Ask Us Anything: Workforce and Economic Development Innovations

Coordinated efforts produce positive results. This webinar examines how Midwest Urban Strategies—a consortium of 13 workforce development boards from cities extending from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Wichita, Kansas—shares best practices and pools resources to address community needs.

Event Video


This Q&A digest has been derived from the Ask Us Anything session on “Workforce and Economic Development Innovations—Midwest Urban Strategies Spotlight” held on September 23, 2020, with workforce leaders Tracey Carey, executive director of Midwest Urban Strategies; Clyde McQueen, chief executive officer of the Full Employment Council in Kansas City, Missouri; and Linda Woloshansky, president and CEO of the Center of Workforce Innovations in Gary-Valparaiso, Indiana.

Key Takeaways

  • Midwest Urban Strategies (MUS) was created in 2014 to help the region excel and tackle the challenges that came when the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 was replaced by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) as the primary U.S. workforce development legislation. The group focuses on how to connect employees to high quality training, sourcing talent for employers, and sharing lessons throughout the region that includes cities in Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The MUS community of practice has 13 members that meet once a month to share experiences and challenges to improve workforce development.
  • MUS has created an innovation laboratory that helps the region understand what’s working, how innovation occurs, and how workforce boards might expand the concept throughout their communities. By working together, the region can learn faster and reduce redundancies. The group takes evidence-based best practices and implements unique versions of those programs within their specific communities, realizing that each area is unique and requires adaptation.
  • MUS allows its workforce boards to share the cost of data tools that would be fiscally out of reach individually. The consortium makes the region more competitive for larger grants. Currently, MUS is pursuing virtual platforms to train jobseekers and to manage work experiences for youth.

The Atlanta Fed’s Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity offers a number of data tools and publications to help you track unemployment, reemployment, and other potential policy and practice suggestions while you manage recovery from the pandemic.

Federal Reserve Bank
Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity Events describes upcoming events and includes registration links for Ask Us Anything webinar sessions.
Opportunity Occupations Monitor tracks trends in jobs that offer salaries of at least the U.S. annual median wage (adjusted for local cost of living differences) for which employers do not require a bachelor's degree—opportunity occupations—in states and metro areas.
Workforce Currents includes articles on various workforce topics addressing research, policy, and practice.
Econ Education web pages provide personal financial planning tools and tips as well as other educational resources.

Resources from our Panelists:
Midwest Urban Strategies represents a coordinated effort by 13 Department of Labor urban workforce development boards to marry traditional workforce development practices with economic development.
Full Employment Council in Kansas City is a business-led private nonprofit corporation that seeks to obtain public and private sector employment for unemployed and underemployed residents of the Greater Kansas City area.
Center of Workforce Innovations is a multimanagement nonprofit workforce development organization with its finger on the pulse of employment, education, and economic development.

Federal Reserve Bank Papers
Transitioning from Hospitality to Healthcare Careers

Event Q & A

Collaboration between Midwest Urban Strategies
How does Midwest Urban Strategies bring together its partners to produce collaborative, multistate evaluations and research?

MUS meets monthly to generate ideas and solutions. Directors share their experience and perspective to help other cities improve their programs. Before COVID-19, the consortium met in person twice a year in one of the 13-member locations to participate in a deep dive of that board’s work.

The consortium benefits from strength in numbers with funding and opportunities as well as shared insights. For instance, smaller or more rural workforce boards may struggle to maintain corporate partnerships, but being a part of MUS gives them access to relationships throughout the region.

How has the collaborative been valuable during COVID? What lessons have can you share from the last six months?

COVID-19 has brought pressure to reach people more effectively. Convening remotely has reduced some logistical challenges the consortium faced prior to the pandemic. Uncertain staff availability or opening and closing offices often made evening or weekend events difficult to plan; since remote work has alleviated those challenges, partners are able to serve more workers at their events. Remote meetings have also given the boards a chance to connect with employers and build new relationships throughout the region, since travel and commute time have been eliminated.

The Full Employment Council of Kansas City (FECKC) is permanently changing three operating structures that were established because of the coronavirus:

  • The council established a call center to respond to individual questions in addition to publishing general guidance on its website. It will keep this call center running even after in-person interactions return.
  • FECKC has seen the value of virtual trainings and will continue to offer those after the pandemic.
  • Finally, the Kansas City council is cutting its physical footprint, which will save costs and allow it to allocate more money to training programs to make them more affordable and accessible.

Technology and the Urban – Rural Divide

Many MUS workforce boards serve both urban and rural communities. How can the workforce system serve these different communities equitably?

Though many of the problems rural and urban communities face are similar, it is important not to treat them as identical situations. Ensuring that rural communities are included in the conversation about workforce development can help them feel included throughout the process and provide valuable information on the type of programming that is needed. For instance, the rural office for the Kansas City council consistently provides feedback on what is working in the community. Even though rural areas have a smaller population, that doesn’t mean workforce development efforts there will be less effective.

Programming for rural communities requires a different set of expectations than its urban counterpart. For instance, urban communities may have 20 people in an upskilling class, but just eight in a rural area. Though the number of participants is smaller in the rural area, that doesn’t mean the training won’t have significant impact. The lower numbers may simply reflect lower population. Using impact metrics can help show which programs work best.

What can workforce boards do to address the discrepancy in broadband infrastructure throughout communities, particularly in rural areas, as the pandemic has created more online options?

Currently, access to broadband has become vital to success during the pandemic. The state of Missouri used its COVID-19 relief funds to provide hotspots for training programs so that people who lack regular access to the internet would be able to upskill and search for jobs. States may also allocate part of their budget to providing laptops to make training courses more accessible.

While there is a technology divide based on broadband access, often due to location, what is Midwest Urban Strategies doing to address technical skills literacy?

