Investing in Community: A Playbook for Connecting Economic and Skills Development

By Timothy J. Bartik, Brad J. Hershbein, Michelle Miller-Adams, Lee Adams, and Bridget F. Timmeney –  Published March 3, 2020 by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment ResearchSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

This Upjohn Institute 19-page playbook provides sound advice for community leaders, policymakers, employers, and educators to come together to support place-based strategies and link economic and skills growth, for creating local prosperity, based on four key issues: 1) Defining Local Needs, 2) Linking Job Creation and Skills Development, 3) Finding the Right Leaders, and 4) Evaluating Impact. 

Local Needs
Local labor markets are groups of communities based in cities and surrounding suburbs, and jobs created in both have significant impacts on each other. A job created in the city will affect a job created in the suburbs and vice-versa. For example, a suburban job may be taken by someone who may have taken a job in the city, or wages offered in each will bring competition for job candidates between each other. There are different aspects by which various city and suburban communities benefit within a local context, ranging from high-tech job growth to skills development for its residents, and from  postsecondary enrollments to local housing markets. Overall, “local prosperity is likely to be better promoted by linking skills and development and economic development.”

Jobs and Skills
Prosperity through job growth is not always equal, and policies matter. “If policies help a community’s residents increase their skills—both job skills and soft skills—such human capital investments will make residents more competitive when seeking available local jobs. Such investments in local human capital will also make the area more attractive for firms considering location or expansion decisions.”

Skills development and economic development must work together, but they typically work in silos. Strategies to bring the two together include:

  • The creation and support of place-based free community college promise and scholarship programs.
  • The fostering of relationships between educators and business leaders.
  • The tailoring of skills training to employer needs via public-private training program.
  • The creation of more apprenticeships.
  • The integration of technology (i.e. apps) into job searching.
  • The insurance that employers consider residents of local communities as first-source hires.
  • The utilization of customized third-party job training services that are specific to the needs of individual companies. 

The report provides a good number of specific examples for all of these strategies.   

“As corporate concentration has grown, often through mergers and acquisitions that have absorbed formerly local companies, banks, and newspapers, many communities have also lost the people and organizations who served a critical leadership role and strengthened the social fabric of their hometowns.” 

Therefore, cultivating new community leaders is vitally important, and leaders are advised to take on broad-based and long-time perspectives that look “beyond what the community currently is and does to what, with the right allocation of resources and leadership, it might be and do in the future.”  Outside a community’s governance entities, four sectors are presented as places to recruit local leadership: 1) Businesses, such as large and diverse employers; 2) Colleges and universities; 3) Philanthropies; and 4) Residents.

“While leadership may come from any of the sectors mentioned above, effective strategies will generally require collaboration across sectors.”

Like any important project, it is critical to evaluate one’s progress or lack thereof. “A well-designed impact study of how program participants fare relative to a close comparison group gives program funders—whether taxpayers, philanthropists, or business groups—objective evidence on whether a program is achieving its goals.”

In a section headlined “Evaluation is in reach,” four common myths about evaluations are presented:

  • Myth 1: Evaluation is technical not complex – Most are straightforward “consisting of data collection, tracking, surveys, and focus groups.”
  • Myth 2: Evaluation requires expensive outside experts – Some interventions may need third-party evaluators, but many can be completed by program managers, and resources can typically be found at a nearby higher education institution.
  • Myth 3: Evaluation takes place when a program has ended – The beginning of a project is the time when thinking about goal measurement should take place, not at the end. This way program design can be altered at any time to ensure that goals are being met.
  • Myth 4: Evaluation will conclusively tell you if a program as succeeded or failed in meeting its goals  –  “More often evaluation will help will help stakeholders understand what worked and what did not and provide insights into how programs can be improved.”

The report concludes with a statement that supports “placed-based strategies to build local prosperity,” combined with the integration of economic and skills development and having clear goals and effective measurement plans.   

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