Transforming Workforce Development Boards into Innovation Engines

Stories from the Covid-19 Unemployment Crisis

By Virginia Hamilton and Rachel Dzombak

Illustrated by Brian Prince

tldr: The public workforce system, with over 600 Workforce Development Boards nationwide, helps job seekers with skill building and job placement, and helps businesses with their talent needs. They are rewarded for placement, wage and retention outcomes, while there are few incentives to innovate and experiment to improve services, and fewer still to improve social equity outcomes. With record high unemployment resulting from Covid-19, the workforce system is actively innovating to meet demand. Over the past four months, we supported front-line workers to think about how human-centered mindsets and skillsets along with an intentional focus on racial and socioeconomic disparities can support them and enable a whole new level of care, holistic support, and redesign of job services.

In March, as the Covid-19 pandemic began to shut down the California economy, Teresa Serrata and her colleagues at Ventura County’s Americas Job Center of California (AJCC) and her colleagues at the Employment Development Department were fielding hundreds of calls a day from people who had lost their jobs. Serrata knew navigating the EDD’s phone system was difficult on normal days. But now the system was overwhelmed, and people were angry and annoyed and afraid. As the phones rang, Serrata asked herself: How can we redesign workforce development services to create better pathways for the unemployed? And can we do it in the midst of this employment crisis?

As someone (Virginia Hamilton) who served for years in the workforce development system and as the Regional Administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, I know firsthand that fear and worry are the primary emotions of people who turn to government resources for job assistance. People coming into AJCCs are anxious about losing their homes, being evicted, having to let go of their cars, or tell their kids to withdraw from college. Needlessly complicated directions and long processes that require an abundance of time and patience are seldom a good design choice. In times of crisis, they can be an insurmountable barrier for those who need services the most.

Meanwhile, the ability for Workforce Development agencies to quickly pivot to help job seekers facing extraordinary circumstances is complicated. On the one hand, the agencies and individuals involved in job placement and trainings have gone into overdrive during the pandemic, doing their utmost to offer their services and expertise virtually. On the other hand, public agencies tend to be fragmented, siloed, and understaffed. It is hard to get a holistic view of ecosystems, to see the big picture of resources, and there is often little reward for encouraging methodical and systemic innovation, particularly during a crisis such as Covid-19. The culture of programs funded by the U.S. Department of Labor is often more focused on compliance with laws and regulations than it is on improving services to customers.

Add to all that a tough political climate, old infrastructure that doesn’t support new technology approaches, and competitive and conflicting policies — and you have a high need for innovation and not enough space and guidance to ensure that the best ideas rise to the top and get refined and implemented. In other words, it is simultaneously an exciting and frustrating time to be in workforce development.

There is one thing we know about people who work in workforce development: they want to help their customers get skills, jobs, and improve their livelihoods. Yet these same people often get ground down by bureaucratic processes and can lose sight of their mission and values. They spend more time being required to report on what they are doing, or helping people with paperwork than actually being able to do the job they love. That’s why I have been training workforce development professionals in Human Centered Design (HCD) skillsets and mindsets for the past 7 years — and why Rachel Dzombak, a co-conspirator in workforce innovation, and I received funding from The James Irvine Foundation to run a three-month HCD training program this fall.

Why Human Centered Design?

Why HCD or design thinking, as the creative problem-solving method is often called? Design thinking, it turns out, can work powerfully for government employees because it empowers an individual or a team to design products, services, systems, or experiences that address the core needs of the people being served. It is an empathy engine for innovation “ideation” and for testing and implementing customer-focused products and services.

As Jeanne Leidlka points out in her article in the Harvard Business Review, when describing why HCD works so well in government innovation:

“Experienced designers often complain that design thinking is too structured and linear. And for them, that’s certainly true. But managers on innovation teams generally are not designers and also aren’t used to doing face-to-face research with customers, getting deeply immersed in their perspectives, co-creating with stakeholders, and designing and executing experiments. Structure and linearity help managers try and adjust to these new behaviors….