Members of MUS are partnering with large corporations, particularly those in the technology field, to provide hands-on training to students of all ages. In Pittsburgh, IBM is sponsoring a program for workers interested in technology careers to promote greater digital literacy. These programs help people who are not digital natives and can be especially helpful for people who are not already interested in technology careers.

Collaborative Workforce Goals

How does the collaborative manage the different variations of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to maximize the use of workforce investment dollars allocated by the state to drive local impact?

The Department of Labor’s Region 5 office has been very supportive of the work MUS does, and it has been helpful in navigating different legislative or administrative interpretations. Strength in numbers plays a role in the consortium’s success. By acting collectively, the risk associated with new programs is taken on by the collaborative rather than by any individual board. Removing this risk from the individual boards allows them to be more innovative in their programming.

MUS also helps its members by lowering the administrative burden of sharing programs. Particularly now that most training and events are virtual, MUS is focusing on getting good training programs approved across state lines so that the boards can offer a greater variety and reduce redundancy. So in this sense, the rules of WIOA do not disappear, but MUS leads the coordination efforts to maximize regional development.

How can childcare programs strengthen a family’s ability to achieve financial stability?

Childcare provides benefits to two generations: it enables parents to work and supports the development of young children. Prior to the pandemic, 67 percent of children under six years old had all parents working. In addition to small children who require constant supervision, the state of K-12 education may limit or prohibit parents’ ability to return to work. Workforce boards can explore solutions with employers that reduce the expense of workers by creating space for childcare facilities built into the employment facility, for example.

How is the collaborative addressing the changing structure of the workforce system—namely the gig economy?

In looking at the gig economy, it is important to fully recognize what the term encompasses. For instance, many gig workers don’t fall into typical employment classifications. Some are 1099 workers, some in temporary positions, and others are free-lancing. The workforce system should educate employers and workers to make them fully aware of required compliance with government tax, business registration, and other rules.

As the gig economy becomes more prevalent, the workforce system should foster working relationships with economic development programs or companies that include business assistance as a part of their programming.

What role does transportation play in career development? What programs can Midwest Urban Strategies share with other regions?

Transportation is critical to career development. It provides access to good jobs, and direct, affordable transportation routes can reduce commute time and help a city and region attract more talent. Efforts to reduce transit fares in a city would also increase accessibility for workers. Workforce boards should also consider alternatives to traditional public transportation, including ride sharing.

How can workforce boards elevate policy that makes educational grants such as the Pell Grant more accessible for people seeking certificate programs?

Policy development is not usually a fast process, but workforce boards and their chief executives should consistently offer policy recommendations. In Kansas City, a board subcommittee identifies and outlines policy considerations to present to overall board proceedings. The CEO takes these considerations to various state, local, and federal administrative bodies as well as to business organizations such as chambers of commerce. For example, advocacy by the Kansas City council made transportation, childcare, and training resources available to workers on a big airport construction project. This program was developed as part of the airport’s community benefits agreement with strong support of the Heavy Constructors Association business group, whose executive director is the workforce board secretary. The executive director relied on input form the board to develop the policy approach.

To make education grants more accessible, workforce boards should partner with certificate programs and employers to describe the continuing benefit of education. By opening these lines of communication, employers can share the capabilities they need, and workers can learn new skills with job opportunities.

Event Transcript

Sarah Miller: All right, well good afternoon everyone. Thanks so much for joining us. If you've been with us before, welcome back. If this is your first time, welcome. My name is Sarah Miller and I’m senior adviser for the Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity. We're housed here at the Atlanta Federal Reserve but do work nationally and on issues specifically focused on employment, labor, workforce development, and everything that falls under that very broad and very expansive umbrella.

We're so happy to have you here with us today, especially as this is our first Ask Us Anything session of Workforce Month. I couldn't be more pleased to be joined by what I think is one of the most innovative collaboratives in workforce development, Midwest Urban Strategies, and some of their core partners. With us here today, I have Tracey Carey, the executive director of Midwest Urban Strategies as well as Clyde McQueen, who is the CEO and president of the Full Employment Council in Kansas City, one of the major communities represented in Midwest Urban Strategies.

They'll talk about that in far more detail in just a moment. We should be joined in just a moment by Linda Woloshansky. Linda Woloshansky is the president and CEO of the Center for Workforce Innovation in Gary, Indiana, so we hope that they can provide a really interesting perspective on what Midwest Urban Strategies has done to the work that they're leading in their communities, especially with the geographic and population density differences between Gary and Kansas City. Both also kind of communities that border on two different state lines, so I think they both have very interesting perspectives to bring to the table.

Before we really get rolling, just some housekeeping updates. We are recording this session, so you will get a full copy of the recording as well as a write-up of all of the question and answers, both those that we can get to today and those that we may not have time for. An hour goes by quite quickly, so we may not be able to get to everything you have today, and we have such great intelligence on the call. I really want to dig into what they have to share and some of the insights that they can bring to the questions that you have.

Please do, at the bottom of your screen, you'll see a Q&A box. Send your questions in at any time. We're going to have Tracey and Clyde and Linda provide a quick overview, and then we are really going to manage just kind of a fireside chat between the four of us today to answer all of those questions. Please go ahead and just submit those questions at any point, and we'll get to those throughout the conversation.

I do want to put a bug in your ear about our next session that's going to be on October 14. We're going to be joined by Tracy Palandjian, who is the CEO of Social Finance, Jason Tyszko, who is the vice president of workforce innovations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and also Angela Jackson, who is a new partner with New Profit and is managing their Learn to Earn fund in XPRIZE, kind of future of work challenge.

We're really going to be focusing on that session about innovations in financing for talent development, new public/private approaches, new innovative ways of thinking and how we can kind of disperse that risk of pursuing education and training because that's such a critical avenue through to wealth building and to employment and to long-term career pathway success and how we can distribute that burden strictly off of the work [inaudible] themselves. So, please do join us in October for that conversation. More details will be coming along on that in just a moment.

