Leading our way out of the Recession: A 21st Century WPA?

Oct 1, 2011

This post, authored by Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, was originally published at Harvard's Ash Center Social Innovation Project on September 28, 2011


“As of 2008, the war for good jobs has trumped all other
leadership activities […] The lack of good jobs will become the root
cause of almost all world problems that America and other countries will
face.” –Jim Clifton, Gallup Management Journal (September 2011)

Our economy is in trouble. Today, over 25 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed, and over 46 million are in poverty. Jobs and economic security are the single most important issues on the minds of people across generations, geography, and political parties.

The last time we faced an economic crisis of this magnitude was during the Great Depression. At that time, the federal government stepped in. Between 1935 and 1943, the Works Progress Administration (WPA, later renamed the Works Projects Administration) provided almost 8 million jobs.

But today’s labor market is different than that of the 1930s, and its challenges more complex. Moreover, the near crisis brought on by the administrative task of raising the debt ceiling last month suggests that bold, quick, and effective responses from our nation’s capitol are not likely.

Clearly, we need new solutions.

What’s the Problem?

Part of the reason the jobs problem is so difficult to solve is that it’s not one problem.
The national unemployment rate dominates headlines, but labor markets generally follow economies—they are regional, not national. For example, last month, the metro region of El Centro, California recorded an unemployment rate of 30.8%, while Bismark, North Dakota’s was 3.0%.

Communities face competing priorities—not just between “the jobs agenda” and other priorities (public safety and emergency response, for example), but also within the jobs agenda itself.

  • Should communities focus on supporting growing industries? Their largest industries? The industries with the largest share of exports? Those that promise to keep jobs local?
  • Young people are having difficulty getting on a career path, older workers can’t afford to retire, and Gen X is sandwiched between, often supporting children, parents or both. How do community leaders set priorities in this context?
  • Would tackling social ills (e.g., helping adults learn to read) yield returns? Or would investing in community strengths, on the theory that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, offer a better way forward?

While leaders are under pressure to respond to all of these priorities, resource scarcity makes “both/and” approaches difficult.  And many of our formal tools—from laws and regulations to institutions
and funding streams—lack the agility to effect the changes we need when we need them.

Connecting Bright Spots

Despite the complexity of these challenges, there is hope. People from all sectors and all levels of “rank” and experience are coming forward to solve these problems and are finding new ways to lead in the process.

During our one-year study
of the field of public policy known as workforce, we found many examples of leaders—including non-traditional leaders—creating new solutions in unexpected ways. In particular, they are experimenting with new methods of public participation, co-creation, and volunteer-led initiatives to expand learning opportunities (even if not in traditional “schools”), and connect people to work (even if not in traditional "jobs"). They are embracing agendas that, a decade ago, would have seemed far afield—from broadband adoption to entrepreneurship.

These leaders are social innovators, in addition to their roles as elected officials, bureaucrats, policy wonks, “geeks”, moms, or neighborhood activists. They are both ordinary and extraordinary.

Below this brief video accompanying the report Weadership: The Future of Workforce Leadership are two examples of leaders in action from our respective home communities.

Portland hacks. In May 2011, Cyborg Anthropologist, entrepreneur, and twenty-something Amber Case organized an Education Hackathon on a Sunday in a business incubator in downtown Portland, OR. A handful of senior level education officials identified key problems they thought technology might be able to help fix. About 25 technologists (programmers, hackers, strategists, designers, etc.) listened, asked questions, and then divided into teams to tackle three problems. It was a friendly competition. Eight hours later, the winning team had developed a mobile app to better connect young people and their parents or guardians to summer activities and jobs in their communities—a problem clearly spanning workforce, education, and community development domains.

The team also conducted an impressive amount of asset mapping in the process. The gaps and opportunities identified that day inspired program changes right away, and highlighted systemic fixes for challenges youth-serving organizations had long struggled with. The city, county, workforce board, and youth providers are all working on next steps.

Silicon Valley remakes and retools. For decades, Silicon Valley has been a fast changing economy. More risk tolerant than many communities, it has seen some firms radically and rapidly expand and others collapse overnight. Whole new industries emerge with regularity. But today, even Silicon Valley faces high unemployment, especially among seasoned technology professionals who can have difficulty reentering the job market after a lay-off. Leaders have responded with all of their traditional tools, but they are also trying some new ones. For example a diverse partnership jointly commissioned a study of the technology cluster to provide a shared body of knowledge and common set of strategies for colleges, economic and workforce development professionals, and city and county leaders from the public and private sectors.

Workforce leaders are also responding to what some call the “job mindset” which keeps many experienced workers from securing employment. Flexibility Bootcamps use peer learning, open space, improv, and other techniques to help job seekers identify and market their value to an enterprise, rather than their ability to do a specific job. Some even decide they can make their own jobs.

Uncommon Approaches

In our research we encountered dozens of examples of workforce leaders learning from policy innovations like crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, social innovation and entrepreneurship, “Gov2.0” initiatives, even “gameful” technologies, with the intent of engaging their communities in productive learning, work, enterprise, and problem-solving.

Most promising is the swell of interest in such solutions from leaders across sectors in communities everywhere. As innovators they demonstrate the potential of uncommon partnerships and a focus on significant, sustainable, and scalable experiments for remaking community prosperity.

They, you, us—we are the new WPA.


Photo Credit: DB's Travels on Flickr