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Changing Public Sector Hiring Can Make California’s Job Market Better For Everyone

California’s public sector is the second largest employer in the state, employing over 2.3 million people, but it could be bigger. The public sector is the only part of California’s economy that hasn’t returned to its pre-pandemic levels of employment, and everything from big state agencies to small towns are struggling to fill roles. Millions of people in California are looking for work, and the public sector has good jobs to offer them.

But how can we connect the supply with the demand?

That’s the question asked by a new report, The Road to Optimizing California’s Public Sector Labor Market, released by Calbright College and labor market analysis partner Lightcast. On May 30, Calbright President Ajita Talwalker Menon hosted a roundtable discussion with experts and state leaders to discuss the report’s findings, how they could be used to generate innovative approaches, address equity challenges, and create opportunities for progress.

The event featured Menon; Adele Burnes, Deputy Chief of the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards; Abby Snay, Deputy Secretary for the Future of Work at the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency; and Arnie Sowell Jr., Executive Director of NextGen Policy. 

The panel was moderated by Binh Do, director of research at Calbright College, and Ken Spence, a senior policy advisor at NextGen Policy.

A Statewide Struggle – And Opportunity Everywhere

The problem of un-and-underemployed Californians who need better opportunities is statewide, Do noted in her introduction of the report. San Joaquin, Greater Los Angeles, and the Inland Empire are very different parts of California, but they have the highest numbers of underutilized workers. 

At the same time, the report found that half of California’s underutilized workers have skills that 30% of the available public sector jobs need. That presents a significant opportunity. But many of these workers who have the right skills can’t apply for the jobs because they don’t have the official credentials the state requires.

Fortunately at least 21 states, including California, are revisiting degree requirements for government jobs – and the efforts are growing.  

Menon noted that the current system doesn’t effectively take the needs of all its users into account. “As a state and as a nation we have large gaps in our understanding of how underserved communities are actually experiencing the labor market. So we’re seeking to better understand labor market realities, but from the lens of the job seeker as well as employers,” she said. “We see this report as really crucial to have a foundation to help us surface new solutions that are anchored in being responsive to the needs of both employers and job seekers.”

How To Hire For Skills

“The adoption of skills based, or skills first, hiring is wonderful in concept and it’s slow in adoption,” Snay said. “When we think of what we might be able to do to make this shift more of a reality for employers, I’ve been thinking about four different steps.”

  1. Increasing awareness of the option. Right now too few companies know there are ways to evaluate job seekers’ skills beyond the degree they hold. 
  2. Finding ambassadors to industry, and within organizations, who champion this approach.
  3. Changing hiring practices up and down organizations to normalize the fact that employees can be qualified without holding a traditional degree.
  4. Improving the technology in hiring systems. Right now automated programs that screen resumes only look for degrees held and a narrow range of other qualifications. That can be changed to expand the pool of qualified applicants and let more highly quality job seekers in.

This year Governor Gavin Newsom called for a master plan for career education in California, and Snay said that one solution to these issues is already under discussion: “a career passport that could be a tool to identify skills that have been achieved in education and the workplace.” That would make it easy to identify what potential employees have learned and mastered on the job, in the military, and in school. 

“So we’re talking about some really big changes,” Snay said.

This means collaboration across a variety of industries and institutions. “Tactical collaborations and partnerships will get us to further the goal,” Menon said. “It’s not just a set of policies and practices, but also a shifting of mindsets in organizations, and that’s best accomplished when we’re in the field doing that work together.”

Getting Paid To Learn On The Job

The panel also discussed the potential for apprenticeships to change the employment landscape. 

Burnes called apprenticeships “an earn and learn on-ramp into a career.”

“An apprenticeship is a job,” she emphasized. “Somebody is working and earning, and that’s important because a lot of folks can’t afford to not be earning. And they certainly can’t afford to be going into debt for college. This can be 18 and 19 year olds, but it also can be people in mid-career who need to make a transition, and they can’t afford to not be earning while they learn and re-skill.”

While the idea of companies, or public agencies, paying people to learn on the job might seem a stretch, in fact a number of occupations and industries already have large scale apprenticeship programs that work.

Firefighters, for example, have the single largest apprenticeship program in the country. Correctional facilities and have another large scale system for peace officers. “There are some very well established corners of public sector employment that have used apprenticeship for a long time,” Burnes said.

Snay agreed that apprenticeships could be a game changer for California. “Apprenticeships are such a key tool,” she said. “Figuring out ways that people can enter state service as apprentices would make a huge difference.”

The Role That Colleges Can Play

Calbright is an innovative college that is on the forefront of developing alternative credentials that are valued by employers. As a result, Menon has a clear view of what both higher education and private industry have to do to make newer, better, systems work.

“When we look under the hood a little bit more closely, what we see is each side of the marketplace has some work to do,” she said. “On the higher education side of this equation it is absolutely about collaborating around identifying the right skills and aligning to the needs that are present in industry, and also about trying to see around the bend a little bit for the types of durable skills that allow folks to navigate throughout their career. We’ll need to make that easier in higher education with new models and new opportunities for new folks to have experiences and learning opportunities that are a better fit for the life realities that they’re navigating.”

But industry also has work to do. “The demand side of the marketplace is fairly opaque in many cases, especially in the private sector of the marketplace, as to what really conditions hiring,” Menon said. “What do we need to understand about what the barriers to hiring actually look like? And what do we as educators and educational institutions need to understand about that? How can we contribute support to what needs to be addressed to make the marketplace on the demand side work more functionally? To better connect the needs of employers with  job seekers?”  

Panelists agreed that the public sector presents an opportunity to change the way hiring works, because for all that public sector hiring can be slow and cumbersome, it is also transparent: If hiring changes in the public sector, it will be clear to everyone what changes are and aren’t working. If innovation works, the private sector will follow.

“We need employers to also be first movers, in the sense of taking on new ways of hiring,” Sowell of NextGen said. “New pathways, new processes. There are several different entities that are out there within government and the like that have gone down the apprenticeship pathway, have gone down other pathways, and we need additional people in the systems to understand what those models can lead to, the efficacy of those models, to trust those models, and also to bring to the table other things that might be tried and true or lend themselves to success. We need some additional first movers.”

Changing the way the public sector hires to be more inclusive and skills based can not only get more people jobs and fill more crucial roles, it has the potential to model changes across industries, making the job market as a whole more fair and accessible. 

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