Like many systems, workforce development programs are confronting a cascade of unknowns amidst social distancing, budget cuts, and economic downturn. But these programs played—and can continue to play—a critical role in building prospective workers’ access to a too often ignored ingredient to opportunity: social and professional connections. I sat down with Edward DeJesus, a youth policy and workforce development expert who has spent his career building future economic opportunities for the most marginalized youth and young adults. We talked about how workforce programs have an opportunity to put social capital at the center of their efforts amidst the crisis. 

Julia: Economic insecurity is top of mind for many students and families. How are you seeing workforce development organizations respond to this crisis to offer some continuity of opportunity?

Ed: Let’s be clear—workforce organizations traditionally operate as employer demand-driven systems. In such systems, employers are the primary customer. According to a large state-based workforce association, “the extent to which we meet employers’ needs is the extent to which we provide the best help to job seekers.” 

With COVID-19, that’s going to change. The current crisis has jobs disappearing faster than tater tots off my son’s school lunch counter. Meeting employer demands only makes “cents” if it’s going to help them get that paycheck. Now, the challenge facing workforce organizations is this: to return to the original mission that started them all—alleviating mass unemployment caused by the crisis and putting millions of Americans back to work.

Workforce programs must move beyond work readiness preparation and credentialing. If they’re going to be any help, they have to provide one critical component that millions of job seekers need just as desperately: opportunity. Innovative thinking is the birthright of workforce legislation. We have the chance to create an even more all-encompassing national program similar to President Roosevelt’s 1935 Works Progress Administration.  

Julia: In a recent video you proposed that workforce programs have a “golden opportunity” to turn themselves into support systems for young people during this crisis. What might that look like? How can worksite supervisors be redeployed to support young people who suddenly may be unable to be at a physical work site?

Ed: Let me help answer this question by highlighting an increasingly common experience. Let’s say Juan is a recent graduate of a youth workforce program and a proud new employee at General Office Systems, an independent small office supply shop located in Phoenix, Arizona. Juan has been rocked by his recent layoff due to COVID-19. He invested so much effort in achieving a customer service credential and in making sure that he puts that credential to work. Saddened and distraught, Juan is now sitting at home, not knowing where to turn, not seeing a way out.

The workforce system is facing thousands of Juans. Layoffs are very real, and disappointment and dismissal are leading to disconnection—the very things workforce programs fought against.

The new workforce challenge of our century, not just during the pandemic, is investing in systems to keep Juan connected to the world of work and education. The biggest system to pivot towards? Building social capital. Juan may be laid off from his job, but he’s not laid off from the world of work.

Workforce programs must realize that labor market participation is the pulse of the economy. To keep that heart pumping, they need to invest in resources to make sure Juan stays active in it. What might this look like? Workforce systems can recognize social capital building as a required program element and begin to create paid work-based learning projects and resources for students like Juan to receive weekly stipends in exchange for following up with previous employers, engaging new ones, and sharing their new labor market information with other people in his community. Building up Juan’s relationships while outside of the workforce will only enhance his opportunities to get back in it. And if workforce programs start focusing on social capital today, Juan—and so many others like him—can emerge from quarantine with opportunities in hand.

Julia: With summer around the corner, a wide range of summer employment opportunities are hanging in the balance. Specifically, how should youth employment summer programs and supervisors reimagine themselves?

Ed: We have to look beyond public sector employment as the work experience option for the majority of African-American and Latinx youth enrolled in summer employment programs. Traditional strategies focus on teaching youth about the world of work but fail to acknowledge how the world of work is changing—and how programs must change with it. To make a difference, summer programs should consider social capital’s transformative power. Through a social capital framework, programs can empower youth to become active participants in their own learning by connecting them to people in their community who can:

  • Help youth gain knowledge and get access to labor market information 
  • Engage youth in activities to show them diverse career pathways, behaviors, and skills needed for labor market participation and success
  • Work one-on-one to remove individual barriers to long-term market participation and success, such as prejudices employers hold about certain populations
  • Show youth in-demand employment opportunities, part-time work experiences, and other local developmental opportunities
  • Connect youth to meaningful service-learning projects designed to show them the importance of education and work

In less than a month, COVID-19 has dramatically changed how youth workforce programs provide services. While many are shifting to distance training, a few are giving up altogether. New York City’s decision to cancel the summer employment program is one example. Instead of addressing the problem head-on, New York City has opted for an easy way out. While the challenge of online training is being addressed through the purchasing of Chromebooks and efforts to ensure that youth have internet access, the challenge of providing online work experience remains elusive. One method of providing online work experience is through a social capital framework. Through an explicit social capital building approach, youth could be paid for participation in activities targeted to increase a sense of attachment and belonging, a precursor for future labor market success.

Julia: You’ve talked about social capital as an “asset that can only be lost by not being spent.” That feels like an important statement in the era of social distancing. Can you elaborate?

Ed: Programs around the country are losing out on the benefits of social capital. Why aren’t programs, and families, using this time to help children know who they know? For example, I would give young people this assignment: “Speak to five employed family members and ask them these five questions…” Make sure you include their contact name and email upon submission of your report.” Then, as a social capital builder, I would reach out to these five family members and engage them in a discussion on how we could jointly help the kid engage in career exploration work during these trying times. By ignoring this powerful resource, programs are wasting millions of dollars in untapped in-kind resources every single year—and young people are bearing the brunt of that mistake. We know that a majority of workforce program participants place themselves at jobs through their social networks. That’s social capital the young job seeker already possesses, and yet it’s completely ignored by the workforce system. Many programs don’t understand the transformational power of social capital and the “forever people” in job-seekers’ lives. By neglecting to understand each of these assets, there is little chance a program can help someone invest them properly. Why teach a young person to put in a hundred job applications when his uncle works for a company with twenty job openings? These existing contacts in young people’s lives are a huge asset that formal programs can’t afford to ignore.

When workforce programs don’t pay attention to this dynamic, they may be the reason their youth lose out. It’s time to look beyond business as usual. Social capital is more than mandating emergency contact information. It’s prioritizing who those young people know, helping them build these relationships, and make new ones—all influencing positive outcomes for young people and programs alike.

This time of social distancing is a prime shot to get the social capital process started. Everyone is home and probably feeling some effects of isolation. Now’s the perfect time to start building those social support systems.