Issue #137, September/October 2004


Book Review

Second Chances

Review by Robert O. Zdenek

You can order these book through Shelterforce's Online Bookstore

Workforce Intermediaries for the Twenty-first Century, edited by Robert P. Giloth. Temple University Press in association with The American Assembly, Columbia University, Philadelphia, PA, 2004. 288 pp. $41.50 (hardcover).

Workforce Development Politics: Civic Capacity and Performance, edited by Robert P. Giloth. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2004. 296 pp. $24.95 (paperback).


The United States has been viewed as a land of boundless opportunities and of multiple chances for individuals to become the next Horatio Alger. For millions of Americans, though, this view has not been borne out by experience. There are many reasons for this disappointing trend, especially the decoupling of jobs from local neighborhoods and the particularly low literacy and graduation rates in many urban school districts. Workforce development emerged against an economic backdrop of de-industrialization and of job relocation to suburban areas – a challenge for low-wage workers living in urban neighborhoods. The departure of stable well-paying jobs and the exodus of residents following those jobs have eroded the economic base of low- and moderate-income communities. Those residents left behind have only limited opportunities for employment or advancement. Two new publications, Workforce Intermediaries for the Twenty-first Century and Workforce Development Politics: Civic Capacity and Performance (both edited by Robert Giloth, director of the Family Economic Success program at the Annie E. Casey Foundation), examine the programmatic and policy responses to these challenges.

Workforce intermediaries (WIs) represent a promising and growing response to both employers and job seekers. They creatively package a complex set of policies, programs and tax incentives that helps to create jobs and services for the estimated 15 to 50 million jobless and low-wage people in the United States. WIs offer a “second chance” to these millions of individuals, by helping them develop job skills that can provide family-supporting wages and career opportunities. Community colleges, community-based organizations (CBOs), business organizations or associations, economic development organizations, unions or labor management partnerships and one-stop career centers are among the more common WIs. According to Cindy Marano and Kim Tarr (of the National Network of Sector Partners, Oakland, CA), there are over 2,000 workforce intermediaries operating in the United States. Marano and Tarr compiled survey responses from 243 workforce intermediaries and reported their findings in Workforce Intermediaries. Some of the results showed that

  • 73 percent of WIs are housed in nonprofit organizations and the remainder in government or for-profit institutions;

  • services offered include identifying employer needs (82 percent), job readiness services (81 percent), occupational skills training (80 percent), career counseling/career management (80 percent) and job placement (79 percent);

  • 66 percent serve more than 500 clients, 24 percent serve between 100 to 500 clients and the remaining 10 percent serve fewer than 100 clients;

  • major client groups include low-income workers (87 percent), low-wage workers (86 percent), TANF/welfare recipients (78 percent), displaced workers (77 percent) and adults with limited literacy (72 percent);

  • 37 percent have budgets in excess of $2 million and 55 percent have budgets under $750,000; and

  • 53 different funding sources were reported, with the major funding streams being the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (66 percent), welfare funds (47 percent), foundation funds (43 percent), fees for service (29 percent), state Department of Labor funds (28 percent) and corporate business contributions (27 percent).

The attributes and characteristics of WIs underscore the challenge of coordinating resources and strategies, especially because this coordination comprises multiple systems with weak governance structures. Workforce Development Politics mainly explores the challenges of five different cities (Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Seattle and St. Louis) in developing an effective workforce development system.

What becomes apparent in reading these case studies is the uniqueness of each political environment and how challenging it is to develop coherent workforce development policies. David Bartelt of Temple University, who wrote the Philadelphia case study, deftly describes the challenges of developing performance-oriented programs and investments in a “private city” dominated by individual “deals” rather than civic goals and strategies that motivate and direct change. Philadelphia is contrasted with Seattle, where there is a strong civic culture with broad-based political and business leadership.

Steve Rathgeb Smith of the University of Washington, and Susan Davis, a graduate student, the coauthors of the Seattle case study, point out that the civic leadership of the Seattle Jobs Initiative (funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation) emphasized building the capacity of CBOs to provide integrated sectoral training in key industries and occupations; the strategy resulted in CBOs becoming central players in the local workforce development system. The CBOs in Seattle represent diverse constituencies and include the YWCA, the Asian Counseling & Referral Service, the Central Area Motivation Program, the Refugee Federation Service Center, the Seattle Indian Center and the Washington Coalition of Citizens with disAbilities.

The more fragmented system in Philadelphia makes it difficult to build CBOs’ capacity for integrated training and to link their capacity to performance and outcomes that directly benefit low-wage, low-skill workers. Bartelt notes that CBOs in the context of workforce development face fiscal, organizational and constituency challenges when they are required to have performance-driven expectations and capacities. The CBOs in Philadelphia, which are primarily CDCs, often receive funding because of their place-based focus, political connections and development skills (which are often long term). This suggests that some CBOs might be best suited to partner with WIs, to ensure that their constituents and clients are able to access effective workforce development services that build skills and employment access.

The case studies in Workforce Development Politics could have benefited from a more chronological and linear perspective. It was hard to follow the progress of both successes and barriers in each site; it was hard to track how the workforce development systems have been changed and it would have been helpful to have a consideration of the future prospects and relevance for other cities and regions. Each of the case studies draws on the experience of its author(s), resulting in primarily descriptive portrayals of that community’s or city’s political and economic environment, which may limit its practical relevance to other communities.

In the last chapter of Workforce Intermediaries, Giloth points out that the coming workforce crisis – a shortfall of workers and skills – threatens U.S. economic prosperity. WIs that have enhanced adaptive capacity, an improved civic culture and better coordination of resources can respond to this crisis by developing the skills of, and providing second-chance training to, current and future workers. Giloth concludes that several actions are needed: raising awareness of the impending workforce crisis; developing an integrated set of financing tools for career advancement and work supports; providing sustainable financing for the myriad roles that WIs perform; and building capacity and a constituency for action. The importance of building local and national constituencies for policy and awareness cannot be underestimated, based on the experience of the community development world.

One chapter in Workforce Intermediaries is devoted to community development intermediation and its lessons. The chapter focuses heavily on the role of intermediaries, which is significant, but not enough on the community development associations and coalitions that led to the development of policies and programs (such as CDBG, HOME, OCS and CRA) that have fueled the growth of the community development industry. There is a stronger and better-funded policy support structure in the community development world than in the workforce development world, in part because it has been easier to build economic and political support around place-based strategies than around people- or mobility-focused strategies.

The community development world and workforce development world have some things in common. Both can benefit from stronger connections, especially with the growth of low-wage, low-skill jobs and the need to connect community residents to economic ladders of opportunity. WIs can also benefit from some of the civic capacity that has been slowly established in the community development world.

These two books are a welcome addition to any community economic development bookshelf and should be read by practitioners, technical support providers and funders interested in responding to the challenges surrounding low-wage jobs.

Robert O. Zdenek, DPA, is an independent consultant specializing in asset development, organizational change and economic strategies. 301-263-2715 or robert.zdenek@verizon.net.