This case study is part of the Spotlight on Local Recovery Efforts series, a feature of the COVID-19 Metro Recovery Watch.
State and local governments are struggling to adapt to the massive unemployment surge resulting from the COVID-19 crisis and the simultaneous need to change how they deliver career services to protect public health. Even though the national unemployment rate has slowly begun to decline, in August, there were still 19 million Americans out of work. Pre-existing workforce development programs are being forced to update their capabilities and implement new strategies to take on the difficult task of connecting a historic number of unemployed people to a smaller pool of jobs without much additional funding or resources. These challenges are compounded by the additional costs of operating in a global pandemic, such as requiring new technology and expertise to deliver career services remotely.
Former Senior Research Assistant - Metropolitan Policy Program
Fellow - Brookings Metro
In Central Indiana, this surge of activity is happening on top of some long-standing challenges in connecting qualified talent with employers. Before the pandemic, partners observed that employers had difficulty finding the right talent, and job seekers were reporting that they could not find jobs that were a good fit. Recognizing that this misalignment requires multiple strategies to address, state agencies, municipalities, nonprofits, employers, and community organizations formed the Regional Workforce Partnership (RWP) in 2016. The RWP brings together leadership from these organizations to align their efforts, foster collaboration, and pursue meaningful policy priorities that create a stronger climate for businesses, individuals, and the Central Indiana community. Current members include the city of Indianapolis, EmployIndy, Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (Ascend and Conexus), Indy Chamber, United Way of Central Indiana (UWCI), Indiana Chamber, the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), the Office of Work-Based Learning and Apprenticeship, Commission for Higher Education (CHE), and Skillful.
As the pandemic-induced recession unfolded, the RWP began developing the Rapid Re-employment Response plan at the request of Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett. In building the plan, RWP members combined efforts, resources, and networks to provide one central online platform for job seekers with various educational backgrounds and work experiences to connect to available jobs and training opportunities.
The online platform is an expanded version of the Ascend Network, which launched in 2017 as a proprietary online platform where staff assist students graduating from Indiana universities with marketing themselves to employers, while also helping employers post job descriptions that don’t inadvertently weed out promising talent. Ascend piloted and expanded these services in the run-up to the pandemic when labor markets were tight, with some early success in improving communication and signaling between the supply and demand sides of the regional labor market. To support the Rapid Re-employment Response plan, the platform’s infrastructure and design have been updated to enable workforce development boards to effectively serve dislocated workers and youth.
To compile a database of quality jobs for job seekers, employers are vetted and recruited to ensure that all full-time job opportunities in the database pay at least $13 an hour. To match job seekers and employers, the platform utilizes a skills-based matching algorithm that is complemented by human one-on-one job search support. The focus on skills instead of background helps employers to take a more inclusive approach to hiring, while the one-on-one services assist job seekers with identifying their strengths and honing in on the opportunities that would best fit what they are looking for. To reach a wide pool of talent, select organizations in the Rapid Re-employment Response are finalizing a novel data-sharing arrangement with the state to use unemployment data to target its outreach and channel job seekers to the career opportunities and career services available on the platform that best match their background and interests.
As an economic recovery strategy, the Rapid Re-employment Response (RRR) is building on previous assets in the community, strong regional partnerships, seamless technological capacities, and novel data-sharing strategies to better match employers and job seekers. On the one hand, the RRR is identifying and targeting a wide pool of unemployed workers by using unemployment data while also helping job seekers understand how to articulate their value to employers. On the other hand, the RRR is partnering with employers that offer jobs that meet their quality standards and coaching employers on how they can make their job descriptions more accessible to a wider pool of talent than they would have been able to reach otherwise.
This in-depth approach to curate and better connect talent and employers goes beyond traditional, passive approaches to labor matching and job boards. The engagement of the employer network helps ensure that there is an adequate database of quality jobs, and the anticipated data-sharing arrangement with the state will ensure that the local area is reaching as many unemployed workers as possible to direct them to relevant services. The RRR represents an effort to strengthen the partnership between state and local workforce systems, job seekers, and employers. This effort is building a long-term regional infrastructure that helps employers and local talent connect with each other more effectively, which has been a long-standing labor market failure in signaling and screening processes.
Founded in 2016, the RWP includes several public, private, and nonprofit entities, which are listed in the table below. At the request of Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, the RWP stepped up their collaboration earlier this year to coordinate COVID-19 response efforts and design the Rapid Re-Employment Response plan. With a goal of providing immediate support to COVID-19-impacted employers and job seekers, the RWP met weekly over several months to align their efforts and map out their plan.