But without further ado, let me turn the mic over to Tracey Carey, the executive director of Midwest Urban Strategies. She'll talk with you about the origin story and all the great work that they've been doing and then we'll jump over to Clyde and then Linda when she can join us. Thanks so much. Tracey?

Tracey Carey: Thank you so much, Sarah. It really is a pleasure. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to talk with folks today about the work that Midwest Urban Strategies is involved in. A little history. Midwest Urban Strategies was organized in late 2014, early 2015 as a response to some of the changes that were happening through the Department of Labor's legislation.

There was a change from WIA [Workforce Investment Act of 1998] to WIOA [Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act]. It brought with it a lot of structural changes to how workforce boards were expected to operate, so leaders across the Midwest organized together at the urging of the Region Five office to really think about how they could take on this challenge that this new legislation presented, to create innovation in our work across our region.

They began meeting and thinking together about how to apply best practices and really dig into some strategic ways to help folks get connected to training and employment and help employers source talent that would be more streamlined and efficient and to learn together. We created this community of practice that eventually grew into a 13-member organization that is membership-based, and we have a formal memorandum of understanding that we all operate under together.

That document governs how we work together, and we spent a lot of time early on in the development of the organization really working to build trust and relationships across those leaders and the really great thing for me that I get to witness on a monthly basis is just how much they've come to rely on one another as professionals who are sharing the same opportunities and challenges of running workforce boards in urban environments in the Midwest.

There's a lot of shared experience, and there's some really good opportunity to dig into learning and sharing what has worked in one region so that folks can learn by others' experiences and we don't have to always reinvent the wheel.

As I said, we got started in late 2014, early 2015 and were pretty successful in securing some resources that allowed us to dig in to programming across our network. That really launched and solidified the work that we were doing together. We have been actively engaged in workaround apprenticeship, work with helping folks move into other ways of doing work-based learning as well as helping folks moving to occupations and industries that were more advanced than what had been traditionally the case in the work that we'd been involved in previously.

Through that work, we began digging into some stuff in technology and in other industries and occupations and that led us into really a deepened practice around how to impact folks through training and help employers to get the talent that they need, and develop an innovation laboratory that helps us really understand what's working, why it works, and how we might scale that across our region in ways that, again, we're not having to recreate the wheel.

I have with me today two of the leaders of Midwest Urban Strategies. Clyde McQueen from Full Employment Council is the chairperson, and Linda Woloshansky is the treasurer. They'll be talking a bit in a moment here about their work as it pertains to Midwest Urban Strategies, as well as the work that they're engaged in within their local areas.

They have been actively engaged in much of this consortium-based work that we're doing in relation to the resources we've been able to secure, so we've done some really important cross-learning that we've been able to integrate into local practice and then expand to the region. They'll be able to speak a little bit about that as well.

This innovation laboratory has been a great opportunity for us to really learn from each other and across the consortium, and I'm just going to briefly take you from west to east so that you understand the scale of this membership organization, and then I'm going to hand it over to Linda to talk a little bit about her experience working as a member of Midwest Urban Strategies.

As a consortium, we represent the workforce boards from Wichita, Kansas, and then Kansas City, Missouri; St. Louis, Missouri; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago [Illinois]; Gary-Valparaiso [Indiana]; Detroit, Michigan; Indianapolis; Cleveland, Columbus, and Canton, Ohio; and then Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh seems like an outlier for the Midwest, but we decided to invite them into our fold and make them an honorary member of Midwest Urban Strategies, as part of that whole Rust Belt environment.

Without further ado, I want to hand it over to Linda to talk a bit about the work that she's been engaged in and why she decided to become part of Midwest Urban Strategies and how that has impacted her in her local area.

Linda Woloshansky: Thank you, Tracey, and I will be echoing some of the things that Tracey has said, even though she did an eloquent job. I am a founding member of the Midwest Urban Strategies. I like to say that. I say that with pride because in my decades of work in the workforce world or in talent development and the many different associations to which I've belonged or led, the Midwest Urban Strategies has been the most gratifying and beneficial to my organization as well as to me professionally.

Having led the Center of Workforce Innovations for 20 years, I've learned a great deal and I've learned that it's really important to forge partnerships and to rely on others to get the work done because no one individual or no one organization has all of the answers. As Tracey said, in 2014, we were thinking about a strategy that could start out organically, which it did, and then would develop with a more formal platform over time.

I remember getting a call from Malcolm Jackson, who at that time was with the Department of Labor Region Five, and he knew we were challenged with limited transportation options for Gary and several other urban communities. He wanted to know if I would have a conversation with some other urban boards regarding how they were handling the transportation issue. That invitation and subsequent introduction to Earl Buford, who at that time was with Employ Milwaukee and now is leading Partner4Work, and reconnecting with my longtime colleague and friend, Clyde McQueen, eventually led to conversations in the beginning of Midwest Urban Strategies as we started to forge new partnerships and started to work with a number of other regions to share information

I really can't express, I think, adequately how important Midwest Urban Strategies is to us. By virtue of population and probably funding, we're probably considered a smaller urban workforce board and so, our resources sometimes are very limited. We don't have as many training providers as other communities. We have a lot of challenges without the kind of public infrastructure that many others have and so, being part of Midwest Urban Strategies and being able to connect with my colleagues who have been in the business for a while and some who are brand new as well and to take a look at how they are innovating and how they are coming up with solutions for their communities is really important to us.

I think sometimes people really underestimate the gravity of the work that we do and how complicated it really can be and how we're touching the lives of people in so many different areas. Everything from training and developing skills to mental health to the transportation to childcare. It's really kind of a vast and complicated ecosystem that requires resources and requires innovation and requires risk-taking. Because of that, that has been part of the Midwest Urban Strategy cache, at least for us, is to be able to access those resources, those ideas from others.

