This month, Danielle Skidmore, who’s running for the Austin City Council’s District 9 spot, will be moderating a series of conversations to address solutions to city-wide challenges posed by population growth, climate change, and the changing workforce. The four-part series, deemed “Innovation for a Better Austin”, will include panelists from a variety of industries, including tech, workforce development, education, and other community-focused endeavors.
These conversations directly align with Skidmore’s campaign platform, which is “accessibility, mobility, sustainability, and equity”. A civil engineer and board member of Austin’s LGBTQ Quality of Life Advisory Commission, Skidmore has been a staunch advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights for years. If she wins District 9 this November, she will also become the first openly transgender person in Austin to serve on the City Council.
The first event in the Innovation for a Better Austin series took place last week at Impact Hub. Entitled “Growing a Stronger Workforce”, the esteemed panel included Aaron Hill (Director of Programs at Skillpoint Alliance), Mary Hannah Duhon (Co-Founder of KeyUp), Dashelle Fabian (Program Manager at the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas), and Impact Hub’s own Ashley Phillips.
Skidmore started the conversation by asking the panelists to define workforce development. “Workforce development is something much larger than job training”, Hill responded, citing the importance of ESL classes, apprentice programs, and mentorship opportunities when it comes to successfully matching middle-skill workers with available jobs.
Phillips echoed this. “We should be focused on the communities we’re developing and giving people agency in their own lives, not just handing out certifications,” she said. In other words, it’s not enough to solely provide job training. To truly grow local economies, a more holistic approach is critical.
Phillips helmed Impact Hub’s recent Workforce Development Accelerator with that exact goal in mind. This year, the accelerator worked with nine startups to help them gain the tools and community partnerships necessary to more effectively tackle job creation for lower-income workers in Austin. One of those startups was KeyUp, a web platform that empowers people from low-income backgrounds to attain middle-class careers—no pricey four-year degree required.
When asked about the definition of workforce development, KeyUp’s co-founder, Mary Hannah Duhon, used the term “people development” to stress the importance of providing infrastructure and support for workers, to ensure their success. This is also KeyUp’s mission, whose endeavors include connecting potential students to associate degree programs, certifications, and apprenticeships, as well as offering career training and support services.
Fabian cited the Literacy Coalition’s increased focus on holistic workforce development. The Literacy Coalition currently offers free vocational training, ESL lessons, and workforce prep courses for qualified students, in addition to a host of other career development initiatives. “We’re moving towards a whole-family aspect and getting parents job training, as well,” she said.
Later, talk turned to higher education, with the panelists discussing where a traditional four-year degree fits into the modern workforce. With college tuitions skyrocketing in the U.S., and dream-killing student loan debt bypassing nearly all other kinds of debt, it’s a conversation the whole country should be having.
“You can be successful without it,” Phillips said. “Higher education is great, but it’s also not the be-all, end-all solution, and it does not have to be the hugest foundation for our workforce.”
“It’s time to reclaim pride for certain industries. The pendulum has swung way too hard to ‘Everyone has to go to college. And now we don’t have a pipeline of folks who do these middle-skill jobs,” Hill agreed.
Hannah Duhon cited the need to change this cultural mindset from a young age. “Workforce development needs to reach down into K-12, to reach the younger people who still think that a four-year degree is the highest goal,” she said.
Skidmore’s next question dealt with Austin’s historically low unemployment rate. That figure, which is currently at 3.1 percent, has been widely praised—but, as the panelists pointed out, there’s more to the story than just job growth.
For instance, local economists and labor experts report that the city’s unemployment numbers reflect a mismatch between skills desired by employers and skills held by those looking for work. Job creation is indeed booming, but many candidates are coming from outside of the Austin area. “Austin creates middle-skill jobs, but we don’t match Austinites to them,” Phillips said. “Why does Austin not think Austin can do that?”
An affordability crisis is also at the heart of the problem. In an American urban tale as old as time, Austin’s marginalized communities and low-income workers have been getting pushed out for years due to increasingly astronomical living costs. “The most vulnerable people [in Austin] have been forced to move out of the city,” Hannah Duhon added.
Last year, in conjunction with Capital Area Workforce Solutions, the city sought to address these concerns with their creation of the Master Community Workforce Plan. Praised by the panelists, the Master Community Workforce Plan provides a concrete framework for changing Austin’s workforce landscape and strengthening the community. The plan’s ultimate goal is to help 10,000 economically disadvantaged residents secure middle-skill jobs by 2021.
Skidmore ended the event by asking for panelists’ final thoughts on the future of workforce development. The mood was decidedly hopeful.
“The reason I’m working on this is because there’s so much energy around it. It cuts across political lines. It’s all about making genuine change for the better in our society. There’s such a possibility to make a change,” Hannah Duhon said.
Phillips concurred. “Focusing on workforce development—and by workforce, I mean individuals—is the single biggest way we can change our systems of oppression. It’s the only way we can change these systems that keep us divided. If we can give people a way to empower themselves, there’s no more honorable thing for us to focus on.”
Join the conversation! Attend the Innovation for a Better Austin series this month.
Justine Harrington is a freelance journalist, essayist, and copywriter for travel and lifestyle brands based in Austin. Her work has appeared in Fodor's, Backpacker, USA Today, the Austin-American Statesman, Austin Monthly, Austin Woman, Misadventures Magazine, and elsewhere.