The central online location that houses the resource is a platform called the Ascend Network (also referred to as the Network), a pre-existing website hosted by Ascend, the talent and workforce development initiative of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP). The Rapid Re-employment Response has further built out the site so that job seekers can be directed to the various resources that participating organizations have to offer. Ascend and EmployIndy—Marion County’s workforce development board—are onboarding and providing support to job seekers within the expanded platform that helps connect talent to available roles with partner employers.
In conjunction with expanding the Network to respond to COVID-19, the RWP sought out employers to populate the platform with job opportunities. Specific partners—including EmployIndy, Ascend, Conexus, the Indiana Chamber, and the Indy Chamber—leveraged their existing relationships to find qualified employers who met the criteria of offering quality jobs, which they define as jobs that pay at least $13 an hour (to also account for promising jobs that have the potential for upward mobility). After Ascend hosts a standard introductory meeting with each employer, employers sign a partnership agreement and work with Ascend to design employer profiles and summarize job descriptions on the platform to ensure that the language is accessible and appeals to as many job seekers as possible. Ascend keeps in touch with employers after they are set up on the Network to keep a pulse on demand and ensure all available quality jobs are posted.
The Rapid Re-employment Response is unique because of its proactive outreach strategy to unemployed workers in the region. To bridge the disconnect between unemployed workers and local workforce development intermediaries, Ascend and EmployIndy collaborated with the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) to develop a data-sharing agreement to access employment-related data captured in unemployment insurance (UI) applications in Central Indiana. Once finalized, the DWD will securely share this data via weekly updates, using it to identify and direct interested UI claimants to the job-matching services and training opportunities available on the Network.
Before drafting the data-sharing agreement, EmployIndy and Ascend had to become familiar with the state and federal regulations that govern access, sharing, and use of UI data. Through this process, they learned what it would take to access data securely and ensured that their data-sharing agreement complied with regulations. EmployIndy and Ascend also had to identify the existing data fields in the UI application that would be most beneficial for the program’s success, before drafting the agreement to make their request as specific as possible while being attentive to protecting user privacy and personally identifiable information.
In addition, Ascend already had formal partnerships with 27 higher education institutions—including the community college system, private colleges, and public universities across the state—which granted them access to varying degrees of student data in order to conduct strategic outreach to job seekers who are close to graduating from college. Through these agreements, Ascend is able to direct interested nearby students and recent graduates to the Network platform because of these preexisting partnerships.
Beyond these outreach methods, the RRR is also allocating some of its budget to a marketing and communications strategy to promote the program to job seekers and employers. The initial media launch included a press release, media advisory, messaging toolkit, and virtual press announcements and interviews. The communications strategy also includes working with a local marketing agency to develop a multifaceted campaign to reach unemployed job seekers through early 2021.
Connecting talent to employers and other opportunities
In a single online tool—the Network—the RRR provides a space for job seekers to connect to employers and other relevant opportunities. Once job seekers create an account, they fill out a short questionnaire to indicate their level of work readiness and ensure they are routed to the right resources. Job readiness is determined by attainment of a high school diploma (or the equivalent), the quality and competitiveness of one’s resume, and the desire or need to take advantage of training or educational resources before being routed to work opportunities. Work-ready candidates who are enrolled in an associate or bachelor’s degree program or who have a postsecondary degree and fewer than four years of work experience are routed to Ascend for one-on-one support to get connected to an internship or job. Work-ready candidates who have a high school degree (or the equivalent) or a postsecondary credential and at least four years of work experience are routed to EmployIndy for one-on-one support to find work or self-selected upskilling opportunities. All one-on-one support can be conducted via phone calls, which is optimal for job seekers without internet access. (Video calls are also available.)
Job seekers who are not work-ready as defined by the platform (those without a high school diploma or competitive resume) are connected to upskilling or career readiness support to attain a quality job. Those who are under age 24 are routed to one-on-one support from YES Indy, a local youth career services program supported by EmployIndy. Those who are over 24 are routed to one-on-one support from WorkOne Indy, an adult career services program also operated by EmployIndy. Individuals who seek any additional training or educational attainment are referred to their community-based organization’s employment support services, public adult education programs, and other relevant resources depending on their background and interests.
The Network’s unique algorithm uses the skills that job seekers have listed on their profile to match them with jobs that require the same skills, as noted on the job description. This skills-based approach can open opportunities for job seekers who lack a traditionally sought-after background (such as a college degree) by instead emphasizing the skills necessary to succeed in a role. In addition, one-on-one career counseling allows EmployIndy and Ascend to learn more about job seekers and individually align them with specific opportunities. Ascend and EmployIndy staff also guide job seekers through designing their profile on the Network to highlight information that aligns with how employers receive it. Job seeker profiles provide a full picture of candidates and contain critical components for employers that are often not clearly captured in a traditional resume, including skills, work style, and interests.