One of the things that also has been important is the fact that everyone is treated as an equal in Midwest Urban Strategies. There's no differentiation between the funding that you're working with or your population or your particular need per se. We're all equal members, we all have a voice. We all kind of share the resources that are out there if we want to. As Tracey has expressed, we've been really fortunate to be able to go in collectively as an association to acquire funding from the Department of Labor and from other sources.

It's up to each member if they really want to participate in accessing those funds, taking advantage of them, but also being held accountable for the use of the funds. I think one of the things that has been very interesting about MUS is the fact that everything is very transparent. All of our work is shared across the board with everyone else in terms of anything related to Midwest Urban Strategies, so all of the grants, all of our performance and outcomes are known to everyone.

But once again, because of that, I think we've been able to develop a trust and trust is really also critical. Building an organization and feeling like you're a part of a collective, of a group of people that you can trust and you can expose your vulnerabilities and your weaknesses, and they just kind of all jump in and begin to offer solutions of how you might overcome something.

That is really gratifying. I mean, that's heartwarming and that's a really positive trait with Midwest Urban Strategies. We've been able to benefit not only in grants that I think otherwise we would've never been able to access as a smaller workforce board, but other resources such as labor market tool, EMSI. We've been able to purchase collectively and those of us that want to share the cost, it brings our local region cost down and does give us a bigger bang for our buck.

Right now, we're pursuing a virtual training platform which I think could help all of us as well. Certainly from where we sit, it would be very beneficial because there would be that common denominator across the board, being able to access training that's virtual and expand our resources for our constituents, for our customers who right now are somewhat limited.

Another platform that we're looking at is a virtual work experience platform for our youth and many of us know that this summer, we were really debilitated in some ways because placing young people in work experiences in a real way was not as easy to do as it had been in other years. Really important to be able to have those common tools, and they're available to us as a member.

We talk about a collective learning laboratory and peer-to-peer network, and I think the other thing that has worked so well and has really helped us is the fact that Midwest Urban Strategies, both the executive board and the full board, meet every month. We have been doing this for years now. We meet every month through Zoom. Probably before some of us even knew what Zoom was, we were using Zoom and talking about what's going on in our regions—a hot topic every month where we could share ideas and get solutions from each other. I don't think there's been a single month that we haven't walked away with a new idea, a solution that we could implement almost immediately.

Then on top of that, because you are talking to the same group of people every month, you're also developing new relationships that once again, you could always pick up the phone, you can always send that email, or you can go to Tracey and say, "Can you canvas everybody and see what they're doing and how they're doing something?" That has worked to our advantage.

Overall, this effort has substantially benefited our region, and it's helpful with our urban communities, but also our rural communities that many of us all have. A number of these urban solutions can be applied to rural communities and I think sometimes people forget about that. We've really had kind of a double whammy in that regard, but also it has been a tool to be able to converse more fluently with my urban mayors, so that they understand that even though, for example, our organization is located in Valparaiso, everybody has to be located somewhere.

We do serve all our urban communities and it just gives us a chance again to relate more effectively and honestly with the mayors as well as makes a statement to them that we really are committed, that we've taken this extra step to be part of MUS and to learn from others in Chicago or Detroit or Kansas City as they've kind of struggled and then come up with fantastic solutions, innovative solutions to help their particular region. With that, Tracey, I guess I'll turn it back over to you.

Carey: Thank you, Linda. That was fantastic. As is true, each time we talk, I learn something new and so, I think it's great to hear the experience that you've had with Midwest Urban Strategies and have been grateful for your leadership from the very beginning. Next up, Clyde McQueen's going to talk a little bit about his experience with Midwest Urban Strategies. He's another original member of the consortium and a participant in many of our grant-funded activities as well as the less direct resources that we have been able to share together. I'm going to hand it over to Mr. McQueen. Take it away, sir.

Clyde McQueen: Thank you, Tracey, and I'm glad to be here with Linda, one of my longtime cohorts but I think Midwest Urban Strategies did not just come easily, even though we knew everybody. We still had to formalize what quite frankly for us was very informal because we all knew each other, but at the same time, we wanted to try to create a systematic approach to the public workforce system and to indicate the aspect that we are a system, we are not a program.

I think with workforce being such a common word nowadays, it is the tendency to assume that a program is a system, and it is not. It is a best practice to illustrate the development of a concept, but at the end of the day, a system has to adopt it to make sure it is accessible to everyone.

The Full Employment Council serves as the managing entity and the fiscal agent for two workforce development boards, one of which is very large, which includes the city of Kansas City. Kansas City is the largest city in Missouri, in addition to being the world champions. I'll just throw that in a little bit. In football.

But also, we have a small rural community of 20,000 … that is primarily agricultural in nature. We have to do things that are for the benefit of all, both small rural populations and large urban populations. But in fact, the poverty aspect of it, quite frankly, is very similar. Even though the density might not be as large, the issues about transportation, childcare, wages—all those types of things are things that are felt by many in both large and small communities.

Also, we wanted to form this collective to be able to show how best practices can be scaled and create synergies of a system in a way that will enable our system to better approach and solve the problems of mass unemployment and structural unemployment and accessibility to training resources. We have worked very extensively on how do we make training more accessible to people, how do we make it more affordable to people. How do we make it more available, both time and place, the whole issue about affordability, which is promoting Pell grants being used for short-term classes, as well as semester-based classes, and at the time at which both training occurs and work shifts.

All those things go into the calculus of how we try to identify best practices. In addition, because we are who we are, we're able to increase our access and approach to economic development entities. We all intentionally reach out to the economic development organizations in our region. Interestingly enough, our economic development director left Kansas City and went to Pittsburgh. Interestingly enough, some of the best practices that we developed in Kansas City, the economic development agency went there and reached out to my counterpart, Earl, and said, "Hey, why don't we work with you in this regard?"

