Jackson Fellow Works on Workforce Equity

The Jackson Foundation occasionally asks one of the Jackson Leadership Fellows to contribute a blog about their own projects and activities, inspired in part by their work during the Fellowship year. Today’s blog is by 2017 Fellow Alyssa Patrick, who has been engaged in an innovative effort to improve workplace equity right here in Puget Sound. 

Lara Iglitzin, Executive Director

In 2014, I moved to Seattle and unintentionally placed myself between the dichotomous outcomes of the city’s economic boom. Through my job in university economic development I saw the signs of prosperity – new business, new job opportunities, new and young residents. Through my volunteer experience in Big Brothers, Big Sisters, however, I saw how the growth exacerbated already existing wealth and racial disparities. Seeing these challenges sparked my interest in a career in public service, and in particular how to develop long-term solutions to complex problems. Senator Jackson’s legacy of that approach drew me to apply to the Leadership Fellowship. Becoming a Fellow gave me my first lessons in public service, and provided me an opportunity to start exploring the programs, partnerships and investments needed to equitably disperse Seattle and King County’s prosperity.

The role of workforce in equitable economic development

My exploration focused on regional workforce development. Access to Seattle’s high demand jobs requires access to quality education and training. Barriers to that access often exist for communities of color, low income communities, and others historically marginalized. While Seattle’s median income hit $80,000 in 2016 and skilled workers remain in high demand, the people benefiting from those opportunities are still largely white and often from out of state. In addition to earning less, communities of color often also live further from new job opportunities in the city center due to historically racist zoning policies. One way to start changing these trends is investing in education and training for young people who are disconnected from a path to living wage work.

According to a recent report from the Workforce Development Council of King County, many of those young people are living in South King County. While there are several public agencies dedicated to making education and training investments in that area, I wanted to know how to engage local employers. Improving access to quality jobs in the region also requires buy-in from companies who are prioritizing diversity and inclusion initiatives. In order to explore this question through my Jackson Fellowship project, I turned to the Technology Access Foundation (TAF). TAF is a non-profit focused on improving access to STEM and technology fields for students of color and underrepresented communities. TAF is leading innovative approaches to overcoming workforce disparities – including a STEM-based school in partnership with the Federal Way School District, a fellowship program for teachers of color, and distribution of the STEMbyTAF academic model. Given I am not from the impacted communities, it was important for me to learn from community-developed approaches and how I – and the public sector – can better support them.

When I approached TAF, they were looking to grow the corporate partnerships crucial to their mission. For my project, I helped plan a small, executive-level roundtable event to engage potential corporate partners, and kick off a new initiative called UnTapped. The initiative aims to provide companies with the knowledge and tools needed to tap into a diverse talent pool before students graduate from high school.

A Jackson Project with the Technology Access Foundation

The event took place in September at F5 Networks. We invited HR and recruiting representatives new to TAF to hear a panel discussion from existing partners and TAF alumni on the impact of integrating K-12 engagement into diversity and inclusion efforts. After the discussion, attendees broke into working groups to share existing challenges to taking that approach, and how to start overcoming them.

The conversation and what I learned working with TAF left me struck by the relative simplicity of the steps needed for change. Over the past couple of decades many companies have started diversity and inclusion initiatives focused largely on recruitment and retention efforts. The panelists discussed the importance of changing job descriptions to make sure they aren’t unintentionally biased towards one population, and setting up internal mentorship programs and other resources so underrepresented groups hired into largely white companies feel supported.

“Making sure people know they don’t have to become somebody else to be successful in your company is crucial,” said Francois Locoh-Donou, CEO of F5, who spoke during the event.

Another often overlooked challenge of recruiting from black and brown communities mentioned during the panel was networking. If leaders and recruiters are white and largely reaching out to white networks, demographics in the companies will stay the same.

“Having administrators and CEOs who are actually part of diverse communities is crucial,” said panelist Aiko Bethea, director of diversity and inclusion at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “Be careful not to just parachute in for recruiting, though. Actually work to expand your networks, showing up personally and on a regular basis.”

While simple in concept, the recommendations still take time, energy and resources. Two of the biggest take-aways for leaders in the room, and for myself, were the need to prioritize these efforts, and to put yourself into uncomfortable settings to make real change.

Thanks to the event, TAF fostered deeper relationships with companies who were energized by the conversation. TAF is continuing the UnTapped series, and the next event is taking place at Google on January 11.

The event and several months I spent working with TAF gave me a better understanding of the barriers faced by communities of color, the engagement need from employers to make change, and methods for encouraging that engagement. In the fall, I started a Master’s in Public Administration at the University of Washington, where I am pursuing additional questions about the role of public-private partnerships in equitable economic development. I am grateful for the Jackson Leadership Fellowship, and the opportunity it provided to explore an issue close to my heart that will continue guiding my career.

Alyssa Patrick, 2017 Jackson Leadership Fellow

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