What Can We Learn From Louisville About Equitable Economic Recovery?

Late in 2019, I spent two days in strategic conversations between civic, workforce and industry leaders in Denver. We talked about the growing demands of various industry sectors across the city — and the education and training solutions available to learners in all stages of their careers. Denver is not unlike most major cities — where the demands of the labor market are mismatched with the talent available. Economic development, corporate and civic leaders here are looking for solutions that embody partnership, collaboration and innovation. As we grapple with the  ramifications of not just skill and equity gaps, but seemingly endemic unemployment, the need for creative, strategic workforce solutions is paramount.

As Maria Flynn, President and CEO of Jobs for the Future, and former Massachusetts governor Jane Swift recently put it, “Throughout the fall and into the end of 2020, businesses — small, medium and large and in a diverse range of industries — will face grim economic conditions and difficult workforce decisions.” Data I recently discussed with former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris puts this troubling prediction in context: from February through August 2020, the number of workers who lost their jobs permanently rose by 2.1 million to 3.4 million — an over 60% increase. Secretary Harris and other economic observers believe that more of the 29 million people collecting unemployment benefits in September could find themselves in a similar position in the coming months.

As I reflect on these dire statistics against the promising meetings of nearly a year ago, I am actually encouraged. I wanted to find out how other cities were addressing the immediate needs of their communities, and setting the stage for a more equitable recovery in the future. I wondered, in particular, whether employers less impacted by the pandemic were playing a role. I wondered what sectors of the economy were still growing, and how they were building the most in-demand skills. I had the chance to speak with Roger Cude, Senior Vice President, Human Resources with Humana, based in Louisville, Kentucky to find out how their solution is one that can be emulated and scaled.

Alison Griffin: Tell me about Humana’s role and presence in greater Louisville. What shifts were you seeing in the region’s workforce before COVID-19? How have things changed in the wake of the pandemic?

Roger Cude: Humana has called Louisville home since 1961, and for almost 60 years, we’ve been helping people improve and maintain their health through clinical excellence and coordinated care. The city is very much still a “home base” for us: of Humana’s 46,000 associates, more than 12,000 live and work in Louisville. 

We’ve been around long enough to witness real change in the region’s workforce. Right now, the technology industry is the Louisville area’s fastest-growing job sector, and local business leaders are increasingly adopting a digital-first mindset. But like other communities, Louisville-area businesses are struggling to find qualified applicants for those jobs. The mayor’s LouTechworks initiative currently projects a 1,000 person per year shortfall of local graduates from tech programs — not enough to fill the critical roles that our economy needs. Those talent shortages have a measurable impact for Humana as a business. 

Of course, all of those numbers are pre-COVID19 estimates. The pandemic is creating new and unexpected challenges and accelerating the imperative for businesses to evolve. At the same time that companies need more and better digital assets, many talented and motivated workers are facing sharply reduced hours and mounting layoffs. 

As we look to the long-term impacts of the pandemic, our team is taking some lessons from the last recession. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, 5.6 million jobs were lost by workers with a high school diploma or less, and just 80,000 of those jobs returned by 2016. The cost of long-term unemployment to a local economy is estimated at between $500,000 and $1 million per adult worker. 

More than ever, there is a specific need for digital and analytic skill sets. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated Humana’s need for employees who can analyze big data and create predictive models; quickly develop AI solutions that assist our customers in accessing our services more efficiently; and help us recognize opportunities to apply digital solutions to revamp internal processes that affect our customers. 

Alison: What was the impetus for the launch of FutureLou? What challenges are Humana — and the Louisville region — trying to solve?

Roger: We want Louisville to be the city of choice for people seeking a career in data sciences — a place where we can tap people’s skills and passion to shape the future of healthcare and business across all industries. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the economy, highlighting the shortage of talent — but also offering the impetus to fix it. We want to turn a moment of crisis into one of opportunity.

That’s why we’ve been helping to organize a coalition of private, public, and academic leaders in the region, who are combining resources to create a future-ready local workforce through training and development in high-demand data science skills and capabilities — offered for free to Louisville residents. Right now, our partners include employers, public workforce organizations, and education providers, including Humana, Microsoft, General Assembly, the University of Louisville and FutureLou. Interapt and Kindred Healthcare are also contributing financially and helping create opportunities to get people hired.

The goal of the FutureLou initiative is to provide a pathway for displaced or underemployed workers to upskill into industry-aligned careers that provide stability and resilience during this period of disruption. By providing both financial support (the programs are available for free) and job search guidance, we’re reducing the barriers to reskilling for digital jobs and helping Louisville residents earn credentials that will have high demand now and for the future.

Alison: How do you navigate the process of bringing together multiple stakeholders from both public and private entities? How are roles and responsibilities divided?

Roger: The program is rooted in a collaborative effort of Microsoft and Louisville Metro Government, in partnership with General Assembly, KentuckianaWorks (the workforce development board of the greater Louisville region), and a virtual “micro-campus” team. That’s a lot of different stakeholders, each with its own specific role to play in the initiative.

For a participant in the program, it starts with short, online training courses which provide a low risk way to explore new fields or skills. After that, they take part in one or more virtual, short-form workshops to engage more deeply with new material, learn more, and consider a career path that excites them. People who qualify participate in General Assembly’s accelerated training program that a growing number of employers are already using to help incumbent workers build skills and earn industry-recognized credentials.

