How a Memphis medical district is connecting residents to living-wage jobs

Memphis medial district
Editor's note:

Placemaking Postcards is a blog series from the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings where policymakers and practitioners guest-author promising placemaking efforts from across the U.S. and abroad that foster connected, vibrant, and inclusive communities. In line with the principle tenets of placemaking, the goal of the series is to recognize the community as the expert, highlight voices from the field, and to create a community of learning and practice around transformative placemaking.

BannerMemphis, Tenn.—home of the blues, soul, and rock and roll—is also home to significant economic, social, and cultural assets. One of these assets is the Memphis Medical District, a 2.6-square-mile area in the core of the city’s downtown that is working to ensure a more vibrant, prosperous, and equitable future for all Memphians.

However, there are significant barriers to achieving this future in one of the nation’s poorest metropolitan statistical areas—particularly for residents living in and around the medical district. Of these nearly 11,000 residents, 65% are Black, 43% of households live below the poverty line, and median household income is $19,125.

Our organization, the Memphis Medical District Collaborative (MMDC) is seeking to address these economic disparities with place-based “Hire Local,” “Buy Local,” and “Live Local” initiatives that leverage the assets, resources, and opportunities of the medical district to directly benefit vulnerable residents.

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we have encountered many challenges (and learned many lessons) with these initiatives—particularly, our place-based workforce development effort, “Hire Local,” during a time when medical workers are both desperately needed and doubly vulnerable. We hope these lessons may inform future place-based workforce development efforts designed to enhance equity and opportunity in the post-COVID-19 world.

A place-based workforce development initiative to overcome the opportunity gap

Place-based approaches to workforce development—that is, approaches that seek to connect residents to the jobs in their neighborhoods—can be a critical tool in achieving equitable growth, as they seek to tailor training, interventions, and opportunities to the specific realities, strengths, and structural disadvantages facing underinvested communities. They also give workers the opportunity to find local jobs that they can easily access, reducing the costs and time associated with long commutes.

In 2017, we launched our place-based “Hire Local” initiative, modeled after the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WSPI), with the goal of replicating the successes they have achieved in helping hundreds of West Philadelphians connect to jobs. We worked with Philadelphia-based partners to tailor the model to Memphis’ realities, and secured commitments from anchor institution partners to hire 101 “Hire Local” participants.

But we soon encountered serious pitfalls. Despite commitments from anchor partners, the 79 applicants we approved in the first year were not hired at those institutions. Merely connecting job seekers in the target geography to hiring managers was not translating into hires because it did not address the opportunity gap facing residents who have long been excluded from the labor force. In other words, it did not address the structural conditions that prevent low-income residents from accessing the necessary training to obtain employment, nor did it address the need for more equitable hiring, training, and management practices among employers.

To solve this mismatch, we switched from direct-hire matchmaking to targeted training designed to overcome barriers to employment. We worked with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, one of Memphis’ largest adult hospital systems, and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital to identify opportunity areas, in-demand jobs, and nuances about company culture and practices.

In winter 2019, the hospitals identified nursing assistants and housekeeping as the entry points for our current residents—to our initial dismay. These were not the mid- or high-level careers we hoped for, but we worked with anchor institution partners to ensure that if any training graduates were hired, they could expect to work full time with benefits and a starting pay of at least $15 an hour. We then partnered with Southwest Tennessee Community College to offer a four-week skills training for these positions to residents in eight ZIP codes surrounding the Memphis Medical District.

The program was set to launch in March 2020, when, of course, COVID-19 took the nation by storm.

Pivoting to direct assistance for vulnerable residents

The pandemic shined a bright light on the intersection of race, poverty, and place across the nation and within our district. When surveyed, 60% of our residents reported wage losses due to COVID-19, and like so many Black families in the U.S., they struggled to access the internet and technology needed for online learning. Given these realities, we immediately shifted our focus to emergency support for residents.

We delayed our training until July (when local hospitals were looking to hire again), and redirected funds into an emergency fund for Hire Local residents—providing support to more than 50 families via rent or mortgage assistance, utility payments, and essential supplies. The emergency fund provided just under $40,000 in support during the pandemic, prioritizing residents in ZIP codes disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In addition to providing direct cash support, we deepened community engagement practices by frequently surveying residents to assess their ongoing needs. We joined place-based coalitions such as COMMONS (Coalition of Metropolitan Memphis Organizations for Neighborhood Services) to raise over $400,000 for residents in our most disinvested neighborhoods.

This pivot was essential for not only building trust with residents, but also for establishing a network of place-based entities working to support vulnerable residents in need of employment services, food, rent and utility assistance, and access to technology.

Virtual training for medical careers during the pandemic

How do you help vulnerable residents obtain economic stability during a global health crisis? Hire Local took the path of short-term, upskills training targeting health care careers with living wages. While cities all over the county grappled with declines in hospital hires early in the pandemic, hospitals are major employers nationwide, and these declines did not last long.

In July, we piloted virtual training in partnership with TechEd2Go and Southwest Tennessee Community College. To ensure trainees who experienced barriers in technology access had everything they needed, we mailed copies of the training documents, noise-canceling earbuds, and loner computers to complete course content. We also offered both day and night classes to meet residents’ schedules and provided $500 stipends to help cover expenses related to food, supplies, transportation, uniform support, and other household needs.

We are just getting started, but of the 33 residents who participated in the pilot, 19 have been hired in Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare hospitals, and we are working on additional placements. With the early wins last year, Hire Local is scaling programming to include four to six training classes for nursing assistants in 2021, as well as exploring mid-level career paths to target for training and employer partnership expansion.

Key partnerships raise the value of place-based workforce development

Connecting residents to living-wage jobs has always been the goal of our Hire Local initiative. But our most critical successes so far have been the relationships we built with communities, the lasting institutional partnerships we formed, and the value we witnessed by working within an ecosystem of workforce development, community, employer, and civic sector partners.

Place-based workforce development can be a critical tool to not only ensure employment opportunities are distributed more equitably within cities and regions, but also to nurture the cross-sector partnerships and community relationships needed to strengthen families’ holistic pathways to financial security.