Even before the pandemic, employers struggled to find the skilled labor they needed to fill jobs.

Many workers, meanwhile, found themselves in jobs they found unsatisfying for any number of reasons: an unclear career path, inadequate pay, or a lack of meaningful purpose in the work.

By the end of 2021, exacerbated by nearly two years of an ongoing pandemic and the so-called “Great Resignation” that has seen workers quitting their jobs — often without another lined up — there were 10.9 million job openings in the United States. That’s more than a million more job openings than people looking for work.

Michele Chang, deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Economic Development Administration — a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce — joined Strada Impact President Ruth V. Watkins on a recent episode of Strada’s podcast, “Lessons Earned,” to discuss the Good Jobs Challenge, an ambitious federal initiative to fund workforce training programs throughout the country.

The program is designed to fund holistic regional workforce systems built around strong partnerships that lead to well-paying jobs. It prioritizes equity and includes investments in wraparound services, easing barriers to training for those workers hardest hit by the pandemic, including women and people of color.

The commerce department announced last week that more than 500 partnerships had applied for funding through the Good Jobs Challenge — an overwhelming response for a program that plans to choose 25 to 50 awardees for its $500 million investment.

These partnerships signal the widespread interest in constructing an equitable path forward for workers, employers, and the U.S. economy: They are comprised of state, local, and tribal governments; postsecondary education institutions; nonprofit organizations; and organized labor groups. Applications were submitted from all U.S. states and territories, plus Washington, D.C.

“What we’re trying to do is really connect employers with workers that will have the skills that they need by really investing in training that is done in collaboration with industry and employers,” Chang said, “so that we are able to develop the talent that employers demand and get workers the good-quality jobs that they’re looking for.”

Chang shared how these partnerships can succeed in providing better opportunities for more people, especially individuals in historically underserved communities:

Employers and educators must work together.

Chang recalled one success she experienced through her work with a large automobile company that could not find employees qualified for a specific manufacturing role. The company partnered with a local community college to develop a work-and-learn program where students could go to school three days a week and work the other two days — a process that allowed the students to pay their bills while going through training but also train for positions that could provide jobs in the $60,000 range upon graduation.

The ultimate goal, Chang explained, is to not only fund regional workforce training programs but to build relationships among employers, educators, and local organizations so the response to future challenges can be faster and smoother.

“As we see different economic shock happen or different type of demands for different types of skills happen, we have that institutional knowledge already in place in regions across our country so that they can create new training programs to meet the needs of the moment,” Chang said.

Include local community organizations as partners so they can help navigate cultural perspectives and differences.

Chang recalled how, in the early part of her workforce development career, she was working with a health care company in Minnesota that hoped to reach out to the large Hmong population. As a health care provider, it hoped to ensure patients turning to a hospital for care found people who looked like them working there.

“They really wanted to reach this community but recognized that the traditional ways that they had done recruitment and hiring were not really being received well by that community,” Chang recalled.

Recruiting fairs and postings on job-search websites weren’t effective, but by reaching out to community centers and working with people already trusted by individuals in the Hmong population, the company was able to share its opportunities.

“It’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot for an employer to take on on their own,” Chang said. “But this is why partnerships are so important, particularly with these community-based organizations that understand different populations and how perhaps they would best receive different messages.”

There’s no substitute for listening to the voices of individuals whose lives can improve through workforce training partnerships.

Even those who work in policy, workforce development, or organizations designed to provide work and training opportunities can lose sight of the needs of individuals.

“I think it’s so important that we continually have forums where we can hear directly from them and that we go out regularly to the field and that we are meeting with folks,” Chang said. “We are understanding, you know, the challenges that they’re seeing or the benefits that they’re also gaining from these programs.”

She recalled meeting a single mother who historically had worked two or three jobs to provide for her family. When the woman was connecting through her local workforce board to a training program sponsored by a major employer, she received training as an information technology specialist and moved into a secure, well-paying job that also allowed her to move her family into a more stable home.

“We want to make sure that every person in our country has access to opportunity,” Chang said. “And if we can do that by offering programs like we are doing at EDA, that’s what makes this work all worthwhile and all the hard work worthwhile.”