The following excerpt is from remarks delivered by Ms. Foster at a national Equal Opportunity Conference in Washington, DC:
It is a privilege for me to be here today, and this has been such an impressive line-up of civil rights experts.
The importance of you and the equal opportunity work you perform in the field of workforce development at this pivotal time in our country’s history cannot be overstated. If we hope to have a stronger, more stable economy at the national level, it must start with you at the local level.
Underlying everything we do in the field of equal opportunity is the concept that we don’t leave segments of our population behind to dead end. We want to help folks in our communities get jobs, or get better jobs. We want to find a way for all members of our community to engage and be productive, contributing citizens.
The vast majority of us and vast majority of the citizens in our communities are not independently wealthy. So, if we aren’t working, we aren’t earning money. And, if we aren’t earning money, we aren’t able to put a roof over our heads, food on the table, or clothes on our backs. And, where does that lead? Logically, it leads to increased demand on our safety net programs—homeless shelters or public housing, food stamps, free medical care, the list goes on.
No one has ever been able to explain to me how a stronger, more stable economy is built on leaving segments of a community behind in our workforce development programs whether it is women, minorities, limited English proficient persons, persons with disabilities, folks of a certain age, Veterans, or folks of certain religious beliefs.
Getting systems in place to move all of our populations forward, and training staff on the use of these systems, is where we need to spend a little time and thought as equal opportunity professionals. Not every customer is going to move along the same track, or at the same pace. The point is to get them moving as opposed to setting them off to the side.
As you work to develop inclusive workforce development systems, keep in mind these four core elements—communication, access, integration, and individualized treatment—must be front and center in your planning. Every speaker here today has addressed one or more of these elements. And, I am going to briefly describe each of these elements, and why they are important.
Communication takes two forms. First, is the one most of us think of immediately; that is, being able to understand what a customer is saying, and ensuring the customer understands us. So, if establishing that baseline communication with our customer means using a sign language interpreter, captioning, or a language line, than that is what needs to happen.
Now, the next level of communication involves “notice.” Notice to the public of what programs we have to offer, notice about how to access our programs, and notice that we operate these programs in compliance with the nondiscrimination and equal opportunity mandates of WIOA Section 188. Providing notice includes prominently displaying that “Equal Opportunity Is the Law” notice wherever we do business, and publishing our discrimination complaint procedures and forms.
On the other end of things, notice also includes making sure employers, to the extent they use screening tools like e-Verify or criminal background checks, give notice of any disqualifying adverse information to the potential applicant and allow the applicant an opportunity to explain or dispute it.
So, an inclusive workforce development program means we are able to communicate with our customers, and we convey important notices to them about their rights and our obligations under the nondiscrimination and equal opportunity provisions of WIOA Section 188.
Access is another core element of an inclusive program. Access means folks have access to apply for, or participate in, our programs or activities. And, denial of access can take a variety of shapes.
One example is holding a training course on the first floor of a building, but folks have to get up the two steps at the entrance to the building. Without a ramp, some folks with mobility disabilities, who qualify to take this course, would be denied access to participate.
Another example of denial of access is one that I came across when I visited a particular locality to conduct training. The job referral counselor at the center would not even consider women for construction-related training or apprenticeship programs in welding, carpentry, masonry, and so on. Here, women who met the essential eligibility requirements for such training were denied access to even to apply for these programs.
And, access is a rising issue as we move forward with more internet-based application and enrollment processes. We are at the very beginning of what I describe as the incoming technology tsunami. The harnessing and use of various technologies on the market will undoubtedly strengthen many aspects of our workforce development programs and activities by building in efficiencies at a greater savings of staffing and money resources.
We’ve already seen the use of technology increase exponentially in the processing of unemployment insurance claims. And, the use of technology is growing in other areas such as computerized matching of a customer’s skills to available jobs in the market.
While these advances work for the vast majority of our populations, certain segments of our community’s population will be left behind. Persons with certain disabilities, and folks who are not able to read or write English very well could be denied access to programs for which they would otherwise be qualified.
I’ve heard some folks ask, why should we build systems around the exceptions? These folks need to come into the 21st Century.
Keep in mind, there is room in this country for all of us. Not every job out there requires an IT background, or access to the Internet. Not every job requires the ability to read, write, or speak English. Landscapers, cleaners, movers, certain construction trades, and caregivers are some examples of occupations that may not require IT savvy, access to the internet, or the ability to speak or understand English.
And, you’ve got some folks who are IT-savvy and understand English but, for example, they have a disability and need some type of auxiliary aid or service to navigate the internet application process.
The key here is to figure out what safety valves can be put in place in your particular community to ensure these populations aren’t left out. And, I think this is an excellent opportunity for the kinds of civil rights experts we’ve heard from today to establish a working group that includes folks like you and other interested stakeholders to work collaboratively to come up with some “best practices,” develop low or no cost resources, and generate ideas for resource-sharing and partnerships in our communities, to get these safety valves in place.
