How Ohio is helping displaced workers prepare for better careers

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a four-part, month-long series published on Cleveland.com.

By the Fund for Our Economic Future

The economic fallout of the pandemic has forced tough realities on many workers who are grappling with making ends meet in low-wage jobs or struggling to find work after losing a job, all while juggling family responsibilities, navigating virus exposure in the workplace, and other challenges.

The path to a better opportunity may await.

The impact of the pandemic on jobs has been uneven. Last year, the production economy exhibited strong growth propelled by consumer spending on goods that was up by more than 7% through September. Devastation in the service sector — representing over 90% of the net job losses — is what makes the overall jobs numbers look so bad.

The result is a mismatch in jobs available and the skills of workers available to fill them. While service workers are displaced or underemployed, thousands of technology jobs are going unfilled. These job opportunities will only increase as the economy recovers. And they are well-paying jobs with the potential for advancement.

Fortunately, the state of Ohio and various local partners in Cuyahoga County, including Ohio Means Jobs – Cleveland Cuyahoga, TeamNEO, MAGNET, the Urban League, Goodwill, Cuyahoga Community College, the Fund for Our Economic Future, and others are mobilizing to ensure the current wave of unemployment is met with increased opportunities for individuals to access upskilling.

A multitude of short-term training programs exist that can effectively prepare individuals for careers in information technology, manufacturing and other in-demand jobs. For instance, TechElevator’s coding bootcamp conducted over 14 weeks has a 92% placement rate at an average starting salary of $60,000. Cuyahoga Community College, Lorain County Community College and other training providers offer similarly high-impact options in a variety of fields.

Importantly, these training offerings are paired with efforts to broaden employers’ mindset about appropriate requirements for jobs and expand inclusive hiring practices.

Despite the prevalence of programs, there are barriers to accessing them. For one, upskilling does not come cheaply. TechElevator may have a high payoff, but with a price tag of $15,500, the table stakes put the opportunity beyond the reach of many.

Late last year, JobsOhio launched Ohio To Work, a pilot program designed to offer a collection of services to help displaced workers navigate resources and get back to work fast. Among these resources are income share agreements (ISAs) for individuals seeking to gain new skills and credentials through coding bootcamps at TechElevator and WeCanCodeIt.

ISAs are an innovative financing tool for job training. The concept is relatively simple: A loan is made to an individual to cover the cost of a training program and is paid back only after the individual secures a job with a wage above a certain threshold within a certain timeframe. Payments are based on a share of the individual’s monthly income, and have a cap on the total pay-back value.

Programs like this, with favorable terms for the borrower, lower the risk to the individual of incurring debt while employment prospects are uncertain. JobsOhio is now exploring how to expand the program to other industries as well as elsewhere in the state.

ISAs offer much potential, but their impact is limited without additional steps and supports. Access to upskilling programs — especially those targeting digital occupations — is historically inequitable. To be successful, ISAs must be supplemented with supports that address logistics and cost of living during the training program..

For few people, participating in an upskilling program is as simple as signing up and attending classes, virtual or otherwise. For most, a whole host of logistical issues and financial considerations must first be addressed. Among these are childcare, transportation, internet connectivity, computer access, household expenses, and more. Supports for these needs are available from a range of public and nonprofit sources but it can be difficult to find and access them, and in many cases gaps remain.

A workforce pilot program tested in Northeast Ohio several years ago found that meeting these needs dramatically increased participants’ ability to finish training programs. As the ISA program scales, a focus on addressing gaps in services, streamlining access to them and expanding navigation supports of these resources will be important to ensure the promise of this tool is fully realized. Subsequent iterations of the ISA program should also consider including the option of a flexible cost of living stipend with the tuition loan. Even a small stipend can make a difference in getting someone on a solid career trajectory.

Finally, upskilling programs can only do good if people hear about them. Awareness of IT careers is especially low in digitally disconnected, high-poverty neighborhoods. Often, the outreach for these programs doesn’t resonate with or doesn’t reach the individuals who could benefit the most. Various community efforts are occurring to bridge this gap. One of them, initiated by the Fund with support from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions and Westfield Insurance, is rooted in collaboration between community-based and workforce development organizations.

A lot must happen to ensure displaced or underemployed Northeast Ohio workers, especially Black and Latinx workers who have experienced the brunt of the pandemic’s impact, get on the path to a family-sustaining career. ISAs are not meant to be a silver bullet, but they do represent a silver lining in the pandemic cloud.