Jobs and employers are also displayed on the Network for job seekers to view, and members of the Ascend team work with employers to develop their profiles and job descriptions with consideration of what’s most important to job seekers. They disclose details on company culture, values, benefits, work style preferences, team profiles, and even nearby office amenities.
Once they are set up on the Network, job seekers can apply for recommended jobs on the site, and employers can invite job seekers to apply for certain jobs. This collaborative effort provides a one-stop shop that tackles the region’s severe unemployment crisis.
A job seeker’s view of a job profile on Ascend Network (Source: ascendindiana.com)
Employer view of a candidate profile on Ascend Network (Source: ascendindiana.com)
Solution cost & time frame of execution
The city of Indianapolis has allocated $1.05 million in CARES Act funding for the Rapid Re-employment Response. A large share goes toward technology costs, which include building out the Network’s technology infrastructure and design to accommodate the participating workforce intermediaries as site tenants. Funding also goes toward staffing up to increase program capacity, which enables the RRR to serve the large number of job seekers that the pandemic has created. At the moment, EmployIndy staff receive training from Ascend staff to learn how to load job seeker profiles into the Network system in a consistent, codified format. The remaining funds will be allocated to marketing and communications to reach and educate job seekers about the available services. While the initial funding for the RRR is being spent on immediate costs (the estimates of which are detailed below), the RWP continues to fundraise from foundations and other sources to cover additional expenses for the years to come.
Key components or features
The Rapid Re-employment Response hosts both job seekers and employers on its online Network. Job seekers create an account and answer a short questionnaire to join the online platform and receive personalized support.
Meanwhile, employers who have relevant available jobs can join the Network by scheduling a meeting with an Ascend team member on the RRR website.
On the Network platform, job seekers can:
- Connect to quality employment that is personalized for them
- Take advantage of one-one-one career services and learn how to market themselves better (including educational resources for job interviews through links to an online guide and YouTube videos)
- Connect to a wide, qualified pool of local talent
- Receive services to help their company and jobs be more appealing for job seekers
Upon its launch, the Rapid Re-employment Response had more than 400 employers on the Network. Since then, nearly 100 new employers have begun the process to share their job opportunities on the Network. Even without having yet received any unemployment insurance data, the site saw over 400 job seekers create accounts during the first week being live. Debunking the myth that no one is hiring, the popularity of the platform has proved that there is a demand not only for jobs, but also for talent.
The RRR is also notable for its commitment to delivering quality jobs to a diverse range of job seekers with various qualifications and career backgrounds in light of COVID-19’s effects on the workforce. Currently, 60% of the full-time jobs on the Network require entry-level skills, with most remaining jobs requiring mid-level skills and experience. This mix is anticipated to change to ensure more relevant opportunities as job seekers with a wider variety of skills and backgrounds access the Network. The number of remote jobs on the platform fluctuates, as employers are constantly re-evaluating their plans in accordance with state and federal return-to-work guidelines. The ability of the partners to work together during a crisis and build on each other’s unique contributions rather than compete with each other is also a model for other regions that are striving toward collective impact models.
To account for the pandemic’s disproportionate unemployment rate for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, the program will utilize demographic data to track and monitor equitable delivery of RRR services. If they find that workers of color are underrepresented in who they are serving, then the program will implement more strategic outreach to ensure that the users benefiting from their resources better reflect the racial demographics of Central Indiana’s unemployed population.
Challenges and lessons learned
One of the most challenging aspects of setting up the Rapid Re-employment Response was obtaining access to local unemployment insurance (UI) data. The federal, state, and local statutory and regulatory environments related to data sharing are complex. Because of this, local areas are often unable to access state UI claimant data to target outreach to people seeking jobs. Yet, because Indiana’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD) was a participating partner in the RWP, EmployIndy and Ascend had a strong existing relationship with the DWD. Subsequently, the DWD became their ally in identifying a path to utilize the UI data to effectively reach and serve impacted individuals. The DWD is able to pursue sharing state unemployment data with EmployIndy and Ascend because the goals of the RRR program categorically align with the goals of the DWD’s reemployment programs. The DWD worked with EmployIndy and Ascend to create a data-sharing agreement that called for them to take extensive physical and digital security measures to protect the data.
In addition to this challenge, a lack of access to broadband, devices, and digital literacy skills can present a barrier for some job seekers. The Ascend Network is mobile-friendly for job seekers without computers, but is not yet optimized for mobile use—an enhancement planned for the coming months.
As a further challenge, many displaced workers are afraid to go back to work while the COVID-19 pandemic is still a health threat. While the majority of the jobs available on the platform are not remote, the Network supports searches for remote jobs—a characteristic that is highlighted in the job description. Like many other workforce intermediaries around the country, these are challenges that the Rapid Re-employment Response continues to take under consideration as it scales its work.
This case study was written by Reniya Dinkins.
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