By guest blogger Erica Bouris
In many ways, this is an incredible time to be a workforce development professional. The system has more money flowing in than it has in a long time. You can't go to a workforce conference without hearing the chatter of "our ARRA green jobs program" or our "ARRA ex-offender work readiness program and countless other variations. This is great. For the wonderful folks who finally have resources to pilot their innovative programs and scale up proven programs, and for the millions of Americans who are out of work, these programs are an absolute lifeline.
So it may seem a strange time to encourage you to think about leveraging your workforce program expertise to reach other federal funding streams, but that is the goal of today's post.
Historically, Department of Labor grants, allocations through the Workforce Investment Act , and occasional supplements from the Department of Education (particularly for vocational and technical programs) have formed the core of federal funding for workforce programs. Yet a confluence of factors has contributed to the emergence of workforce activities in a whole host of federal funding streams in recent years. Just in the past few months, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, Department of State, and the Department of Health and Human Services have issued RFPs that include substantial workforce program elements. These aren't workforce programs per se, but they have clearly identified, fundable activities that are workforce activities. This means that there is opportunity for you to partner with other agencies and bring together a compelling group of organizations poised to meet the multiple goals of the RFP.
For example, last week, the Department of Energy issued an RFP through its established Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). This is the program that helps provide weatherization and energy efficiency services to low-income households. This particular RFP however, takes the customary WAP funding request and does it one better; it is now the Weatherization Innovation Pilot Program. DOE wants innovation, and what kind of innovation do they want? Well, among other things, they are hoping that non-traditional applicants (including CBOs and educational institutions) get in the game and they are further hoping that proposed programs are "consistent with the President's goal of creating a green workforce."
Another example comes by way of the National Science Foundation (NSF). As a nation, we have identified the need for a well-trained STEM workforce and the NSF – best known for funding major research initiatives – is also invested in preparing individuals to enter a broad spectrum of STEM jobs. One piece of the career ladder is the so-called Professional Science Masters program and NSF funded several initiatives to further develop and pilot employer-responsive programs designed to meet critical workforce shortages. And the grantees were also supposed to incorporate outreach and job support services for a diverse population... sound familiar?
Finally, have you ever thought about how great it would be to bring your strong workforce programs abroad? How about testing them in a place like Algeria, where youth unemployment stands over 40%? While you may not have the capacity (nor the mission) to reach quite that far, could your curriculum and youth job training materials have been included in a some of the multi-agency partnerships that have won grants for job training, entrepreneurship, and youth work readiness programs funded through the U.S. Department of State Middle East Partnership Initiative programs in recent years?
Current economic and social challenges - from global recession to the rise of the green economy – have encouraged a broad spectrum of federal agencies to be invested in the workforce component of their mission. This is an opportunity for workforce professionals to think innovatively about how to leverage your expertise in designing and building workforce programs to advance diverse social goals such as environmental sustainability, positive global engagement, and more.
Some practical advice if you this idea has got you thinking:
- Try to piecemeal your expertise and assets. Do you have a proven curriculum for training people in specific sectors? Deep reach into a particular community? Unique tools that help people map their career pathway or explore the "fit" of potential jobs? Thinking this way will help you identify the various workforce components you can bring to the table to support a broader initiative.
- On the flip side, think big picture and learn to articulate this to non-workforce professionals. As a workforce professional, what are the big social challenges you address? You help with economic development by enabling citizens to participate fully in the economy. You convene stakeholders to make sure that people, the private sector, and the community develop together in a supportive way. What else?
- Be prepared to spend some time figuring out who the players are for these alternate federal funding streams and work on building relationships. Remember that these federal funding opportunities generally have a 30 day turnaround so if you want to be included as a partner providing the workforce piece of a broader program, the lead agency responding to the RFP has to know who you are and importantly, what you can bring to the table.
- Performance metrics, standards for program evaluation; these are all very different across different federal funding streams. Pay close attention to the preferred performance metrics of the RFP and be prepared to adjust the way you structure and evaluate your program in order to be better aligned with these alternate metrics.
Erica Bouris, Ph.D. is the Principal of B Square Impact, an agency that helps non-profits and educational institutions develop, implement, evaluate, and fund the next generation of innovative programs tackling today's most critical workforce, education, economic, and community needs.