Since the early 1990s, we have been involved in designing and implementing a range of projects that have defined, evaluated and advanced industry-specific approaches to workforce development—what we have termed “sectoral” approaches. Very simply put, sectoral approaches to workforce challenges are strategies and programs that address problems that confront both individuals who seek better employment opportunity as well as employers who seek an appropriately skilled workforce. From the 1990s to mid-2000s, AspenWSI focused on defining and documenting the field of sectoral practice. Our efforts looked at dozens of sectoral initiatives in nonprofit organizations, community colleges, Workforce Investment Boards, government agencies and industry across the country. Hundreds of interviews were conducted with program leaders, training participants, industry partners, government and philanthropic stakeholders and others, and participants’ education and employment outcomes from many initiatives were analyzed. After publishing many findings and reports on “sector”, Aspen published Sectoral Strategies for Low-Income Workers: Lessons from the Field, which today stands as the defining publication of the sector approach. Today, sector language that encourages programs to adopt sector methods often appears in workforce legislation and requests for proposal. Yet, knowledge gaps remain and our work in “sector” that bridges knowledge from the supply side with the demand side in the labor market, continues to move forward and expand.
Our current research and activities continue to make the case for investment and support of workforce development and sector initiatives. AspenWSI’s research into the construction industry, now it its fourth year, is helping pre-apprenticeship programs improve their strategies and is informing policymakers and investors about how they can better understand and support these initiatives as well as the construction industry. As the sector strategy becomes more widely understood, AspenWSI is working to define another emerging field of practice known as C2E strategies, which combine the strengths of community colleges and nonprofits in partnership to help low-income individuals succeed in college and the labor market. For the last four years, AspenWSI documented and began defining C2E strategies through the Courses to Employment demonstration project that explored six community college-nonprofit partnerships that adopted a sectoral approach to serving low-income adults.
In the months and years to come, AspenWSI will continue to expand our efforts looking at how low-income adults can be better supported to succeed in community college, an institution many in our country are now relying on as a source of opportunity. At the same time, as sector strategies have become common, we see a renewed opportunity to explore and remind our stakeholders of issues of improving job quality for workers employed in traditionally low-wage sectors.