Organized processes keep people on track and curb the tendency to spend too long exploring a problem or to impatiently skip ahead. They also instill confidence. Most humans are driven by a fear of mistakes, so they focus more on preventing errors than on seizing opportunities. They opt for inaction rather than action when a choice risks failure. But there is no innovation without action — so psychological safety is essential. The physical props and highly formatted tools of design thinking deliver that sense of security, helping would-be innovators move more assuredly through the discovery of customer needs, idea generation, and idea testing.”

At the same time, methods implemented in the private sector don’t always translate exactly to government agencies. That’s why we contextualize our work in government and explicitly address the structural challenges that often can impede public sector innovation. As Antoinette Carrol, founder of Creative Reaction Lab and a thought leader in integrating equity with the design process, put it:

“All systems — including systems of oppression, inequality and inequity — are by design. Therefore, they can be redesigned.”

Workforce Development Boards as Innovation Engines

Some background: Many Workforce Development Boards (WDBs) in California provide skill building and job search services designed largely in response to federal law and funding requirements. They, along with the AJCCs they administer, are positioned to be leaders in local communities for delivering and investing in strategies that improve local economies and labor markets. WDBs are mandated to serve both employers and vulnerable populations.

This is why we targeted them for our HCD training — WDBs are ideal for experimenting and testing new ideas and new ways of delivering services and for influencing the larger ecosystem of workforce development in the communities they serve. With funding from The James Irvine Foundation, we launched the Adaptive Workforce Development Pilot (AWDP) to see if we could build new mindsets and new skills to help job seekers look for and find good jobs.

We were very excited about the impact human-centered design tools could create in the hands of workforce development professionals. And testing the potential seemed especially important as providers need to rapidly respond to the many challenges posed by COVID-19.

- Leslie Payne, Senior Program Officer at The James Irvine Foundation

WBDs are especially important now. In California, almost one third of workers — 6.23 million people — have filed for unemployment benefits since the start of the crisis in March 2020, according to the California Policy Lab. Unemployment rates have remained higher for Californians of color than for white Californians. A California Budget and Policy Center study found that at its peak unemployment reached 20 percent or more for Asian, black, Latinx, and other Californians of color compared to 17 percent for white Californians. And while the state gained back 34 percent of the 2.6 million jobs it lost in March and April by September, the unemployment rate remained almost the same for black Californians, dropping just one percentage point from 20 to 19 percent. Women also have borne the brunt of unemployment, with one in four out of work at the worst point of the recession, as compared to one in five men.

As we began preparing our training for 40 people representing WBDs and AJCCs in four locations across California, these statistics were top of mind. We directed our participants to design thinking approaches that emphasized insights from behavioral science, diversity and inclusion, and trauma-informed care. These approaches, we believe, could help our participants evaluate the new online services they were forced to launch quickly and make their websites and virtual offerings more appealing and effective for the greatest number of job seekers.

We believe that when job seekers get what they need — not necessarily the standard offerings developed through years of compliance-oriented practices — they will get better services and better jobs. And along the way, the culture of WDBs and AJCCs will shift toward innovation. Why? Because the changes made by our participants, and the insights they gain around anchoring their work on customers, will start to show increases in attendance, retention, attention and good outcomes.

Originally, we had envisioned the training in four separate locations. But as the pandemic forced us into our homes, we redesigned the offering as a three-month virtual training for four California WDBs and AJCCs, using the videoconferencing and whiteboard platforms Zoom and Miro.

Our objectives were threefold:

  • To introduce innovation and design thinking mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets to improve customer experience and outcomes for unemployed and underemployed people who are served through California’s Workforce Development Boards.
  • To launch a set of initiatives for WDB leaders with an appetite and capacity to transform their organizational culture into more innovative and customer-focused institutions.
  • To use preliminary research from our trainings to expose more workforce professionals to using design thinking tools in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

We knew that the pandemic was creating unprecedented system shocks. With unemployment skyrocketing, businesses closing their doors, children out of school, and much of what constitutes work being forced online — we wanted our trainings to enable a whole new level of care, holistic support, and redesign of job services. Further, given the pandemic’s disproportionate effects on people of color, we wanted the trainings to have an intentional focus on racial and socioeconomic disparities.

