First Virtual Jobs and Workforce Summit a Success

On October 21st, the Workforce Solutions Group (of which MWA is an E-Team member) held its 11th Annual Jobs and Workforce Summit. The summit this year was held virtually, but that did not stop us from holding an informative and entertaining program, including some networking opportunities focused on timely topics.

The first speaker was Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, whose recorded remarks were inspiring and helped set the stage for the urgency with which we are all working to ensure that job seekers and businesses survive the economic turmoil we are currently in due to the pandemic. Following the Congresswoman, attendees heard from Malia Lazu, Founder of The Urban Labs and co-founder of the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund. Malia emphasized that our focus should be on building a stronger and more equitable economy than the one with which we entered the pandemic. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she quoted his words, “Through our scientific genius we made of the world a neighborhood, but we failed through moral commitment to make of it a brotherhood…” These words animated her energetic talk and her suggestions for business owners to consider developing employee funds, managed by third parties, so that workers who encounter short-term economic hardship can find financial support without judgement or fear of losing their job.

Christine Abrams, President of Commonwealth Corporation, moderated a panel discussion on “Upskilling in the time of COVID-19: What’s working?” Chris Albrizio-Lee, Executive Director of the MassHire Metro North Workforce Board; Aisha Francis, CEO of the Ben Franklin Institute of Technology (BFIT); and Mary Vogel, Executive Director of Building Pathways, Inc. each shared how they had to “pivot on a dime” after March to serve their students and customers. At Building Pathways, the pandemic offered an opportunity for a new partnership with Habitat for Humanity, so that students could get the hands on experience they needed while most other building projects were shut down or paused. Aisha shared how BFIT went from only 4 online courses before the pandemic to more than 300 online courses now. She highlighted that this tested their flexibility and creativity to serve their students in the ways they needed most. The pandemic has accelerated the technological disruption that has been coming with virtual training and learning. Finally, Chris talked about the inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and how the workforce board and career center are looking to help build economic resilience within the communities they serve so that customers can access the education and training programs they need for long-term self-sufficiency, not just surviving the current crisis.

Kaitlyn Bean, Senior Program Manager for SkillWorks at the Boston Foundation, facilitated a discussion on “Race Equity in Workforce Development: Big Picture and Front Line Strategies.” She was joined by Amanda Cage, CEO of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions and Dr. Mattie Castiel, Commissioner of Health and Human Services for the City of Worcester. Both women shared how interconnected the current public health crisis is with racism and economic inequities. Dr. Castiel offered examples of how her organization is looking to tackle social determinants of health, including preparing local adults and youth for employment opportunities that will keep them from entering or returning to the criminal justice system. Amanda shared the work that the National Fund is doing working with partnerships around the country, including employers, to talk about how to improve the quality of low-wage jobs, which are predominantly held by people of color.

The Massachusetts AFL-CIO’s Workforce Development Specialist, John Drinkwater, facilitated a fireside chat with Congressman Richie Neal and Andy Van Kleunen, CEO of the National Skills Coalition. Congressman Neal emphasized the importance of passing another stimulus package similar to the CARES Act, which addressed funding needs for unemployed workers, small businesses, and health care organizations hardest hit by the crisis. Andy talked about the work started before the pandemic on including workforce training into an infrastructure bill so that any investments in brick and mortar would also include investments in workers.

The program ended with a beautiful rendition of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free” performed by the Boston Public School Alumni All Stars. After the formal program ended there was a variety of thematic break outs, ranging from Race Equity in Workforce Development to Election Anxiety/Therapy. These offered opportunities for continued discussion and a chance to see some of the faces of the other attendees and hear about their work.

To watch a recording of the summit, click here. Follow the conversation held during the summit by going to #MAJobsSummit2020 on Twitter.

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