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Redefining the worker's voice: how APHSA's Center for Workforce Engagement plots a roadmap toward gainful employment and independence.

In the October 2015 issue of Policy & Practice, we touched on the important role work plays in the lives of individuals and families. Work is an essential, defining component of most Americans' lives, and for most human service customers, employment is critical to their ability to meet their needs and support the health and well-being of their families and communities. Unfortunately, many human service customers have very limited employment opportunities and face barriers that prevent them from finding and securing jobs that promote stability and well-being.

Workforce engagement efforts, at the macro and micro levels, must be intentionally designed and implemented in ways that focus on creating career pathways for families, not just to employment, but to gainful employment and the resulting positive and sustainable outcomes that benefit the whole family.

A new APHSA initiative, the Center for Workforce Engagement (CWE), has been established to identify and promote policies, practice models, funding structures, and other resources that can best support and enable gainful employment and independence for individuals and their families. The overarching purpose of the Center for Workforce Engagement is to advance a system of human services, workforce development, economic development, and education and training that effectively supports greater capacity and independence, employment, self-sufficiency, and well-being for low-income individuals and families.

We strive to fulfill this purpose with a number of core principles in mind. These essential premises, based upon the latest research and practice in the field, lead us to operate from the following understandings:

* For working-age individuals, having a job and staying in the workforce are critical to achieving greater independence for themselves and their families.

* Employment and achieving independence constitute a process, not a one-time event. This outcome, therefore, encompasses a variety of tools and approaches tailored to the degree of individual need.

* Once basic employment elements are in place, the ability to build assets helps individuals and families move even more securely down the road to greater individual capacity and independence.

* Opportunities and supports that help prepare the supply side of the labor market can succeed only in partnership with demand-side strategies that engage employers and economic developers.

In consideration of the CWE's purpose and principles, our work is focused on achieving three primary goals. We work to:

* Promote integrated, outcome-focused policies and practices that best support and enable gainful employment and self-sufficiency for individuals and families;

* Serve as a central source of information and resources relating to workforce engagement, share existing innovations, and develop new tools for engaging people in career pathways that lead them to self-sufficiency and well-being; and

* Facilitate communication and collaboration across the human services, workforce development, economic development, and education fields in order to support a more integrated and impactful system of workforce engagement.


One of the goals of the Center for Workforce Engagement is to influence policies and practices that best support access to opportunity and mobility through gainful employment. The CWE works toward this goal by tracking and analyzing policies related to workforce engagement, developing policy briefs to inform APHSA's members and the nation's policymakers, and working with APHSA's members and partners to advocate for more effective workforce policies. The CWE's most recent policy work has focused on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Currently, the TANF program focuses too much on activity and process and too little on meaningful, long-term customer results. TANF must be strengthened to shift focus from participation that counts to engagement that matters.

The time is ripe for change. The bipartisan passage of WIOA in 2014 demonstrated that there is political will on both sides of the aisle to revamp workforce programs to focus on serving those with the greatest need and achieving the meaningful outcomes that lead to greater self-sufficiency and well-being. With and through APHSA's members, the CWE is currently working with a variety of stakeholders and partners to develop suggested outcome and accountability measures for TANF that are more closely aligned with the outcome-focused measures in WIOA.


The Center for Workforce Engagement aims to build knowledge and capacity toward a more effective infrastructure for policy and program innovations in workforce engagement. Many human service agencies have identified the need for more and better tools at their disposal to design and execute practical and affordable engagement programs on a broad scale. Through a web-based platform, the CWE is addressing this issue by serving as a central source of information and resources related to workforce engagement, sharing existing innovations, and developing new approaches for engaging people in career pathways that undergird self-sufficiency and well-being.

The CWE is supporting knowledge and capacity building in the workforce engagement field through development of a dynamic web-based resource library. The resource library will function as a virtual database containing the best and most current information relating to a variety of workforce engagement topics. Not only does it offer a collection of resources, it also helps us to analyze the existing knowledge in the field and identify what issues and themes need further exploration.