From that aspect, I think we have tried to show how economic development and workforce are systemically linked because we know many companies as they're looking at maybe the workforce, is it available but also is it scalable from a skills standpoint? That's the other aspect that we try to do of forming this consortium.

But most importantly is having our best practice laboratory. We want to be showed that if it works well in Kansas City, it could work well in Valparaiso or Gary, but we got to make sure we have a Valparaiso or Gary twist to it. We just can't take it and just plop it down in another community because every community is unique and there are certain variations that we have to adjust to make sure that it reflects those local, unique aspects.

That's one thing that we really try to emphasize is that though we all form a consortium, we're still unique communities. Sometimes there's a tendency to presume that a best practice can be just picked up over here and placed over there. That's not necessarily the way best practices work. There's a certain commonality of efficiency and effectiveness that we know that exists to create a better outcome, but it can't happen if you don't take into account the local variations of what happens in communities or just based upon the population, their accessibility, the nature of the business models that they have in their community, et cetera.

But I think the whole aspect of us using data is very important and instructive for us. The public workforce system has great utilization of data. It has a lot of data, but I think we have yet to learn how we are able to use that in showing our evidence-based best practices. Not just because it's the best thing because Clyde McQueen or Linda Woloshansky or Tracey Carey said it was. It's the best thing because we have the data to prove it and more importantly, it is in such a way that it enables it to be adopted in various communities, again with the local twists that are necessary to make it reflect the local aspect of the communities in which they reside.

We feel with the evidence-based best practices, the utilization of data, understanding that we can scale things but they still have to allow for local adaptation for the unique aspects of communities and that we want to be able to do that and because of that, we were very fortunate. I think we just got our formal 501(c)3. Right, Tracey? I don't know, maybe three or four months ago. I don't know, it was so long.

But because of that, each of the agencies, Employ Milwaukee, [inaudible] right now and then Pittsburgh. Each of our agencies agreed to be the fiscal agents for some of the programming. I think Linda mentioned the whole aspect of securing grants and funding. That is a big part of it, but a lot of us, some of our members say, "That's a great opportunity, but it's not for me." Or somebody will say, "That's a great opportunity, but that's not the thing."

It's not just an attempt for us to bring money in regardless. That's not the objective. The objective is if there's an opportunity for us to band together, if the opportunity is appropriate and then we look at it. We're not just here simply to try and secure resources. We are trying to build evidence best practice laboratory that's data driven, that we can use to get other resources. Ultimately, we know those will leave and the whole reason is to adopt a best practice that we can then scale to our communities.

That's kind of the whole approach that we've tried to use to form MUS. We pride ourselves on having on the ground... Most importantly, we want to also make sure our staff are able to take advantage of this, that the people on the ground who, as you all know, work very hard working with clients and employers on a daily basis, to make sure that they have the very best tools that they can to be the very best they can be and most importantly, alleviate all the stress that they have to engage in, dealing with the diversity of persons that we have, many of … whole families are at stake based on the fact that they have lost their job or they don't make enough. That's the whole reason why we joined and why we're so glad to be a part of this consortium.

Miller: As you can see, impressive is the word of the day here. There's been so many questions that have come in, but I just want to reflect on my good fortune to have worked with Midwest Urban Strategies over the year and just uplift what I've seen as kind of an outsider and someone that's worked on the periphery of the direct worker facing workforce system, WIOA funds, some of the brilliance that I've seen Midwest Urban Strategies bring to the table.

As Clyde just mentioned, it's not just the financial aspect of this, which is not unsubstantial. The amount of dollars that they have been able to competitively source because of their strength in numbers, because of their coordination, because of six years of work that they've put behind this, is unmatched. But beyond that, this level of community of practice, both at the executive level and at the front lines level, I really just don't think that you see. That's unparalleled from what I've seen.

Their ability to gather monthly to talk through these issues, to coordinate their agendas, to align their strategies, to align their investments and their time and see where there is traction. The beauty of Midwest Urban Strategies is that it's not all or nothing. It's that they're all together and there's sub-clusters of groups that can work together on certain issues that may be more pressing for their region than others, but Clyde, I really appreciate you saying that the objective is not to take a blanket kind of blueprint and say, "This is exactly what's going to work everywhere."

We have to recognize the uniqueness of our communities, of our relationships, of how the business community is set up and apply that there, but I think at least in the aggregate, what's valuable about Midwest Urban Strategies is that they saw from the beginning, we're all similar economies, we're all kind of in the Rust Belt area, we're dealing with the same problems in the aftermath of the Great Recession. We have a transient population. We need to be able to work across our kind of imaginary but very real and fiscally driven geographies to be able to have much greater impact for the community that we want to serve and the different world that we want to create for our workers.

Again, I could not be more just impressed with what they do every day, and if there's anyone on this call that thinks, "Hey, this is something that I'd love to replicate in the West or in the South or in the Pacific Northwest," I would love for that to happen. If we could clone Midwest Urban Strategies five times over to cover the country, I think we'd have a far different workforce system in 10 years than we do right now.

That's my two cents. So many questions here. Let me get to the theme that's come in. Certainly since March, we've all been living a quite different reality in terms of just our work but especially in the workforce system where the number of unemployment that we're seeing is just historical and unprecedented. There's industries that are bouncing back where with phased reopenings and things like that, you have people coming in and out of that system.

Can you talk just a little bit about how COVID has changed your work and how this community of practice maybe has mitigated some of the fits and starts that you might've seen otherwise if you were just kind of working in a vacuum? I'll open that up to... Let's say, Linda. Why don't you kick that off and we can go around the...

