The COVID downturn set off alarm bells among job developers. WPTI responded with a BELL of its own.
With the support of the Pinkerton Foundation, WPTI launched the first cohort of the Business Engagement Learning Lab (BELL) in April 2021. Successor to WPTI’s longstanding Job Developer Learning Group, the four-month BELL initiative sharpened the focus on employer engagement at a time of significantly heightened competition for jobs. Unlike past initiatives in which organizations would be represented by a single job developer, BELL implemented a team-based structure – each organization sent three staff, including two job developers and their supervisor. “What I loved about this specific training and what drew me to this training was that oftentimes you don’t have an opportunity to work closely with your team members that you supervise,” reflected Kathleen Bossio, Associate Director of Career Development and Graduate Services at The Doe Fund.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, amidst a rapidly changing and digitizing labor market, a shift to a largely remote work environment, and evolving employer needs, WPTI realized that such a program could be more impactful and transformative if it incorporated full teams, including managers as well as frontline staff, to ensure buy-in across programs and organizations and address employer engagement strategies at multiple levels, with the goal of creating sustainable change across organizations’ program models. WPTI’s goal is to help workforce development organizations see that effective and sustained employer engagement occurs when it is be incorporated at all levels of a program and staff.
Demand for the inaugural BELL cohort proved fierce: 26 organizations submitted competitive applications for the 11 team slots. In all, BELL brought together a total of 33 workforce professionals for three months of learning across four full day sessions and two shorter “implementation” sessions, plus independent projects between sessions. For Michael Duarte, an Account Manager who is taking on expanded responsibility for leading a team of job developers at NADAP, the opportunity to participate in BELL came at the right time: “I wanted to learn from other professionals how best to address issues both our clients and employers face. I’ve done sales training before, but BELL is closer to formal job development training than what I’ve been used to.”
The organizations in the cohort represented the diversity of New York City’s workforce development system – government agencies including NYCHA; a national entity that places low-income job seekers at scale; community-based organizations serving specific neighborhoods and boroughs; nonprofits specializing in justice-involved jobseekers; and programs that prepare young adults and and individuals with disabilities, as well as the general public.
Each of the four full-day sessions revolved around a theme crucial to effective employer engagement:
- Session I - Making the Pitch: Refining Employer Marketing and Outreach
- Session II - Maximizing Results: Revising Workflow to Boost Productivity
- Session III - Labor Market Information and the Post-COVID Recovery of the NYC Labor Market
- Session IV - Job Quality and Career Pathways
Throughout each session, BELL emphasized both process and strategy. Topics ranged from “big picture” issues –the evolution of the New York City labor market, the increasing impact of automation across all sectors, the importance of job quality – to tangible lessons from the business world around building marketing kits, honing the sales pitch, and streamlining processes for more consistent results. Each session also incorporated guest panels and presentations from business intermediaries, employers, for-profit staffing agencies, high-performing nonprofits, labor economists, and more.
For Siveem El-Nashar, Director of CES at NADAP, the “multi-prong approach combining skills building, high level discourse around workforce development issues, and then bringing it back down to the organizational level and what you were going to do, meant that there was an expectation that you were going to apply it almost instantly. This continuity of learning was not an experience many of us have when it comes to training.”
Among the biggest takeaways for BELL participants was the challenge created by the nonprofit/for-profit cultural divide and the importance of speaking the language of business. Much of BELL focused on how workforce programs can more clearly define their services for employers, quantify the value or impacts of those services, and then distill the organization’s competitive advantages into a compelling sales pitch that grabs attention quickly. “I had to get through my own struggle of getting the nonprofit thinking out of the way. Having these multiple sessions made that happen. I had to internally recalibrate in order to absorb this material and really start thinking from the perspective of employers… you have the opportunity here to really reframe how nonprofits do their work,” Siveem recalled.
BELL participants will continue to participate in customized coaching sessions through the month of August. WPTI looks forward to future iterations of the program in the coming months. Stay tuned.