How Could More Funding Help to Tackle the Gap Between Skills and Jobs?

For decades, Americans have been panicking over the loss of good jobs, and we hear endlessly about workers who are trapped in dead-end service jobs that offer low pay and few benefits. Meanwhile, though, many employers face a very different problem: They can't find enough workers with the right skills, and so lots of jobs go unfilled, often for months on end, due to a lack of qualified candidates.

Closing this mismatch won't solve the bigger problems that are undermining workers and the middle class, such as outsourcing, automation, and public policies that favor capital over labor. But it could make a real difference in people's lives and a number of funders have been tantalized by the potential gains from closing the gap between what employers need and the skills people learn.

In a recent piece, we discussed some of the diverse funders tackling the jobs-skills gap. Notably, we’ve seen leading banks (e.g., JPMorgan Chase and Citi) devoting substantial resources to career development for urban youth.

But there's room for more funding when it comes to closing the jobs mismatch—a lot more if you believe the folks at the Bridgespan Group. Building on its research on “billion-dollar bets” to boost economic opportunity across the country, Bridgespan released another case study on one of those bets: how philanthropic giving can create and sustain pathways to careers.

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Bridgespan sees a big opportunity for philanthropists to address the disconnect between job seekers and employers. From the report: “Many employers do not have the right systems to identify enough workers who have the specific competencies to succeed in their companies. Much of hiring is based on the candidate’s degree, institutional selectivity, or personal connections—many of which put low-income job seekers at a disadvantage.”

Philanthropy can attack this problem at different levels, says Bridgespan, from backing thought leadership to encourage true competency-based hiring to bolstering matchmaking systems that connect employees and employers, including funding “regional intermediaries” that draw on data to guide local actors.

For any of this to work, though, there need to be ways for job seekers to acquire the skills employers want. Within traditional schools and colleges, philanthropy can encourage and support programs that align students with available career opportunities, i.e. summer job programs, market-informed curricula, paid internships, and apprenticeships. A lot of such funding is going on already, as we report often, with many funders backing classroom-to-career initiatives.

Bridgespan also recommends investing in more radical options like skills development “boot camps” outside the traditional school system and “soft skills” curricula to build emotional maturity and resilience. These options might suit more experimental funders with a greater appetite for risk.

Finally, the report acknowledges that while new grantmaking in these areas can catalyze change, ultimately, the public sector needs to step in with greater funding and more supportive policies. The role for philanthropy here: backing policy research and advocacy that can shift the debate and sway public officials.

Given that new funding is already available for fostering stronger career paths and directly addressing the jobs and skills mismatch, Bridgepsan is hardly going out on a limb in suggesting bigger bets in this area. But it's totally right to identify this as one of the more promising strategies for promoting greater opportunity. Our own bet is this report will find some very receptive ears among emerging donors looking to make their mark.

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