Prior to the most recent Living Cities Learning Community for The Integration Initiative, I was asked to identify a project that might make a good case study – something already underway, where we would learn from our assumptions (our hypothesis), and where data would drive both our assumptions and our learning. Easy! We had just begun to look at a cohort of applicants to our NewBridge program, an adult vocational training program with a market-based approach.

The work I do in Cleveland focuses on the Greater University Circle Wealth Building Initiative, an effort that leverages the economic power of anchor institutions with the resources of philanthropy and government to create economic opportunity, individual wealth, and strong communities for residents of the neighborhoods around University Circle and the Health-Tech Corridor in Cleveland.

The neighborhoods surrounding University Circle – Hough, Glenville, Buckeye, Fairfax, Central, East Cleveland – are some of the poorest in the city. Residents here have an annual income of $18,500, and the neighborhoods are rife with evidence of poverty and disinvestment. The central tenant of the initiative has been that both the anchor institutions and the residents have a shared interest in revitalizing the neighborhoods. Success, for us, is creating better “pipelines of opportunity” – establishing links to jobs, improving connections to networks of support, and breaking down barriers in the existing workforce system. As part of this effort, NewBridge delivers a small-scale, highly-focused and intensive workforce development model, in which the job training programs are developed based on the hiring needs of our anchor institution partners: the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals.

The program focuses on creating careers – good paying jobs with benefits and opportunities for advancement. If accepted, students attend rigorous training for health technology careers (phlebotomy, pharmacy tech, etc.) with curricula developed by the anchors. Students are then qualified for employment with these institutions. The NewBridge program is great for those who qualify, yet only 34 students were able to enroll in the available slots out of a pool of more than 800 applicants. Might this cohort of ineligible applicants, composed of low-income people who have had significant barriers to employment, be a potential source of applicants to fill entry level jobs for our anchor partners? After all, they have already cleared hurdles and demonstrated the
“job readiness” skill of persistence – showing up for additional training without the promise of a job. In a word, they’re hungry.

I went to Living Cities’ Learning Community equipped with the NewBridge story as my case study. During one of the sessions, Alison Gold, Assistant Director of Knowledge and Impact, presented a framework for maximizing the systems learning from our work.
She explained the “build – measure – learn” model from the book The Lean Start Up, which discusses learning as the key unit of progress, rather than outputs or outcomes. In the work we do, learning helps you understand what you need to change in a system in order to produce population-level results. The idea is that you move from your hypothesis to your strategy, testing ideas along the way.

After going through the session, we were able to see how to begin addressing the needs of the cohort trying to enter the NewBridge program. First, we’ve begun looking at the anchor institution practices for “on-boarding” people for entry level jobs. Since many anchors are working to create better internal career ladders to increase the retention and contribution of their incumbent workers, there may be more entry-level jobs in patient transport, housekeeping, food services, etc. Examining the process will help us answer the question: can we create a better pipeline? Our goal is to learn from the current jobs pipeline as we seek “backfill” opportunities for entry level jobs for the anchors. All of this learning will not only improve the work we are currently doing, but will require buy-in and culture change from many levels of the hospital administration. Such culture change is important to enabling our system-level goals.

To date, we’ve learned that there is an oversupply of low-skilled workers for each job opening at the anchors. As a result, these positions fill quickly. However, workers in these positions also have the potential for advancement throughout the institution, reopening the entry level positions for new applicants. What we learn about helping potential and current workers navigate the career pipeline at these health care providers can extend to how other large employers structure their employment procedures throughout the area and city as a whole. Perhaps NewBridge, and other organizations in the community that aggregate pools of job seekers (like community development corporations), can be the entry point for multiple pipelines for opportunities in the future.

And with the help of our evaluation and data partner Cleveland State University (CSU), we’ve begun convening a series of focus groups with NewBridge applicants to gather
critical information about them, such as what their personal and career barriers have been, what has made NewBridge attractive, etc. Our goal is to be “data-driven,” to find out if our assumptions are correct and to back those assumptions up with evidence. We’ve also been in conversation with our anchor partners, job readiness partne Towards Employment, and our community engagement team on how to test our theories by putting them into practice. We hope to refine the model as we go, learning along the way, and extend what works to other partners. Eventually, if we are successful, the new ideas will be incorporated in the standard anchor practices of on-boarding, hiring, supporting, training, and promoting residents from our Greater University Circle neighborhoods. As we continue to develop and test our hypotheses, we hope to create additional opportunities for learning that will result in true systems change.