A new case study from StriveTogether offers some ideas on how to create good jobs for low-income people.

A steady, well-paying job can make a big difference in someone’s life. If we want to achieve dramatically better results for low-income people, faster, we must focus on creating opportunities for low-income people to access and secure high-quality jobs. Creating these opportunities is one of the biggest and long-standing challenges of community development efforts. Where should we begin to tackle this thorny challenge?

One answer to this question comes in the form of a case study recently released by our partners at StriveTogether, “Strengthening Pathways to Employment.” This case study chronicles the work of the Prepare Learning Circle, a joint partnership of Living Cities and StriveTogether. The Prepare Learning Circle, which wound-down in 2016, was a cohort of collective impact initiatives working to ensure low-income youth seamlessly transition from school to the workforce and ultimately become self-sufficient. The cohort included Thrive Chicago in Chicago, Ill.; All Hands Raised in Portland, Ore.; Mission: Graduate in Albuquerque, N.M.; Big Goal Collaborative in Northeast Indiana; and StrivePartnership, along with Partners for a Competitive Workforce, in Cincinnati, Ohio and Northern Kentucky.

The case study chronicles the success and challenges of those five collective impact initiatives. It discusses how the five groups came together to define a common measure to track progress on career-related outcomes, something we’ve found is critical to cohort success.

I supported the Prepare Learning Circle for the second year of its work and to supplement the release of the case study. Two takeaways I had while partnering with these communities are particularly relevant to securing high-quality jobs.

A job isn’t enough–compensation matters

Each month, Bloomberg shares the jobs report announcing all of the new jobs created. In fact, job creation has been steady and growing over the past year and we’ve seen unemployment rates, albeit small, continue to decline. The steady state of job creation is necessary, but not sufficient. In order for everyday Americans to achieve economic security, people need to earn wages that enable them to live, save and invest in their future. Therefore, jobs being created must also pay a living wage. A living wage enables people to maintain a basic standard of living, which includes the ability to cover housing, childcare, food, transportation and healthcare – the most cumbersome costs for families.

It is not enough to simply create jobs. Employers must also ensure quality compensation will afford people the opportunity to enjoy a basic living standard. Employers can offer benefits that mitigate costs, such as childcare subsidies, healthcare amenities, retirement, paid leave and more. For small businesses with few employees, consider building a network with other small businesses to offset costs.

Altogether, jobs that pay a living wage and offer a benefits package that meets the holistic needs of families not only afford a basic standard of living, but enable people to reinvest in America’s economy. If families are healthy and economically secure, then they feed resources back into the system, which keeps our economic engine running and growing. Our ecosystem benefits by a greater distribution of wealth rather than the current structure marked by extreme levels of inequality.

Data challenges are real, but first put a stake in the ground

The second takeaway from the PLC work is related to data challenges. We asked the Prepare Learning Circle cities to agree on common employment-related goals they could track across their work. Sites found this to be a major challenge because they have less control over and access to data once students graduate or leave high school.

During the early, primary and secondary stages of the education continuum that StriveTogether communities use, the population is clear (kindergarteners, 3rd graders, 8th graders, 12th graders) the outcomes are clear (kindergarten readiness, 3rd grade reading, 8th grade math, graduation rates) and the data sources are mostly clear (grades, tests, assessments, etc.). Once students graduate, they have the freedom to choose from a multitude of postsecondary activities and their path is not as contained as it is when they are progressing from early learning through high school graduation. Nevertheless, if we are building a strong economy where people live and thrive, collective impact efforts are in place to leverage partnerships and resources that allow students to graduate and be on a path to self-sufficiency.

The challenge is that what self-sufficiency looks like for individuals and communities varies and does not necessarily include the traditional path that assumes a student attends a four-year college. Herein lies the tension the five sites faced as they worked to determine how to account for the variation in paths when measuring self sufficiency after high school graduation. As the five communities worked to identify a common measure, the data challenges they faced were threefold:

First, data availability was weak as there was, and still is, no consistent way to track high school graduates who do not attend traditional two or four year colleges or join the military. Even then, partnerships with these institutions are necessary to retrieve data. Still, there is no consistency in the data received so the collective impact partners must address how to meet the data capacity needs.

Second, one solution to lack of data and inconsistent sources is to build the instruments and partnerships necessary to conduct primary data collection. Unfortunately, there is a bit of resistance to primary data collection because of the time, cost and capacity. Also, communities often do not think of it as an option because it seems cumbersome and nearly impossible in some cases. With a platform like StriveTogether, proposing primary data collection for an outcome that communities across the nation would love to track is not a far fetched idea. While communities may not be able to get the data they need, putting a stake in the ground about the data needed to effectively track outcomes is a forcing mechanism for stakeholders and investors to rethink how to allocate resources for securing quality data.

Third, communities needed to give themselves permission to define the measure in a way that covered as broad a population as possible while ensuring that data quality was not compromised. For example, the outcome the communities initially chose was % of postsecondary graduates employed one year after graduation. This measure may lead some to assume graduation from a four-year college, which posed a challenge for communities like Northeast Indiana, Cincinnati, Ohio and Multnomah County, Oregon where career and technical education were primary vehicles for young adults receiving postsecondary training that equipped them with the credentials to secure a job. Communities like Mission Graduate in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Thrive Chicago in Illinois also raised that two-year colleges remain a key driver in preparing students, who are disproportionately left out of traditional college and career pathways, for careers and/or eventual matriculation into four-year institutions.

In the spirit of feedback, we encouraged communities to define what “graduation” can entail. For example, a student who completes a technical training program and earns credentials can be considered “graduated,” just like a student who completes two- or four-year college. Once leaders saw their communities in the outcome, they felt a sense of camaraderie with other communities. They also expressed confidence that the career-related outcome was not limiting and could account for the diverse strategies in place to prepare people for work and self-sufficiency.

The good news is the group came away with a measure that can get enough communities started down the path for building data infrastructure to track career outcomes and advocate for the primary data they need.

Living Cities continues to think critically about what it takes to create opportunities for low-income people to secure good, high-quality jobs and get the data necessary to keep us on the path towards results. This Prepare Learning Circle is just one input into this work. I encourage you to share your experiences with job creation here on this blog, and subscribe to our e-newsletter, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to continue to learn with us as we explore this topic further.