Four Counties, Seven Teams, 42 Hours of Learning

By the time we held our first workshops in mid-September, we knew the pandemic had forced on us some unexpected advantages. First, the seven teams representing Humboldt, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Ventura were able to share views and ideas across very different regions. Humboldt County, a rural area with a largely white population under 140,000 with a very high proportion of homeless individuals, is very different from Sacramento County, which holds the state’s capital and has a population of 1.4 million in a much more diverse labor market, where first generation immigrants needing English language make up a large portion of job seekers. Both counties serve job seekers in an increasingly digital economy. Second, the teams themselves were composed of people who didn’t usually work together. What insights would come when someone who works for the Department of Rehabilitation brainstormed with someone from CalWORKS (the State’s program for needy families).

Teams applied over the summer with specific challenges they wanted to address or advance potential solutions. The challenges included:

  • How to create a virtual resources room accessible to all populations, including people with disabilities and English language learners
  • How to design career workshops available via video anytime with closed captions in multiple languages
  • Ways to provide equitable virtual services with emphasis on customers in Promise Zones
  • How to direct customers to appropriate programs and services online, so that they quickly were connected to the right agencies
  • How to deliver virtual job training to reach underserved audiences and emphasize soft and digital skills

We organized the AWDP training into three phases. At the start, the teams focused on understanding the problem to be solved, getting to know the customers, and reflecting on existing equity challenges within their communities. In the second phase, the teams explored making sense of qualitative data, understanding behavioral insights, and generating solutions. For the third phase, teams were guided through testing solutions and action planning. To conclude, a learning exchange amongst the four WDBs was hosted and teams discussed implementation steps.

Small Things, Big Changes

As the workshops progressed, it became clear that design thinking — with its emphasis on listening to customers and engaging them in the design process, identifying assumptions, creating quick prototypes for testing, and collaboratively building on others’ ideas — was natural to many members of the group. Learning this structured approach to HCD, as well as to the language surrounding it, has helped participants apply methodologies they have long known to be effective in all aspects of their work.

Monica Barber, a Workforce Development Planner at the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency (SETA), remarked, “I have been familiar with design thinking for a while. During the pandemic, it reminded me that we all need to step back and look at ourselves in terms of how best to help customers.”

Barber said learning Miro, the online white board and visual collaboration platform that was used throughout the program, underscored how daunting new tech systems can be. “I went through a learning curve that is probably very similar to what our customers experience when they don’t know how to use Zoom or another digital platform,” she said, chuckling over her initial panic at manipulating the virtual sticky notes. “We all need time to learn new systems or figure out what can help us.”

Barber tells a story of when, while serving as a frontline worker for Head Start, she was bewildered by a customer who could not seem to show up on time in the morning, even though great breakfasts were available with pancakes and eggs. In a casual conversation, she learned the young mother was late because she didn’t own an alarm clock.

“So, we met at a thrift store and bought an alarm clock,” said Barber. “It changed the trajectory of her entire life. The whole rest of that year and the following year, she was on time, her child got breakfast, and she understood and had practiced getting her child to Head Start. When kindergarten started, the transition was fine. “That’s what design thinking often teaches: tiny things, big changes.”

From Case Manager to Career Coach

Another takeaway from the workshops is the changing nature of employment services. When I (Virginia) started working in employment services, everything was done with paper, there were no computers. People looking for work had to walk through the door. And they could not find out about jobs outside their communities unless they subscribed to a newspaper in a different city.

Workforce development until the 1990s was largely a system grounded in poverty programs. However, over the last 15 years, the field has shifted toward seeing employers as customers — because if you don’t know what an employer wants, it’s not helpful to job seekers. And what I have learned through my HCD practice is that if you don’t understand the needs and motivations of job seekers, it’s hard to give them the help they need. The first phase of the workshop was centered around this reframe: understanding the problem to be solved, getting to know the customers, and diving into hard conversations about the structural barriers that currently prevent equitable access to services.

