Over the past four decades, local workforce boards across the country have functioned as reliable entities that communities can count on, ensuring that there is somewhere to go when job seekers need support and employers are seeking skilled workers. Workforce boards are not typically found in the spotlight but tend to serve as the backbone of critical workforce development efforts in regions across every state in the country. This has certainly been true for WorkForce Central over the years as we’ve balanced our roles as convener, steward of funds, distributor of real-time data and knowledge, and administrator of the Pierce County WorkSource system. And while that work has been transformative in many ways, we were called to order in 2020 in a way we had never been before. That call has irrevocably reframed the foundation of our work.
The cosmic shifts in the workforce over the last 30 months are like none we’ve seen before. From skyrocketing unemployment in mid-2020 to the lowest unemployment rates on record just 18 months later, traditional ways of planning and long-term execution of workforce strategies are unfeasible. In a span of 18 months, WorkForce Boards went from figuring out how to support thousands of workers who were instantly unemployed to supporting thousands of businesses that could no longer find workers.
The ultimate call to order for WorkForce Central is a laser focus on economic justice. Through all the shifts we’ve seen in workforce participation, wages, and business demands, this data has not shifted in the same way across populations in Pierce County. Disparities by race, gender, and socioeconomic status have remained in our community throughout the pandemic. To be clear, startling disparities have existed across these populations for generations. The pandemic and continued movements toward justice over the last two years have ensured these disparities are undeniable to any who takes the time to notice, understand, and act.
Throughout 2021 and into 2022, we are asking questions and initiating strategies in ways that challenge the status quo of these systems that perpetuate inequities in our local economy. We’re revisiting what “skills” mean and how we decide who is skilled and unskilled. We are supporting businesses to do the same. We are designing workforce services in deference to and with community members facing challenges to employment. We are ensuring the voices and visions of people with those lived experiences are driving our investments and working in lock step with employers at every turn.
As stewards of the Pierce County workforce development system, WorkForce Central will continue our work to meet the ever-changing workforce needs in our community and stay true to our mission. “We bridge the gap between job seekers, employers, and community organizations to build a robust workforce pipeline and ensure economic vitality across the region.”
We look forward to building on this work with our community partners in the coming years.
Pandemic Impact on Pierce County
The unemployment rate in Pierce County spiked in March 2020 up to 18.7% and continued at historically high rates for a good portion of the year. The rate has steadily declined to 22,000 unemployed workers (4.9% of the labor force) and is likely to drop further with seasonal trends.
While the labor force took a took a nosedive at the start of the pandemic, the number of workers was almost up to pre-pandemic levels (434,226) as of April 2022.
Cost of Living
On top of Pandemic recovery, citizens have had to combat the increasing cost of living. Gas and food prices are soaring while overall housing and rental prices increased and continue to remain high.
Community Members Served by Funding Source
April 2020 through June 2022
Some participants were enrolled in multiple programs
The Communities We Served
1 in 7
were experiencing homelessness
1 in 6
were single parents
were low income
Nearly 1 in 4
had a disability
identified as a person of color
Our Workforce Services
WorkSource One-Stop Center
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the WorkSource Pierce One-Stop Center was forced to close its doors to in-person services. Partners at the center quickly pivoted to provide services virtually to aid the 151,000 community members who were suddenly out of work. Workshops, hiring events, training opportunities, and a variety of workforce services were shifted to virtual in an effort to reach as many community members as possible. In June 2021, the center reopened its doors for in-person services by appointment and continues to provide virtual services in a hybrid model.
Normal business services delivery went out the door as soon as the Stay-At-Home order was initiated in March 2020. Phone lines and email went all but silent from employers. Business Solutions switched to a proactive approach by reaching out to businesses. They conducted wellness check-in calls to business customers, providing information about COVID-19 resources, grants, loans, health and safety information, etc. In 2021, WorkForce Central identified the urgent need for increased services to employers and businesses as a result of the pandemic. The need required a shift from the way services were previously offered (through a contracted service provider) to an in-house model of providing direct services to business customers. A new Business Solutions Team was formed with six staff members dedicated to providing employers with the best service possible through consultation, recruitment assistance, employment development, talent pipeline, layoff assistance and aversion, and access to industry and occupational information. Since March 2020, the Business Solutions Team has supported nearly 1,200 employers with more than 2,000 unique services.
Virtual Job Fairs
When traditional in-person job fairs were no longer an option during the pandemic, our Business Solutions Team focused efforts on creating a space for virtual job fairs that would allow employers and job seekers to connect in a meaningful way. Since going virtual, WorkForce Central has hosted 29 Hire Pierce County job fairs on a robust virtual platform that allowed employers to post jobs and information in their virtual booths and interact with job seekers through live chat. More than 350 employers and nearly 2,000 job seekers participated in these job fairs resulting in many job interviews and hires.
COVID-19 Hunger Relief
WorkForce Central, in partnership with Valeo Vocation, was awarded a Community Development Block Grant for COVID Hunger Relief to aid local emergency food system partners with creating and filling positions directly related to feeding people in Pierce County. This grant fully funds 23 full-time positions through January 2023. As of June 2022, the grant was funding 15 positions that pay more than minimum wage. As the community continues to feel the impacts of COVID-19 in the form of increased food costs, food scarcity/insecurity, and hunger, these placements serve to directly support the work of food distribution to people with low to moderate income.