Our Repository of Innovative Programs and Practices is a resource that members can turn to learn from innovations being implemented in other states and localities across the nation. We identify and highlight programs that are trying evidence-informed practices with promising results, especially those that are doing so through public-private partnerships. The repository supports and enables efforts to build a sound evidence base. It also highlights programs and practices that demonstrate the return on investment not only in welfare-to-work programs that reduce welfare rolls, but on investment in opening up and promoting access to meaningful opportunities for low-income individuals and families to participate fully in our nation's economy and share in the benefits of its economic growth.

To kick off the CWE's work on information and innovation, and to encourage discussion, we have developed an initiative called the Areas for Innovation Series. We have identified several areas of workforce engagement that present opportunities for new and budding innovations that will advance workforce engagement efforts and help more workers move toward worthwhile employment, self-reliance, and wellness. The Areas for Innovation Series will highlight and explore those opportunities through discussion papers, briefs, webinars, and toolkits that will reflect our members' ongoing work as they put innovations into practice.

Through policy, advocacy, knowledge, and capacity-building, and by fostering partnerships and collaboration, we can advance a national system for workforce engagement that effectively supports workers as they develop skills, grow their individual capacities, overcome barriers, and secure gainful employment.


The third goal of the Center for Workforce Engagement is to connect with our partners and stakeholders and assist them in connecting with one another to achieve positive outcomes for low-income workers and families. We are bringing together a community of practice that includes those who have common goals around workforce engagement, but who historically may not have always communicated or worked together. We endeavor to facilitate communication and collaboration across the human service, workforce development, economic development, and education fields to support a more integrated and balanced system for workforce engagement. The center plans to facilitate relationship-building and productive conversations within and across these disciplines through monthly e-updates, webinars and web discussions, meetings, and toolkits.

Collaboration across sectors is just as important as collaboration across fields. Much of our work focuses on advancing and supporting public-private partnerships. We believe that public-private partnerships are one of the best models for achieving positive and meaningful outcomes for low-income workers, families, and communities. The center's own advisory committee models the partnership between public agencies, researchers, associations, nonprofit advocacy organizations, and private industry partners with whom we wish to collaboratively engage in the workforce engagement arena.

Human service agencies, along with their partners in workforce development, economic development, and education and training, play a critical role in supporting employment, independence, and greater individual capacity for low-income and other disadvantaged individuals and families. We can, and must, take practical steps to better align policies and programs that impact workforce engagement and build on what we know works.

Through policy, advocacy, knowledge, and capacity-building, and by fostering partnerships and collaboration, we can advance a national system for workforce engagement that effectively supports workers as they develop skills, grow their individual capacities, overcome barriers, and secure gainful employment. As a result, we help build an environment that effectively strongly supports healthy families and communities.

We welcome your feedback, insights, ideas, and support as we move forward in working together to help build a national conversation and exchange of practice surrounding work engagement for individuals and families.

The Center for Workforce Engagement's efforts are informed by an Advisory Committee developed to guide our way and define our work, by state and local agencies practicing in workforce engagement, and by the policies and practices that shape effective work opportunities and practice. Recognizing the necessary programmatic and policy directions for gainful employment and independence, the focus of the CWE requires emphasis on directing resources into those supports that will help adults get a job and stay employed, including:

* education and training;

* affordable, quality child care;

* secure and stable housing;

* reliable transportation;

* tools to help secure appropriate opportunities for those with disabilities;

* addressing barriers to employment of the recently incarcerated;

* advancing opportunities for micro-enterprises and similar initiatives that can provide alternative entry points into the workforce; and by

* providing other new or modernized opportunities through which adults can quickly become as self-sufficient as possible.

Kerry Desjardins is a policy associate at APHSA.

Mary Brogdon is the assistant director of strategic initiatives at APHSA.
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Title Annotation:American Public Human Services Association
Author:Desjardins, Kerry; Brogdon, Mary
Publication:Policy & Practice
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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