This point was top of mind among workshop participants: the need to understand industry sectors, and the importance of focusing on high growth jobs. As Alfredo Mendoza, an Employment and Economic Development Department (EEDD) analyst for San Joaquin County, put it: “We are more like career coaches now than case managers. That is our concept — getting people the right tools at the right time and getting them excited to find good jobs using our online systems.” Mendoza believes that the virtual modifications in workforce development will only get better, and “will be the norm for how we conduct a lot of our business.”

Mallory Nasse, a career advisor at the Smart Workforce Center in Eureka, was new to design thinking at the start of the training, but said it felt like a natural extension to her approach. Among her concerns in Humboldt County has been that there are few staff to serve job seekers, many of whom are digitally illiterate.

“When employers, such as Target, require candidates to apply online, it can be challenging,” said Nasse. “Included in the applicant’s performance is how long it takes to answer the questions. Someone who is slower at this and digitally illiterate will not be competitive. So staff spend a great deal of time with these folks.”

Still, Nasse says the time is worth it. “I like to ask people: What kind of work do you like? Do you want to work inside, outside, in a collaborative environment, or move to a new field? I tell them it’s okay to research the many options and not feel silly about it.”

She now views her approach to her work as human-centered career coaching, seeing that this type of engagement with people is the launchpad for HCD, as taught in the first phase of the workshop.

Circumventing Information Overload

The field of Behavioral Science teaches us that people’s brains can take in only so much information and they do it in selective ways. Government agencies are tasked with imparting complex information, quickly — and this is not an easy task. Just think about filing your taxes or applying for a loan or unemployment. One box incorrectly checked or paper improperly sent, and things go awry.

In an age of information overload and short attention spans, AWDP participants spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve online announcements and forms. John Lutzow, an analyst at the San Joaquin County WorkNet, said during the October 15 workshop:

“Our AJCCs are closed except by appointment, and we are looking to bring in as many people as possible: job seekers, employers, people coming off parole. When we shut down in March, we were just throwing things on our website. The task now is to make our websites easier to navigate and to highlight the most useful information.”

Other workshop participants noted the need to make communications more inviting and friendly. They discussed the “reciprocity principle” as applied to job training invitations and discussed how texts to job seekers with messages like, “I’ve booked you a place at the job fair,” can result in attendance doubling.

This makes sense because we all want to feel invited to the table; we all want work — and especially searches for new work — to be hopeful. In the pandemic economy in California, we heard from our participants that there is actually a surprising amount of work becoming available. The challenge is connecting job seekers to employers and getting people aware of and prepared to take advantage of opportunities.

The same customer-focused thinking must also be applied to eliminating bias and discrimination embedded within our government systems. As Norman Albances, a Workforce Development Board Manager for Ventura County, put it: “We need to ask ourselves if we are being biased in our customer outreach and if our systems are laden with biases. For example, one of the questions we immediately ask is about income. That can create bias. How and where can we better ask that question, so people don’t log off discouraged?”

The second phase of the workshop focused precisely on facilitating a structured environment for teams to explore and understand qualitative data of this sort, to understand behavioral insights and generate solutions.

As a result, workshop participants asked: How can we make sure new virtual services are equitable for the disabled? What can we learn about what works and doesn’t work on videoconferencing, online chats, virtual information sessions? How can we best share news for job seekers, employers, training providers, and partner agencies on social media, other online platforms, and traditional media? How can we not forget the importance of speaking to, and sitting, with a live person when the time comes?

Accelerating the Transition to Digital Services

During the workshops, we learned that many of the teams were already in the process of changing their systems — the pandemic just accelerated the pace of many projects, particularly digital ones. Nancy Ambriz, workforce operations manager for the County of Ventura’s Human Service Agency, noted that she and her colleagues had been working on a virtual lobby well before the training.

“What Covid did was accelerate what was already underway,” said Ambriz, who has been with the county since 2000. “With declining funding every year and the demand for quicker, faster, and more responsive services, the status quo was simply not going to work. We were already moving toward a streamlined environment that relied more on software. This just took it to the next level.”