Paid Work Experience & Internships
Our work experience and internship opportunities are planned, structured, and time-limited paid learning experiences that take place in a workplace via a contract between WorkForce Central, our WIOA providers, employers, and workers. WorkForce Central’s Business Solutions Team engages with employers to identify work experience opportunities and facilitate worksite agreements in preparation for candidate placement. Subsidized wages and paid internships allow businesses to focus on providing mentorship and job skill development and provide the candidates with earned income and industry/career exposure. Since March 2020, 47 work sites have been established for the Work Experience (WEX) program with 110 placements into internship opportunities. The WEX program has paid more than $225,418 in wages and provided 14,124 in labor hours to local businesses. Our youth internship program was boosted in 2021 when WorkForce Central was awarded $1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to specifically fund young adult internships through a program called Hire Pierce County: Next Gen. It recruited and placed young adults into paid internships at businesses throughout Pierce County with the goal of engaging young adults through career-building experiences all while supporting businesses recovering from the pandemic. As of July 2022, more than 254 young adults enrolled in the Hire Pierce County Next Gen program with 192 placements into internship opportunities. The program has paid more than $491,910 in young adult wages and provided 32,794 labor hours to 61 local businesses.
We have multiple opportunities for adult job seekers to receive support on their career journey. The Dislocated Workers program supports workers who are unlikely to be re-employed in their previous occupations. These individuals need to find new careers, fit experience into new roles, and get the training and credentials required for a new profession. WorkForce Central, in partnership with Career TEAM, provides services to dislocated workers in Pierce County through traditional workforce development funding. The award of two federal National Disaster Recovery Dislocated Worker grants provided an additional $2,384,168 to expand employment and training efforts in Pierce County. From July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2022, the program served more than 522 dislocated workers with individualized support, helping them on their path to a new career. The Economic Security for All grant was originally secured in 2019 with a goal to lift 250 families out of poverty in the 98404-zip code. Since then, the program has expanded to all of Pierce County, helping those experiencing poverty. By the end of the first program round in early Spring 2022, nearly 300 people were connected to jobs, training, financial literacy coaching, education, and resources to build a better future. WorkForce Central was also awarded two additional rounds of funding for this program. The third round was awarded through state funds and runs July 2022 to June 2023. It provides additional flexibility in increasing the service side of the program with needs-related payments such as rental and utility assistance.
Industry Training Cohorts
Employers across high-demand industries throughout Pierce County are seeking qualified job seekers to fill positions that provide living-wage employment. In August 2021, WorkForce Central responded to this need by building a strong pool of technical training providers through an RFP process to deliver employer-driven, rapid reskill and upskill cohort trainings to build the talent pipeline in these high-demand occupations. In April 2022, the first Introduction to Healthcare Employment & Apprenticeship Training Program began, and in July, the first Waterversity Water System Operator Training began. By the end of 2022, Business Solutions plans to introduce two additional industry training programs.
Young Adult Services
In 2021, WorkForce Central contracted additional Young Adult Service Providers offered through the WorkSource Pierce system. Three new services providers joined the WorkSource network of providers, each offering a unique set of services including a focus on serving young adults in traditionally underserved communities. The four young adult service providers, Palmer Scholars, Northwest Education Access, Korean Women’s Association, and Career TEAM, are working together in 2022 to provide wraparound services to young adults in Pierce County.
Incumbent Worker Initiative
As recovery has progressed, the gap between available workers and open job opportunities has created significant sustainability challenges for employers. This workforce shortage has impacted the supply chain and inflation. To assist employers in retaining workers, we developed an Employer Reskill/Upskill Fund (Incumbent Worker Program) designed to increase business and employee competitiveness and avert layoffs. This will allow businesses to maintain their workforce by providing funding for existing staff to obtain skills and credentials needed to retain and grow in their employment and assist the company in averting potential layoffs. We have developed the program model for this reimbursable grant, and the first grant is underway.
In May 2020, Collaboration for a Cause was created to meet the needs of the community struggling with the onset of the pandemic. This one-stop resource event was coordinated to help get people connected with resources such as housing, food, clothing, education, employment, access to technology, and many needed items such as masks, hand sanitizer, and so much more to address the many challenges only exacerbated by the pandemic. The goal of the event is to assist community members in getting stable footing and then connect them with the workforce system and into gainful employment. Comprised of over 200 members from 130 organizations, The Pierce County Community Engagement Task Force coordinates the event, bringing organizations, employers, and educators together to host several events each year. This unique event moves around Pierce County, catering to meet the individual needs of that specific community. The 8th iteration of the event was held in June and, since its start, has served more than 3,500 families.
Childcare Capacity Initiative
One of the hardest-hit areas during COVID was childcare facilities. This not only had a significant impact on childcare provider business owners and employees but also on working parents who struggled to find placement for their children in the childcare system. WorkForce Central is collaborating with community partners in a $1.4 million grant awarded in 2021 to fully fund the Childcare Capacity Initiative. The initiative focuses on increasing the supply of childcare in Pierce County with the goal of supporting childcare providers to prevent further closures, expand capacity, and assist in the launch of new facilities.
Our Equity Journey
WorkForce Central is committed to building more equitable systems and anti-racist practices. We have been on a journey of identifying areas of improvement and implementing changes to reach those goals. In hopes of sharing our experience and encouraging our partners to take a look at their owns systems, we created this Equity Timeline mapping out our process.
Thank you to our partners, funders, and community for support and collaboration in this work for Pierce County residents.