Beyond communication and access, we have the element of integration.
Decades ago, “Separate but Equal” was considered an acceptable way of doing business—whites could go to certain schools, blacks could go to other schools. Wisdom prevailed and we learned as a society that it is not healthy to divide ourselves by the color of our skin. Each of us has value beyond these surface qualities.
Unfortunately, the “Separate but Equal” concept is still with us, but it has morphed into other areas.
I’ll give you an example.
Too often, our workforce development programs are designed to channel persons with disabilities into separate tracks out of the gate. Regardless of the disability, or what the customer would like to do, we channel the customer to a single person at the center, or to rehabilitative services.
Earlier this year, I was asked to conduct training at a particular locality and visited one of its centers to gather a better understanding of how that locality operated its workforce development programs. The center had four job referral counselors. However, any person with a disability, regardless of the disability, would be referred to the one counselor designated as the “disability job referral counselor.” And, if that counselor was in a meeting, out of the office, or otherwise unavailable, the person with a disability had to make an appointment to come back another day.
On this particular day, a customer who was deaf came in and handed the greeter a resume and a card asking for sign language interpreter services so he could meet with a job referral counselor.
The “disability job referral counselor” at the center was out on vacation, one other counselor had a customer in her office, and two counselors were available.
At first, the center manager was going to ask the gentleman to reschedule a time the following week when the disability job referral counselor returned from vacation.
But, after a little discussion, the center manager called for a sign language interpreter who would arrive in the next 30 to 40 minutes. And, the manager had one of the available counselors at the center call the relay line in the meantime to get the process started.
As an aside, I’ll tell you that the customer on this particular day was a CPA and had advanced degrees in accounting as well as executive level accounting experience for a large company. He had relocated because of his wife’s change of jobs, and wanted assistance finding a job in his new community.
Here, the center provided assistance to him on the day he came, and did not ask that he make an appointment to come back in one or two weeks when the “disability job referral counselor” returned from vacation.
So, offering integrated services means here that each counselor should be able to take each customer in order, without regard to whether the person has a disability, is limited English proficient, is a Veteran, is a woman, and so on.
Finally, in addition to communication, access, and integration, our systems need to be designed provide individualized treatment.
The purpose of our workforce development programs is to move folks from unemployment to employment, or to transition folks from certain jobs to better jobs.
If someone comes to one of your centers directly, or comes through the unemployment insurance portal, individualized treatment requires that we start with that individual’s baseline.
What does this mean? It means we take an individual as we find him or her and work from there. We ask the customer, what skills, education, interests, and talents do you bring to the table?
At the other end of the spectrum, we take a look around to see what jobs are in our community and the skills and education required for those jobs. If we find a match, we make a referral.
If we don’t find a match, we look to bridge the gap. The first step across the bridge for some customers may be the local community college to obtain a certification, diploma, or degree. For others, the first step may be attending English as a Second Language classes.
But, keep in mind that not everyone is cut out for these types of educational pursuits. We don’t have to force all of our customers into the school or college pipeline for workforce development.
We’ve got other pipelines. Apprenticeships to learn a trade, on-the-job training, and licensing programs are some examples.
Keep in mind, folks don’t come to us out of nowhere—they have histories, they have skills, they have interests. Our job is to figure out what they bring to the table in terms of skills, education, and experience, and what workforce development pipelines would be suitable given their background and interests. And, if figuring out what someone brings to the table requires the use of a language line, captioning, or sign language interpreter services, then make sure that happens.
At the end of the day, our systems should be inclusive.
Inclusive systems will afford women access to opportunities in nontraditional fields. Inclusive systems mean we won’t skip over persons with disabilities, or persons who are limited English proficient, because we don’t know what to do with them, or because it takes a little extra time to get a sign language interpreter or connect to the language line.
Inclusive systems mean we’ll encourage employers focus first and foremost on an applicant’s qualifications, push the use of screening tools like criminal background checks and e-Verify, for example, as far back in the process as possible. And, we’ll stress the importance of employers giving an applicant the opportunity to explain, challenge, or clear-up any adverse results that surface through the use of these screening tools.
In the delivery of inclusive workforce development activities and programs, the elements of communication, access, integration, and individualized treatment are present.
From unemployment insurance to on-the-job training to resume writing assistance to job referrals to referrals for an apprenticeship program to counseling and many others, the key is to ensure all members of our population know about the programs, and have access to the programs. Make sure we are serving folks in as integrated a setting as possible, not placing folks off to the side because we don’t know what to do with them. And, we give folks individualized treatment to ensure their success.
At the end of the day, if a customer meets the essential eligibility requirements for a workforce development program or activity, then the customer must be allowed to enroll, apply, and participate.
Thank you for your time, and I wish you every success in the important work you do.