The ability to conduct activities and participate in the modern economy from our homes has grown increasingly urgent over the past year due to COVID-19.
At the onset of the pandemic, states were faced with the unprecedented challenge of continuing the delivery of state services and programs without in-person access. As Western residents lost their jobs at an alarming rate, these services, including benefits and job search assistance, became especially essential. To address this issue, Western states pivoted quickly and shifted in-person skills trainings, short-term education, and other workforce services to innovative virtual delivery models.
But even beyond the pandemic, virtual employment services can connect more people with the resources they need to find good jobs, bring new skills to the workforce, and spur economic growth. As Western Governors note in WGA Policy Resolution 2018-03, Workforce Development in the Western United States, economic equity continues to be a problem across the region, with people of color and people with disabilities seeing lower percentages of employment and earnings, regardless of career preparation and credential levels. Challenges are particularly acute in rural communities, which commonly have higher rates of unemployment, a lack of economic diversity, geographic isolation, and limited infrastructure, including broadband.
Western Governors are focused on closing workforce gaps to help more people move into fulfilling, well-paying jobs while ensuring that businesses have the talent they need to thrive. The transition to inclusively designed virtual workforce services could assist Western Governors in these efforts. Virtual services have the potential to reach wider audiences, from residents of rural communities without large career fairs to people with disabilities who may face barriers to transportation access.
To create opportunities and build prosperity for all, Western Governors are also committed to tackling connectivity challenges. The Governors’ full policy recommendations can be found in WGA Policy Resolutions 2018-03, Workforce Development in the Western United States and 2020-08, Broadband Connectivity. Highlights of their work include:
- Advocating for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, including the expansion of the Pell Grant program to include high-quality short-term training programs leading to industry-recognized credentials, and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act;
- Encouraging Congress and federal agencies to support and incentivize state-, local-, and industry-led partnerships to create and scale work-based learning and apprenticeship programs;
- Calling on federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Education to coordinate federal workforce development, career and technical education, and higher education programs to better serve workforce needs;
- Urging federal agencies and Congress to deploy resources to help states solve the pressing need for broadband availability, especially in rural communities; and
- Supporting the adoption of a higher, scalable standard of broadband speed that more accurately reflects innovations and bandwidth demands than the current definition of 25/3 Mbps, so that Western citizens can participate in the modern economy now and into the future.
The following examples illustrate how western states have supported regional economic recovery, fueled the West’s continued economic growth, and ensured that all Westerners can explore good careers and get the skills they need to get hired:
- Several western states have implemented virtual careers fairs, including Alaska, California, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Washington. Alaska and Washington have conducted fairs specifically targeting veterans and military families. Alaska hosted its annual fair online over a three-week period in November. It connected participants with employment and occupational training opportunities. Participants were comprised of employers from federal, state, and municipal entities, as well as representatives from the construction, oil and gas, financial, health care, and transportation industries.
- Throughout 2020-2021, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment (ODEP) hosted convenings for states to learn about strategies to support inclusive employment during the pandemic and share best practices. The COVID-19 Policy Collaborative for an Inclusive Recovery was organized by ODEP’s State Exchange on Employment & Disability (SEED) and produced a framework compiling policy resources and examples from across the country.
- Colorado launched the Lives Empowered initiative, which assembles retail businesses to promote upskilling and retention strategies to increase economic mobility for frontline workers. The Colorado Workforce Development Council has efforts geared towards both employers and employees. The Lives Empowered Training Academy provides free online training and credentials in retail, hospitality, and food and beverage. There are options for people at each stage of the career pipeline, from first-time job seekers and people re-entering the workforce to those looking for advancement in their field.
- During the pandemic, South Dakota created SD Upskill, a program providing short-term opportunities for workers dislocated by COVID-19 to earn credits and certificates online from the state’s technical colleges at little or no cost. The program was established by the state’s Department of Labor and Regulation and the Board of Technical Education with Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funds and a National Dislocated Worker Grant. It helps workers prepare for re-employment and meet the needs of the economy. The technical colleges offer eight certificates through these programs, with credentials available in agriculture, business, health science, and information technology.
- The state introduced the Hot Jobs in Utah web portal in September 2020 to connect job seekers, especially those displaced by COVID-19, with industries that rebounded quickly and employers who are currently hiring. The portal seeks to identify available jobs in these industries so that people can get back to work. The state used CARES Act dollars for a marketing campaign to raise awareness about the resource, and the Utah Department of Workforce Services used its extensive database of industry, wage, and workforce information for its development. The site, which boasts more than 30,000 job openings, highlights information technology, finance and banking, construction, health, manufacturing, life sciences, and advanced manufacturing as the sectors with the most growth in Utah and lists the top five jobs in each of these sectors.