At the outset of this study, we aimed to generate demand for a more collaborative, data-driven, and worker-centered ecosystem. Our research revealed that nearly all of the key stakeholder groups, from direct service providers to government agencies and employers, viewed data sharing as a key component of their ability to improve service provision and employment opportunities for frontline workers. But competing priorities, siloed thinking, unclear incentives, privacy concerns, and inequitable access to resources often prevented stakeholders from taking real action toward data interoperability. Moreover, the majority of workers felt unprepared to participate in a data-driven workforce and disconnected from the initiatives designed to advance their careers.
While data interoperability was widely recognized as a powerful tool and outcome, it was not seen as a standalone solution to the siloed workforce system, particularly for providers and workers who do not have the digital, human, and capital resources to fully participate in a data-driven system alongside larger entities like employers and government agencies. Workers from healthcare and retail acknowledged that their lack of digital skills often prevented them from tracking and sharing their skills and advancing their careers. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed us to take a revelatory look at the critical roles, risks, and skill sets of our frontline workforce. Frontline workers now face increased risk for infection or unemployment. In order to thrive, they must be able to easily access upskilling opportunities and communicate their skills to secure employment and advance their careers.
Overall, the workers we interviewed did not view their data as valuable or see the connection between their current skill sets and potential career pathways. These findings are in line with the National Skills Coalition’s recent report and digital skills series, highlighting that an estimated one-third of U.S. workers have low to no digital skills, especially in frontline sectors like healthcare, retail, hospitality, and manufacturing.
Our research indicates that while each stakeholder plays a critical role in connecting frontline talent to development, the effort must be transformative, dynamic, and multi-directional in order to drive change across communities. Most critically, the stakes must be clear, meaningful, and high—and the resources must be available and continuous—for each of the stakeholders to get involved and work together to advance workforce opportunities in frontline sectors. Data interoperability has the potential to connect the disparate dots across this ecosystem, but that collective investment in developing systems and standards, and maintaining them, is critical to ensuring that this work is scalable and sustainable. Notably, we found that employers were among the most innovative in their steps toward integrating digital platforms and training programs to develop and track workers’ skills, showing promise for industries’ ability to participate in future cross-sector initiatives. Further, as FSG’s (2020) report demonstrates, employers who innovate to retain, develop, and advance the growing number of frontline employees of color strengthen their business and gain competitive advantages.