Four lessons from the Prepare Learning Circle on their journey to develop an employment outcome recommendation for collective impact initiatives.

To dramatically improve outcomes for children and youth, changes must be made in each system that influences a child, from cradle to career. Yet, as we have learned through our involvement with the StriveTogether Network, many collective impact initiatives focused on improving student outcomes stop tracking progress once the student graduates from a post-secondary institution, making them “cradle to college” rather than “cradle to career.“

Recognizing the outcome area of employment as a gap, Living Cities and StriveTogether partnered together to form the Prepare Learning Circle, a cohort of five StriveTogether communities focused on defining the “career” end of the “cradle to career” spectrum– 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.

After a year of working together, the Prepare Learning Circle has coalesced around a recommendation for the definition of the employment outcome for the StriveTogether Network: “a post-secondary graduate will be employed on a path to self-sufficiency.” Here, self-sufficiency is defined as an individual’s ability to meet his or her basic needs. The core indicator, which helps collective impact partnerships track progress towards this longer-term outcome, is: “percent of post-secondary graduates employed one year after graduation.”

The Prepare Learning Circle presented their recommendation to the other members of the StriveTogether Network at a recent webinar and workshop at the StriveTogether national convening. The feedback from the Network has been overwhelmingly positive and most of those who were at either the webinar or the workshop expressed interest in tracking the outcome and the core indicator. The Prepare Learning Circle and a sub-set of the StriveTogether Network will start tracking this outcome over the next year as a pilot to identify and find solutions for challenges with the recommendation before presenting the outcome for adoption by the Network.

One of the challenges the cohort will address is the accessibility of the data in communities. This is a big concern for the Prepare Learning Circle, as longitudinal data systems that connect post-secondary and workforce data which make tracking the employment outcome easier are only currently available in around 20 states. Over the next year, the cohort will tackle this data accessibility challenge to determine solutions to share with the broader network.

In developing this outcome recommendation, we came up with four major reflections on defining and tracking employment in collective impact.

1. Undefined Pathways

First and foremost, a lot of collective impact initiatives are still figuring out what it means to support individuals in obtaining a self-sustaining career. The cradle to college end of the continuum is relatively well established—StriveTogether has identified six core outcomes that need to be achieved to successfully graduate from college—but the career end does not have a similar pathway, especially if the student is not enrolled in a traditional four year college. A student can take many paths to get to a career—a GED, a four year college, an associate’s degree, industry credential, or some combination of all of those. The complicated nature of these pathways makes it difficult to track student progress towards a self-sustaining career. As the Prepare Learning Circle cohort continues to learn from each other, we will share out the lessons on how to better define these pathways.

2. Missing Middle

Something that has come up not just in the context of employment outcomes, but regarding the overall framework of collective impact, is the struggle for initiatives to link their on-the-ground work to the overall changes in population-level outcomes. StriveTogether has developed “contributing indicators” to help bridge this divide, but community partnerships are still struggling with communicating to stakeholders how their day-to-day work moves the broader population-level change, such as an increase in the employment rate.

3. Mindset Shifts

As our colleague Juan Sebastian Arias has reflected on before, it will require huge mindset shifts among multiple stakeholders to increase employment in high-quality jobs. He notes that we need to invest in all levels of workers, think beyond the four-year degree, and explore alternative career pathways if we want to be able to get people on a path to self-sufficiency.

4. Adaptive Challenges

Ronald Heifetz, Founding Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, has identified two kinds of challenges inherent in creating change: technical challenges for which the problem definition and solution are clear, and adaptive challenges for which the problem isn’t exactly clear and the solution is unknown. We are learning that while some of this work may seem to be more of a technical challenge—such as finding and using data from statewide longitudinal P20/Workforce data systems—the challenges are actually often adaptive—such as how to engage state entities to gain access to the data. Identifying the adaptive aspects of problems can help organizations make sure that they are engaging the right stakeholders to truly address and solve the problem.