Woloshansky: Well, thanks Sarah. I think I mentioned virtual a little bit, but really, as I'm sure with other areas, virtual has been the name of the game and I don't think that'll ever go away no matter what happens. Not how soon we recover from COVID, because we've been able to find ways to reach people more effectively than we have previously. I mean, everything from doing virtual workshops that we can run at any time in the evening or weekend without the logistics problems of going to an office or staying at an office or opening an office.

People from the staff just jump on board and offer these opportunities or the texting with things like Avochato or just the meetings that are occurring. We've conducted so many different business meetings and working with employers that have happened on a virtual basis, but it is quite amazing really. When I think about it and you start to compare a year ago with now, to think that we would've been able to make that kind of change that quickly, to adapt that readily was pretty phenomenal and very gratifying that the staffs have been able to do that and coming up with most of the ideas themselves, not waiting for leadership to do that.

I think in some ways, once again, Midwest Urban Strategies had some influence at least in our shop because the staff will participate on some of the monthly meetings. We actually were asked to do a training for others in MUS last winter and so, that opened up the door to a lot of other people, for them to know as well. It has become a very fluid and more integrated and innovative way to do business.

Miller: I think everybody on the call is going to wait with bated breath to see how the virtual youth employment pilot goes and what comes out of that. Lots of great work and I think your ability to quickly move into action here was certainly uplifted by the fact that you spend all of this time kind of building this partnership.

Clyde, if you could talk just a little bit about how COVID has... I know you touched on the uniqueness of the Kansas City region having to deal with a very large rural area as well, so I wonder if you could share just a little bit about how profound this effect has been on the work that you're doing and the differences between your urban and rural populations.

McQueen: Most definitely. I would say that COVID has instituted three things into our system that we didn't have before. First, we're going to have a call center. It's not going away. As a way to service clients and know that through our call center, we don't necessarily have to have a person always in front of the person, but we know we've got to respond in a more detailed way than in a general way. That means really closing the loop on that client inquiry. We're going to have a call center when this is over with. We're going to still have virtual programs.

The other thing is, it helped us to reduce our physical footprint. I've cut my lease on about probably about 15,000 square feet, which is going to enable us to put more money into training and as you all know, we've got to figure out how to cut our expenses to try to make training more available, because at some point, just straight job referral does not get you to it and we know that [inaudible], training is very important for people making a meaningful wage.

Yeah, we can do it with dislocated workers, but for those structurally poor, those persons on SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], or somebody's who come back that may be coming out of a situation, that training is very, very important.

In terms of the urban-rural divide, I think that is a very good question, and I was formally the state workforce director in the state of Texas when workforce training first came in. In Texas, it used to be we cut a deal. OK, we're going to do this over here and we do a deal like that. We will still get the same table. Increasingly, as I've seen, unfortunately, is if you're in a rural area, they don't know what an urban's talking about or an urban area won't know what a rural area's talking about.

Personally, I come from a... My father was a soil conservationist. He worked for the Department of Agriculture; he was a county agent. I grew up with farmers of all races, and the main thing is you just got to pay attention, and you got to ask the question even when they aren't in the room. We just had to make the type of adaptations that were necessary. Maybe we had to have 15 people in the class to make a class in Kansas City, but maybe it only takes eight. Now with our virtual platform, we might not need to have a full class. I think that was number one.

Number two, people got to know, our office in our rural community was very, very important because it meant that we paid attention to it, that rural community. The same way we have an office in certain neighborhoods means that certain neighborhoods aren't neglected, which is a big issue in urban communities.

With this virtual programming, I can set a staff person up and they can work at a community-based organization as part of a career day, or I can go inside a county extension office and tell everybody, "Listen, I'm going to have career day and you can come in and look at it," and it doesn't cost me anything, but I still have a person there to do that.

Thirdly, we want people to always be a part of the model that we execute, so I think paying attention—people knowing that we are programming and asking additional questions, because you've got to always think about who's not in the room when you're doing programming. Sometimes, we pay all the attention to who's in the room and not necessarily to those who aren't.

I think for us, asking those questions, making sure we use our virtual platforms to conduct trainings... Right now, one of my offices is closed, but the parking lot is great, so we use the parking lot for a drive-through job fair and in our rural community, go to the local library and do the same thing. We just have to make sure that we think with the left side of our brain and the right side of our brain, depending upon what it is and to always recognize those things are there for you.

I think we have to [inaudible 00:44:26] funds, do drive where the money goes and quite frankly, when we don't get increases in budget, it's like a winners and losers game. We got to make sure through our own efforts that people know that they're paying attention to me. Just in closing, one example was we had a national emergency grant and we put it one of my rural communities. The county supervisors, the county commission said, "But Clyde, we will oversee that grant ourselves. You don't have to hire an administrative person." That was a heck of a deal.

But they knew that we thought about them and they wanted the money to go to the people and not as much to administrative overhead, and they came up with that idea. I think that those are the types of things that we got to look at that we might not think of but when you do a little bit of brain analysis on it, sometimes you'd be surprised at the type of opportunities that you have, even doing training in libraries, having the library...

I did a class in a library. They had a vacant room, and we put the training class in there. We have a training institute. I think those are the things that we've got to look at because we've got to be the ones to try to program and try to merge that divide and always be aware of the left and right... I won't say left and right, but the large and the small is more appropriate in terms of the accessibility aspect to it.

Miller: Absolutely. I think what's great about this and especially how you can immediately swing that thinking and those wins back into the Midwest Urban Strategies group immediately. And it's not a matter of this information trickles out into the public domain and somebody gets ahold of it and then sees this as a best practice, where this is real-time exchange of thinking and strategizing so that a great idea or something that happens in Kansas City can immediately be considered as to how do we replicate this in Gary, how do we replicate this in Milwaukee or Pittsburgh, because I know Milwaukee was doing the drive-through job fairs as well.

McQueen: I copied it from them.

Miller: There you go, see?