Before, during, and after the program, participants will have access to counselors and mentors, as well as a stipend designed to support them with balancing training among many competing priorities.

You can boil down the roles and responsibilities into three big buckets: training support, financial support, and business support. We’re continuing to seek and connect with more potential sponsors who can help us finance these upskilling opportunities into the future. We’re also collaborating with employer partners throughout the region to participate in job matching, mentorship, and virtual career fair opportunities. Those corporate partners will interview — and hopefully hire — graduates to fill posted jobs.

One example of how this program is working in the lives of our community members is Erika’s story. Erika will be among our October graduates. She learned about the reskilling effort after being laid off during the pandemic. Erika was in the process of applying for intensive full-time training when she was offered the option to return to work part-time. Understanding that she couldn’t pass on earning income, the General Assembly enrollment counselor referred her to the less intensive part-time training options offered locally. 

Erika chose to participate in General Assembly’s part-time Data Analytics course. The course runs for 10 weeks, and participants are eligible for stipends to offset living and other expenses related to being displaced from work. 

Alison: How has the program gone so far?

Roger: We’ve seen a great deal of interest over the past few months, and expect that it’s likely to continue. Since April 15, the first wave of programs have launched with 1,500 signups and 400 enrollments.

In the Data Scientist training track, which is our first program, we’re reskilling Louisville-based professionals for careers in data science through a rigorous, accelerated program for early career adults. The pilot launched in June with 23 participants drawn from local companies and talent partners, with graduates available for hire in October. Our plan is to expand the program to 500 grads over three years and introduce additional program paths in other high-demand fields (e.g. data engineering, cloud engineering).

Another example of the program’s success is what we learned from Claudette’s experience. Due to COVID-19, Claudette was working two-part time jobs and seven days a week when she learned about the Data Science Reskilling program through a referral at Goodwill Power of Work – a workforce training program that helps people move from public assistance programs to full-time employment. 

Claudette recognized that in order to participate in this program, she would need to modify her work schedule and her life. Even with working two jobs she currently relies on food and sometimes rental assistance through SNAP and the Goodwill Power of Work Program, respectively. She knows that she may need to rely on these services more through the three-month course.  

Through these programs, we’ll soon be able to deploy graduates to regional hiring partners, such as Norton Healthcare and Anthem. Participating employers will hire graduates for full-time positions and/or paid apprenticeships, with permanent placement as the end goal.

Alison: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in the launch of the program thus far? How have you addressed those challenges?

Roger: One critical component of the programming focuses on ensuring that we recruit more underrepresented minorities to the field of data science both as an industry and within our local community. We have made intentional efforts to work with grassroots and community-based organizations like TECH-nique and AMPED that specialize in serving diverse populations. This deliberate work has yielded results. By continuing to remain purpose-driven, we will have a community of skilled workers and teammates that mirror the populations that we serve. Companies need skilled talent now. Some simply can’t wait three months for our Data Science program to complete before filling a position. However, once we have a continuous schedule of graduates from these programs, our local employers will always have a pool of talent available for immediate hire. 

Finally, we anticipate that committing to a twelve-week, full-time training program may cause financial implications for some of our participants. We are working through ways to provide stipends to program participants that enable them to significantly lessen the impact of participating in an intense program. 

Alison: What are some lessons you have learned from this experience that other employers should take to heart, when it comes to the most effective ways to launch this type of partnership? Do you see this as a model that could take hold in other regions across the country?

Roger: Based on our success so far, it’s clear that this model could absolutely be replicated in other communities. Such free programs can help displaced or underemployed workers build valuable skills and credentials in digital career tracks — helping expand access to new career pathways, while also enabling local employers to address persistent tech talent gaps.

Every company, and every community, needs data analysts to make sense of data, analyze it, and present information to drive business decisions. They need digital marketers to reach and acquire customers, and software engineers to identify and solve problems. And to communicate effectively with digital tools, companies need UX designers to think like consumers and advocate for them. That’s only going to become more important in the wake of the pandemic, and we’d encourage other employers — and workforce organizations — to take advantage of emerging models that are making upskilling more accessible for working learners.

To ensure that we have a constant pipeline of talent, our approach to skilling must be nimble and include a constant reassessment of the talent currently deployed, in our pipeline, and assess where we adjust to meet predictions for future skills needs. 

Alison: What’s next for FutureLou? How do you see the program evolving as COVID-19 continues to disrupt economies across the globe?

Roger: Humana envisions a single resource for the community to earn credentials that can lead to a long-term career in data science (even without a college degree); to receive training to augment college graduates’ skills to make them more marketable; to upskill or reskill professionals who need to work differently/digitally; and to provide short-term researchers who can source and mine big data pools. Through this community collective, we can use workforce data to predict changes to digital and data employment trends and adjust training and throughput goals accordingly. 

In all times, but especially in times of need, it’s the job of community leaders to step up and find a path forward. That includes the business community, and we understand how important it is for Humana to set an example for other employers looking to support reskilling efforts in the wake of the pandemic. We are optimistic about FutureLou and the possibilities it holds for the city of Louisville in the future.

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