It takes less than five minutes to drive from Covington, Kentucky, to Cincinnati, Ohio, and yet, when it comes to serving adult learners in the region, the cities have historically operated independently and offered duplicative services. It wasn’t until a group of local leaders from across education, business, nonprofit, government, and philanthropic communities came together to identify challenges and collectively design solutions that real pathways toward income mobility began to emerge for the area’s adult learners.
The goal of the collaborative is to design an intuitive, interoperable data system that aligns and streamlines the two states’ disparate workforce systems, using innovative technology. Importantly, the system will allow individual workers to explore career pathways in a way that integrates industry credentials, education and training opportunities, and support services while infusing worker agency into the system. The collaborative is especially focused on equity, seeking to uncover and eliminate racial and socioeconomic disparities that present barriers to economic mobility.
There are more than 10 medical assisting training programs in Cincinnati alone. As Patricia Mahabir of StrivePartnership described, “You may have one program that costs $2,000 and one that costs $15,000, [or] one that takes eight weeks and one that takes two years; being able to make those types of decisions, being able to select programs from at least 18 post-secondary institutions, plus more than 150 community-based organizations [is] incredibly complex. The hope is to just pull it all together, and help people to make informed decisions from available options.”
As an adult learner, Angela Walker said, “The system is chaotic. People just don’t know where to start. Although I was a single parent with many obligations, I somehow managed to navigate through the system to find a college program that would accept my transfer credits, while making sure my daughter had daycare, and that we had housing and basic needs met.”
But it wasn’t a linear trajectory for Walker, and like many adult learners who are also parents, she lost a considerable amount of time, energy, and money over the course of more than 15 years to complete her undergraduate degree and find stable employment. The purpose of the collaborative was to streamline disparate workforce systems, coordinate regional service provision, and most importantly, create an opportunity for adult learners like Walker to make more informed postsecondary decisions.
In 2017, the Lumina Foundation designated the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region as one of its first 17 Talent Hubs, or communities recognized for working to attract and retain talent, including nontraditional college students and people of color, while seeking to boost post-high-school learning. StrivePartnership received funding to expand their Intergenerational Success Project, a two-generation approach to removing barriers for single mothers pursuing family-sustaining careers in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region.
StrivePartnership joined regional partners, including Brighton Center, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Gateway Community and Technical College, Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, The Health Collaborative, and United Way, to develop pathways to credentials and stable employment for single mothers. As the team began analyzing the existing pathways’ effectiveness in supporting more than 1,400 single mothers, they uncovered deeper, more systemic challenges related to access for underserved populations. Completion rates of women in regional education/training programs of two years or less ranged from four to 80 percent; the programs with the highest completion rates served the fewest women.
As Mahabir explained, “We came to realize that the system itself was broken. We understood that we could keep recruiting people, especially from underserved populations, into a credentialing pipeline, but ultimately, if the whole system could not serve them well, we were going to lose them—and now we’ve done more harm than we’ve done good.”
The group maintained its commitment to creating credentialing and employment pathways for single mothers in the region, but they added another layer to the challenge: addressing the disparate systems of adult education, workforce development, and family service provision through data sharing to meet the needs of adult learners. As Hope Arthur, director of workforce innovation at The Health Collaborative, explained, there were many one-off programs and initiatives through which providers were working to support adult learners. However, multiple organizations building multiple pathways were actually compounding the problem.
The team coordinated resources—time, money, and energy—and streamline services to drive collaboration to support real, long-term income mobility for workers in the community. As Christi Godman, associate vice president for workforce solutions at Gateway Community and Technical College, noted, “We can all maximize our impact within the community if we combine resources instead of working on duplicative efforts in different pockets. If we come together and work on the problems collectively, we can move the needle much farther.”
The group applied to participate in the 2019 Minds that Move Us design challenge led by ECMC Foundation and the Institute for Educational Leadership, and were selected as one of 10 teams to pitch their idea for funding. They called their new initiative “Communicating for Purposeful Alignment towards Self-Sufficiency,” or “PASS.” The idea was to deconstruct the concept of a workforce pathway into three key pieces: 1) stable career ladders, 2) relevant learning opportunities, and 3) wraparound support services. While the group did not win the competition, the experience was fundamental in bringing critical stakeholders together to address challenges in developing and sustaining their local workforce.
As it stands, workers in the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky region do not always see the value of participating in continuing education or workforce training programs because the pathway to life-sustaining employment is not guaranteed. Rather than seek short-term funding to sustain individual workforce programs, the team is committed to exploring long-term systemic solutions to grow a skilled workforce across the region. As Godman said, “There’s still so many pieces to the puzzle that we just can’t see, because the system’s not there.”
Team PASS is still working to develop interoperable data systems through the use of cutting-edge technologies like blockchain to better connect regional stakeholders, including employers, education providers, and workers themselves. In addition to philanthropic funding, they are investigating alternative funding models, such as stakeholder subscription, to further develop and sustain their shared data system for improved service provision. Leaders continue to expand their network of partnerships, engaging education institutions and employers throughout the region to keep the momentum going for a regional collective impact approach.
As Mahabir explained, “The technology, the system itself that we want to build, and the interoperability of all the data is wonderful. But that’s an outcome. You can’t just take the system off the shelf and implement it. The real work, the real value, is in the process that got us to the system. And that’s something that often gets missed in this work. And it’s the harder part to deal with, and the harder part to document. But it’s the most important part.” Their ongoing work demonstrates how real, systemic change starts with a complex network of committed individuals and organizations with a shared vision. Technology can support their capacity to grow, sustain, and support a regional workforce that benefits the entire community.
As part of this case study, we identified a set of actionable strategies that the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky community and other communities have used to build networks and solve workforce needs in their region.
Visit Digital Promise’s Building Networks for Frontline Talent Development report to learn more about similar regional efforts to build learner-centered solutions to advance frontline worker talent development.