McQueen: Yeah.

Miller: No, it's pretty amazing.

Woloshansky: Sarah?

Miller: Yeah.

Woloshansky: We're really good at R&D. That means rob and duplicate.

McQueen: That's right.

Miller: That's great.

McQueen: There's no pride of authorship. We want people to copy what we do because that's better for the system.

Miller: Oh, absolutely and it's better for the-

McQueen: The people.

Miller: ... for everything that we're trying to do. Exactly. Let me talk just more on the not necessarily best practice sharing but truly the power of this collaborative. I know one example that I want to uplift and then Tracey, you can provide some more kind of color or any other background, but they're all working together. One of the questions that came in was if you're dealing with different states that have different policies around how they administer WIOA and what you can and cannot do, how does the consortium break through that wall essentially?

One of the best examples I've seen of that is that you kind of crowdsource training providers for your ETPO. If there is a trainer that has been approved in, let's say, Wisconsin and Milwaukee, is on Milwaukee's eligible training provider list, and they're offering a training that's desperately needed in the labor market in Valparaiso, for example, then as opposed to Linda having to go through whatever arduous process she would have to go through to get them approved through Indiana, you're working through this consortium to be able to allow for that exchange across these kinds of state lines.

Tracey, if you could just kind of provide a little bit of insight on what that looks like, some other examples of that, so we're not so bound by our own state and local administrative kind of policies and guidelines.

Carey: Absolutely. One of the things that Midwest Urban Strategies prides itself on is really going first and taking the risk in terms of trying new things. Workforce boards are held to performance measures, and they are obligated to their state to meet specific measures and held to all of the regulatory compliance that is mandated by the Department of Labor.

So, having an organization like Midwest Urban Strategies take on the risk of trying new things and iterating ideas allows us to protect our members from any fallout from learning through that process, because the only way we learn is by trying and failing sometimes, right? You have to fail in order to learn. Not a lot of learning happens when you're just successful all the time.

We have the opportunity to really try on new ways of doing things, and the other benefit that we've had is that the Region Five office has been really supportive of the work that we've been doing. They've been actively engaged, have participated in a number of our convenings. I don't think we're mentioned this. We're in COVID right now, so the world's upside down. We don't get to get together like we normally do.

In normal times as a consortium, we meet face-to-face twice a year in one of our member cities and when we go there, we get to dig into the practice there in that local area. That really helps us to understand how the workforce system operates from one region to the other. It's been an eye-opener for me. I've learned so much.

When we look at things like creating a virtual training provider platform that will allow us to curate training from one state to another, we're setting up a system that will bring training providers to areas that might have a void. For instance, a training provider that's offering training in technology-based occupations that is on the Missouri ETPO, as we're setting up this virtual platform, we will work through the backend logistics of making sure that they're eligible on the Indiana list so that it becomes invisible to the board and it becomes invisible to the participant.

The rules don't go away. It's just that MUS takes on the burden of addressing the backend of those rules to make sure that people have access to the resources that they need directly and through the mechanisms that they're used to, through those local workforce boards. That's really the strategy that we're taking on with that virtual training provider list, and I have to say that was not my idea, that was Mr. McQueen's idea. I will attribute that appropriately.

Clyde, I don't know if you have anything more that you want to add on the virtual training provider or how we've curated that process and then when you're done, I'd like to just touch back a little bit on the work experience for youth platform that we've been working on.

McQueen: Sure. I think the one thing that we know [is] states do have MOUs with other states. Sometimes if a state between Kansas and Missouri, for example, if there is a person who happens to get on the eligible training provider list as a virtual person, you have MOU, that could be part of what you want to do to try to get that training adopted [inaudible] accessible toward. Our whole approach was that somebody from Missouri could get a certificate from a university or college in Indiana or in Pittsburgh.

Just think about the portfolio of training credentials that are there for that particular person. That's kind of a piece that we stole from somebody. I can't remember who it was, but we built the cost of Chromebooks into tuition. What our state did with the COVID money was to say we're going to up the training tuition cost so you can put your Chromebooks into tuition costs, and we don't have to worry about all the stuff going with that, or we could put the cost of hot spots, portable hot spots into tuition costs, so the person that is applying to be on a digital training course, well, the access is built into it, the hotspots, and sometimes [inaudible].

Because of that issue in both our small rural communities and even in some urban neighborhoods, the state then used their COVID money to make digital access available to the RFPs so that people could apply to try to increase their infrastructure. That was a big move made by a lot of the digital national organizations for digital access. At least we've elevated the need and realized that infrastructure is very necessary for people to take care of virtual programming.

I think all of this ties into that and I think again, of course preferably, we would rather have the money to give it out but we can't. At least the public policy issue of accessibility for that type of thing, but that was what we were able to do immediately in both our urban neighborhoods and our rural communities to bill Chromebooks and hot spots into the tuition costs.

Miller: That's so fantastic.

McQueen: The state of Missouri did it and they upped the cost of tuition. Initially, their ceiling amount was $4,000. They said, "OK, we're going to up it $6,500." Yeah, you can get a Chromebook and portable hot spot for those two things. That was something they built into the COVID money, so I've got to give props to it. If I'm saying that Indiana's doing it and I can say Pittsburgh, OK, they're doing it. It's going to be all right. We're not out there on the limb.

I think that's one thing that people want to be able to do is to be able to show that somebody else is doing it. Therefore, I don't have any audit risk, and you all know we're all scared of a bad audit. Everybody knows that because elected officials and our boards don't want to see those crazy letters coming out. We make those things available, and that's why we wanted to have the best practice laboratory, that's why we want to have a virtual training platform that's multistate, so that people can say they're doing it over here, so [inaudible] over there and we can tell the Department of Labor they're doing it obviously and so we're all in this together collectively without any audit or risk exposure.

