To equitably improve employment outcomes in a given place, all stakeholders at the table must change how they see the problem and their role in providing solutions.

In our work building a new urban practice to get better results low-income people, we’re seeing the importance of culture change and mindset shifts first hand. One of the most effective ways to get better results at scale is to change how people interpret, interact with, and address the underlying problems. When it comes to ensuring low-income people are employed on pathways to quality jobs, this means that businesses, higher education institutions, parents, guardians and other key stakeholders will need to shift aspects of their mindset toward the goal of employing people in quality jobs.

Earlier in the spring, Living Cities and StriveTogether convened partnerships from Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, Northeast Indiana and Albuquerque as a part of our efforts to build and support a cohort of employment-focused collective impact partnerships.

What degree of culture change is needed for communities to ensure more people are able to land good jobs? Add your thoughts 

Over the course of the day and a half, we learned how each local effort is improveing their local employment outcomes. We noticed that all three efforts were grappling with a common question: What degree of culture change is needed for communities to ensure more people are able to land good jobs?

As Donella Meadows and other proponents of systems thinking argue, the key to changing systems is just as much cultural (relating to values, norms, and beliefs) as it is structural (relating to policies, practices and institutions). In other words, to change how our current systems work, we need to change the hearts and minds of everyone involved. The mindsets we hold give rise to the policies and behaviors that form the greater system, and so by shifting these perspectives, we can rebuild systems more equitably and produce better results for all. To equitably improve employment outcomes in a given place, all stakeholders at the table will need to shift their mindsets a bit.

3 Mindset Shifts Needed for Collective Impact in Workforce

We’re learning that real, systems level impact in workforce and employment requires all parties at the table to change aspects of their mindset. Employers, higher education institutions and job-seekers - to name a few - must change how they see the problem and their role in providing solutions, starting with three mindset shifts:

1) Invest in all levels of workers. The first mindset shift relates to how employers invest in the development of their staff and of the local workforce. Due to staffing and budgetary pressures, businesses have increasingly dropped the practice of providing on-the-job training for new hires. At the same time, today’s employers expect new hires to be more qualified than they’ve been in the past and only 11% feel that college graduates are actually ready for work. It’s no secret that job-seekers – especially those with less experience and less formal qualifications – are feeling pressured by the “Catch 22” of the current workforce realities.

More employers should shift their perspectives and think of all their staff…as “assets” to be leveraged as opposed to costs to be minimized.

More employers should shift their perspectives and think of all their staff (especially those at the entry level and with less formal training) as “assets” to be leveraged as opposed to costs to be minimized. As MIT Sloan Professor Zeynep Ton found, this approach leads to better results for everyone. From research and on-the-ground experience in our sites, we know that the more employers invest in all levels of staff, the more effective those employees will be on the job and the less likely they are to turnover quickly.

Collective impact partnerships can play a role in supporting these efforts. In Northeast Indiana, for example, the workforce investment board, a key partner within the local collective impact partnership, has joined with training providers and employers to create an effort to train incumbent low-skill workers. By training existing entry level staff to help them to move up the career ladder, these efforts also create open slots that can then be filled by new employees. The more employers can step in to play this role, the more likely we will be to bridge gaps between education and business to support employment of graduates.

2) Think beyond the four-year degree. At the same time, we’re learning that four-year bachelor’s degrees, while still critically important for many, are not the only path to self-sufficiency. Businesses and other employers are increasingly valuing non-academic credentials and certificates as indicators of specific skills that job-seekers hold. And the market is responding to this demand; in 2010, over one million skill-specific certificates were awarded to job-seekers in the U.S. (compared to 300,000 in 1994).

Certifications on the Rise

1 million + In 2010, over one million skill-specific certificates were awarded to job-seekers in the U.S.

As more and more of these alternative skill-specific credentials emerge to signal a job-seeker’s capabilities to employers, higher education institutions have an opportunity to align their curriculum with these alternative credentials to signal an important culture shift toward high quality credential attainment as a viable way to prepare graduates for jobs.

A number of promising efforts already exist, including one in Harper, IL where community colleges have partnered with the local manufacturing industry to develop an alternative credential that more directly prepares students for existing jobs. The growing value placed on credentials and certificates shows the hunger that exists for new ways to signal what knowledge and skill sets potential employees bring.

3.) Explore alternative career pathways. We should also reassess which jobs we encourage and promote to youth. A significant number of employers in well-paying sectors (such as advanced manufacturing) currently struggle to find candidates interested in their job openings. The stigma of working in manufacturing keeps many youth from pursuing these often well-paying and secure jobs.

These campaigns show promise for influencing how children and students see potential future jobs.

Resistance to these jobs comes from two places - the interests of children themselves and the values of parents or other guardians – and needs to be overcome if we want to better match youth to good, secure jobs. In Northeast Indiana, a local awareness campaign attempts to promote this mindset change by exposing middle and high school students to career opportunities in advanced manufacturing. In Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, Partners for a Competitive Workforce is leading a similar effort through their Advanced Manufacturing Industry Partnership to draw women into these jobs and also expose children to STEM careers. These campaigns show promise for influencing how children and students see potential future jobs. To further connect future workers to these quality jobs, we also need to inform parents and guardians of the benefits of these careers.

That said - and this is a very important caveat - we need to be very careful about which students are targeted for which track. Significant racial disparities already exist in post-secondary degree and credential attainment, and these disparities should not be perpetuated by pushing students of color solely towards the high quality credential or alternative certificate track. The non-traditional career pathway should be an option for all youth, just like a four-year college degree.

Changing Your Local Culture

A core goal in collective impact is that all stakeholders in a cross-sector partnership change their ways of working and align their resources around the same results. This often requires creating a new mental model that changes how everyone understands their role in producing the current outcomes. By coming together at a cross-sector table, different sectors and stakeholders – from higher education to business to parents and guardians – can figure out how to better support the ultimate goal of placing graduates in good jobs with career pathways.


Image source: Michael Tapp, Walking Rush Hour | New York Subway Commute on Flickr, CC by NC-2.0.