There is a staggering gap between unemployed Americans and unfilled jobs because today’s workforce development efforts are limited in scope and duration.

As we entered 2014, 11 million Americans were unemployed while 4 million jobs remained unfilled. The most popular explanation for this disconnect is a “skills gap,” or the gap that exists when an organization is unable to fill “ jobs with employees who have the right knowledge, skills, and abilities”. Another explanation may be the cumbersome application process for entry-level service sector jobs.

Job Openings

4 Million jobs remain unfilled in the U.S.

Other leaders in the field have identified the limited retention and training investments of service sector employers as a critical factor. One place of general agreement, however, is that the staggering gap between unemployed Americans and unfilled jobs exists because today’s workforce development efforts and programs are limited in scope and duration. These efforts and programs focus on specific sub-populations and are managed by a hodgepodge of organizations with differing funding sources and metrics for success. Historically, these factors have all made it difficult to create a high functioning workforce system that allows all people to access the resources necessary to obtain and keep a quality job.

What does it take to prepare low-income working aged adults for quality jobs?

This question has riddled elected officials, business owners, and community-based organizations for many, many years. Each sector believes their approach holds the key to scaling impact beyond a handful of individuals. Over the last year, Living Cities learned that our partners and members believe there are a number of ways to answer this question. Some focus on creating a robust regulatory environment where job quality is supported by passing living wage, local hiring, and sick leave policies. For others, the focal point is ensuring that young people in our K-12 education system build competencies in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to access high demand jobs in these fields. Other funders support and highlight the efforts of private sector employers who invest in their employees through skill development, access to quality benefits, and living wages. MIT Sloan Business School professor Zeynep Ton bolstered the latter example – the “highroad employers” – in her recent book, The Good Jobs Strategy, which highlights companies like Costco and Trader Joe’s that focus on operational excellence to ensure their employees are trained, retained, and have room for advancement.

Living Cities Prepare Network

At Living Cities, we have embarked on an exciting adventure to answer the question of how cities and regions can prepare low-income working aged adults for quality 21st century jobs. We define prepared to mean that low-income working aged adults are prepared for quality jobs that offer pathways for advancement, living wages, and essential benefits. By quality we mean that low-income people have access to full-time employment with opportunities to sustain themselves and their families, access to essential health and leave benefits, and opportunities for career advancement. Over the course of the next three years, we will work with Living Cities’ members and partners in the field (like the Fund Good Jobs and Small Business Majority) to understand their approach to the question of how we ensure that low-income people are prepared for quality jobs and how we might support them to transform the workforce development system nationally.

How can cities prepare low-income working aged adults for quality 21st century jobs?

In the coming months, we will share our insights from these conversations, interviews, and meetings as we work to organize a Prepare Network. The network will include staff from Living Cities’ member institutions, organizations in the field, the Department of Labor, and leading researchers who will work together to increase the number of low-income adults prepared for quality employment.

Although we are still in the early stages of defining our role in this field, we have a number of hunches about how we can best contribute to transforming it to ensure that low-income people have greater access to economic opportunity:

  • Collective Impact Framework: We believe that leading our Prepare Network efforts with a collective impact framework is essential to our success. Collective Impact is an approach to systems change where leaders from multiple sectors work together to achieve a clearly defined and measurable outcome. Only by engaging leaders from all the sectors that form the workforce and employment system - private employers, non-profit community-based training providers, higher education institutions, philanthropy, and public sector workforce investments boards, for example – will we be able to transform the systems that prepare working-age adults for quality jobs.
  • Data and Technology: We also see great promise in supporting public sector leaders to “use data, technology and organizational structures to move innovation from the periphery to the mainstream and strengthen government’s capacity as a platform for producing results”.
  • Learning from Social Impact Bonds: We are also working to identify opportunities to use early learning from investments in Social Impact Bonds to support the scaling of innovative approaches in the workforce system.

Remember, this is just the beginning of our engagement of in the field of workforce development and supporting innovations that ensure that low-income working aged adults are prepared for quality jobs. We see you as our critical learning partners as we build our network. It is our intention to bring you along with us as we learn about the opportunities and challenges in the field and to share our victories and failures with you. We always benefit from hearing from you and hope that you continue to benefit from your engagement with us.

This post originally appeared on March 26, 2014.