Because the further out you go sometimes, the more risk you assume, and we know we want to make it where it's easier for everybody to do something that will help their community that might not have been done before.

Miller: You've 100 percent put on steroids the adage that you ask for forgiveness, not permission. If you're doing it together, you're mitigating that risk significantly. But I know that Tracey, you wanted to talk about the virtual training platforms, so if you could also... I'm so glad that you were able to elevate some of those access and broadband issues. Those were a number of questions that came through. Obviously that's very top of mind in the COVID economy right now.

But if you could talk a little bit, Tracey, on how you guys are thinking of embedding digital skill development into the platforms. Access to the hardware and to the broadband is one thing but even being able to have the skills to be successful in that type of training, I think, is a whole other question if you could touch on that.

Carey: Yeah, absolutely. On the first, I think it's important to note that we did a beta test of the youth work experience platform this past summer here in the Milwaukee area. The mayor's office decided that he wanted to move ahead with his annual internship program, and then Employ Milwaukee, the workforce development board here in Milwaukee, agreed to work closely with the mayor's office.

We were able to implement the summer youth employment virtual platform, which allowed young people the opportunity to learn career necessary skills as well as how to search for jobs. They met in Zoom rooms with local employers so that they could hear from those employers about what kind of skills are necessary in the jobs within those industries as well as what are the soft skills and why do those matter to employers.

It's really one thing to hear the answer to that question from an instructor or a teacher, but to hear it from an actual employer who could be the person sitting across the table from you offering you a job is an entirely different thing. It was a very great opportunity to test run it. It ran for six weeks. Young people were able to earn their weekly pay through this system that tracked their participation.

It turned out to be something that was very effective, and we are beginning the process of rolling that out to our membership here in the next couple of months to continue to assist young people in this virtual world.

In terms of the digital skills, that is one of the things that as a workforce consortium, we've really looked at. Many of the local areas have implemented training programs and opportunities for folks to use resources that help them to grow their own digital literacy skills. A couple of examples of that are in Pittsburgh, we're doing some work with IBM, that IBM is sponsoring to support the development of greater digital literacy among the Pittsburgh folks who are interested in careers in technology.

That work is happening there and other regions are doing similar efforts to help folks build up their capacity to become more digital effective when they're not digital natives.

Miller: Right, yeah. Some good examples, too, that you can kind of pilot and demonstrate in one area but then be in a much better position to be able to scale that across those partnerships. We only have a few minutes left. Go ahead, Linda. Yep.

Woloshansky: Sarah, the other thing I was going to mention is that because we are also connected, if there's an employer, a regional or a global employer in, say Milwaukee, that is also here and Milwaukee develops a great relationship with them, we're able to tap into that. Then suddenly, for example, CVS, we had apprenticeship programs with CVS, pharm tech programs. If we had walked in the door ourselves and said, "We want to offer this opportunity to you for an apprenticeship program," they would say, "Well, we have to check with corporate and corporate has to check with..." It would've taken months and months and months.

Given the fact that, say for example, Milwaukee, and I don't know what the origin was, Tracey, but say it was Milwaukee. Because we're already connected, it was a phone call and then it just made it so much easier for us to access that employer. I think a lot of us struggle with that once again in smaller urban areas or rural areas, that we don't have the connect with the corporations that our colleagues in our larger urban areas do. This gives you another opportunity to access those resources.

Miller: Absolutely, and one of the questions that just came in was in thinking about regionalism and career pathways and how are you strategizing as a collective whole to be able to move your workers through these pathways. I think that speaks directly to one of your strategies that you're deploying, the several to one relationship with the employers that have a large footprint across your region so that you are all at once understanding the skills they need, the credentials that they value, the education and training that has currency.

You're collectively revamping your ETPOs all of the time to make sure that you're getting what you need across this whole region; and your ability to look at the regional data together, your purchase power to look at this real time information, look at the career pathway so that you can understand what are the needs that they have and you can, as a group, go to these businesses to kind of validate that and to get that qualitative overlay to then feed it back to your front line staff through the call centers, through the job training, through all of these to really activate that pathway.

McQueen: Sarah, I wanted to back up on what you said about regionalism. It is system synchronicity and by that, I mean we coordinate systems. I've seen some people say, "Well, we need to form a regional organization." That ain't what we talking about. We don't need a big, huge, regional organization doing that, and that's one thing that we've tried to get straight because every time we go into the meeting, somebody says, "We need to form this big..." No, we're synchronizing information, we're reducing redundancy, but we're not talking about forming another organization.

What we need to do is have our organizations work in sync with each other because we can't substitute the time on tasks that we spend with people and businesses. We can make our efforts more efficient because-

Miller: Absolutely.

McQueen: ... our system is underfunded and we know that, but one way we can increase our ability to be effective is through synchronization of information and reducing the redundancy upon people and employers. If we can do that, because there's more than enough work to go around and we all know it, we just got to make sure that we emphasize that as a value-add as opposed to a substitute ideology.

Miller: Systems synchronicity. I love that. That's some serious workforce alliteration. We should put that on a T-shirt. Thank you guys so, so much. Again, we're at time. I thank everybody for joining us today. I hope that you see why I've had such adoration of this group for so many years and had the great professional privilege to know and work with all three of these brilliant minds on the phone.

Please do reach out. We will be following up with a recording and a digest of all the questions that you submitted, several of which we could not get to but would love to see this replicated. If that can be my stake in the ground; if we can see a Southern Urban Strategies or a Western Urban Strategies, I think we'd all be better for it and we have great leadership that we can learn from.

Thank you for joining us. Clyde, Linda, Tracey, we appreciate you taking your time with us today and your partnership and look forward to all that's to come. Have a great afternoon everybody.

Carey: Thank you, Sarah. Bye.

Miller: Bye-bye.

Woloshansky: Bye.

McQueen: Bye.