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Workforce Services: A Challenged Landscape

A Fractured Ecosystem

As part of MemWorks, we gained a deeper understanding of the breakdowns in our city’s workforce development landscape. While we have many of the components, including more than 130 workforce services organizations, dozens of academic institutions, and thousands of people looking for work, a critical piece is missing. These workforce development organizations struggle to operate as an ecosystem.

Without support to facilitate the needed collaboration and coordination, our workforce resources operate in silos. The resulting gaps and inefficiencies hinder many Memphians in their pursuit of living-wage careers.

Geographic Mismatches

Only a small fraction of Memphis’ 130-plus workforce services organizations are located in the neighborhoods where the need for their support is greatest, such as South Memphis or Frayser.

  • Only 30 percent of workforce services providers are located in zip codes with the highest rates of unemployment in the Memphis Metropolitan area.
  • Workforce services in Memphis aren’t co-located. Participants have to travel between several different locations to have their workforce needs met.
  • No zip codes have providers that collectively offer all types of workforce development services.
Missing Support

When Memphians are able to access workforce organizations, many of the services they need are not available. Academic remediation programs that provide basic reading and math instruction would help over an estimated 100,000 people in need of these services in order to pursue good jobs. MemWorks uncovered fewer than 5 organizations in Memphis that provide these services. At capacity, these organizations meet less than 5% of the community’s need for these programs.

Very few organizations offer career assessments or aptitude matching. Lacking formal career exploration or exposure, some Memphians described cycling through many different industries, changing jobs frequently, and earning multiple unrelated certifications in a costly and time-intensive process to find something that stuck.

“No one ever really asked me what I was passionate about. . . . I wore a lot of hats, but it always seemed like none of them was the perfect fit or there was no one that tried to help me tailor the hat.”

– Memphis high-school graduate

Wraparound supports that are proven to effectively support students experiencing poverty are frequently limited or not available in local post-secondary and technical training institutions. This support includes career advising, tutoring, counseling, and ad hoc financial support. Without these supports, external and administrative hurdles can become insurmountable challenges that reduce their chances of graduating.

Reasons for Optimism

Despite the challenges outlined above, there is cause for optimism for Memphis’ workforce development ecosystem. The sheer volume of workforce services organizations is robust, and their doors are open to people seeking the necessary skills and certifications for employment. Virtually no organizations have local residency requirements, and at least 12 technical training organizations welcome participants without requiring a GED. Several workforce services nonprofits, in particular, provide strong wraparound support services to their program participants.

The components necessary for a thriving workforce ecosystem exist. As a community, we can improve the coordination of services and guide Memphians as they navigate the network of workforce services to successfully access jobs that pay a living wage. A vibrant, healthy workforce ecosystem is within reach if we take the necessary steps.

Workforce Services: A Challenged Landscape