rest being more transactional.
The problem is that I can think of very few workforce organizations that have the competence, experience, and high level of trust to be “brought inside the tent.” I think it is presumptuous and a bit arrogant to think organizations can help change company practices unless they are inside the tent, but the workforce development field has very low capacity in this realm.
3. I found your customer/constituent language interesting, but I’m not sure if it isn’t a false dichotomy. I’ve been coming around to the view and the narrative, particularly given the tight labor market, that our students are “talent” and our employer customers need talent. In fact they need it so much that we can help them find it in places they might not typically look. I’ve been toying with changing our tag line to JVS: “Connecting Great Talent To Great Employers.” We also tend to see our students as consumers of our services, and consumers have choices. So as consumers, they are our customers as well, and we better serve them well, or they will walk.
While I agree that including the worker/constituent voice is important, and I do think that councils etc. can help, I think the best thing we can do is treat our students as talent and consumers and treat them accordingly. Our staff work with our students with great respect. We try to understand their talents, dreams, aspirations, life barriers, etc., so we can maximize their success. This approach both ensures their voice and helps us meet the need of employers for great talent and the right individual.