In phase three of the workshop, participants began applying the learnings of phase one and two to test solutions and develop an action plan.

Ambriz said that Ventura, like much of California, faces a digital divide, with people disconnected from high-speed Internet and computing devices. Nonetheless, “there has been a greater participation in the community from people to get training.” For example, her agency’s weekly job prep training was sparsely attended for years, with one or two people showing up per week. Now, she said, “We are holding our job preparation trainings online and 10 to 15 people show up; the other day it was 18 people, and we haven’t really advertised it a lot.”

Ambriz noted the HCD trainings enabled her team to refine their virtual lobby plans, giving them time to test how their auto-attendant feature would work, and how best it could connect customers to multiple services, saving staff time, and “doubling up resource knowledge.” She also said the training clarified her thinking about the need for two-tiered services — one online and one offline — to meet the needs and demands of her agency’s customers.

“The design thinking approach reaffirms the equity and social justice nature of our work,” she said.

Ambriz said the next challenge will be how best to implement the virtual lobby and use it to track customers at entry, determine what employment services they need, and analyze what services are provided to them after. The goal is improved customer experience and equitable access, particularly for those in disadvantaged populations.

“Unthinking” to Spark Innovative Ideas

Keeping design thinking and an innovation mindset front and center is a challenge. As Everett Rogers’ Innovation Curve has documented, the path to innovation is multi-stepped and dependent on flexibly communicating new ideas. There are the innovators: the brave people demanding and devising the change. There are the early adopters, the influencers and opinion leaders willing to try out new ideas in a careful way. There are the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards (you know these naysayers who get in the way of any significant change).

But there’s also the spark of an idea — the conception that may be incredibly obvious but often gets overlooked. We ended our workshop contemplating these sparks. We asked participants to engage in an “unthinking” exercise, inspired by a TED talk delivered by Paul Bennett, former chief creative officer of IDEO. In his talk, Bennett references Percy Shaw’s invention of reflective road studs or “Catseyes.” One night while driving home, the British inventor saw a cat’s eyes at the side of the road. He realized they reflected his car’s headlights and reflective light placed strategically could make night driving safer. It sparked his idea.

There is a long history of invention sparked by, as Bennett puts it, “just using your eyes, seeing things for the first time, seeing things afresh and using them as an opportunity to create new possibilities.” There is also the need for empathy and humility, for — per an idea attributed to the Buddha — finding yourself in the margins, looking to the edges of things as a place to start. The idea is to look wide, using peripheral vision, to avoid blinkered vision that leads to blinkered solutions.

We asked participants in our training to do this. Here are some their responses:

  • “We need to stop assuming and thinking we know what solution the client needs.”
  • “You have to not become defensive when hearing feedback. You have to learn to just listen!”
  • “We need to “unthink” that there is only one right solution to our problem(s).”
  • “We need to “unthink” how we coach and provide services. Freshness to each experience, even repeat experiences. As if every client’s experience is their first!”

The participants brought their brains and their hearts to this training. We want to thank them and their colleagues for the work they do every day, helping people find their way into skill building and employment. It’s righteous work, and by learning design thinking, they have taken important steps to making government work better for people who need it.

Virginia Hamilton is a public sector innovation catalyst. She has worked at local, state and federal government agencies, founded and run a non-profit, and her personal mission has always been to help make government work better. For the last 7 years, she has been training Human Centered Design and participatory methods. She runs Make Fast Studio, and lives in Berkeley, CA.

Rachel Dzombak, PhD, is a designer, strategist, and educator focused on solving problems that matter. She supports innovators across diverse industries including public health, workforce, construction, and defense, to learn the skillsets and mindsets of collaboration and innovation. She teaches at UC Berkeley within the Haas School of Business and currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA.

Illustrations done by Brian Prince, a visual storytelling artist who currently lives in Seattle, WA. Over the last 10 years he’s been a working artist, athlete, actor and professional stunt performer for film and television. As a social person with an interest in psychology he uses his various experiences to tell stories about the emotional human experience.

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Engineer focused on social enterprise and technological innovation.

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