Workforce Boards Highlight their Value in the Pandemic

The Capital Area Workforce Development Board (CAWDB) and Durham Workforce Development Board (DWDB) are the primary organizations responsible for workforce programming in the Triangle region, coordinating and providing services to businesses, adult job seekers, dislocated workers, youth, justice-involved individuals, veterans, and other individuals and organizations. They are part of the larger workforce system and collaborate closely with regional and statewide partners.

The abrupt job losses in 2020 were a stress test for the Workforce Boards, who shifted their service delivery and strategy to address the new needs of a large segment of the adult population out of work and looking for work. Their response shows the importance of Workforce Boards for economic development and how they will form part of the recovery.

The pandemic disrupted the workforce in new ways:

The COVID pandemic abruptly drove the unemployment rate in the Triangle to over 11% in April 2020, with over 107,000 adults unemployed and an additional 116,000 leaving the labor force when compared to two months earlier. It was the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Recession of 2008, but Workforce Boards saw a lower-than-expected demand for services and a large gap between jobseekers and businesses hiring:

  • Fewer workers seeking services when compared to 2008-2010: In the Great Recession, Workforce Boards saw lines around the building and high demand for retraining but in 2020 demand for services (mainly virtual and telephone) did not increase to the same degree seen in previous downturns. They noted several reasons for the lack of demand, including large portion of the labor force that was not planning to return to work in the near-term or that was confident that they would return to work once their workplaces reopened.
  • Many unfilled positions in key industries: Throughout the pandemic in 2020, there were continuous openings for jobs in warehousing, construction & trades, transportation, logistics, health care and social services, and manufacturing. Employers posting jobs online and through virtual hiring events struggled with a lack of applicants and challenges retaining employees. Many adults left the labor force for childcare responsibilities, and that burden was most felt by women[1]. For other jobseekers, the concern over health risks of in-person work discouraged applying. Workforce boards acknowledged many openings were in industries with demanding in-person work, specialized skills, and sometimes below-average wages, dissuading jobseekers from applying.

Workforce Boards responded in their service delivery:

CAWDB and DWDB responded in service delivery and operations to meet the needs of jobseekers and businesses. The flow of workers, employers, and service offerings continued in 2020 at a similar pace as in 2019 and the Workforce Boards continued to provide services with some changes including:

  • Shifts to online services and limited in-person services: Social distancing and pandemic precautions led Workforce Boards to expand online options quickly to provide services. These included adding staff to online services such as AccessNCWorks and holding frequent hiring events via online platforms, which quickly replaced the large annual career fairs held in the Triangle. Workforce Boards have since reopened their doors for limited services, including providing access to the internet to apply for jobs and space for youth programs and temporary food and rental assistance.
  • Emphasis that they were not the unemployment office: One immediate challenge in the first few months of the pandemic was responding to daily requests for unemployment insurance. Callers did not realize that the Workforce Board was not the unemployment office, and the Workforce Board recognized a need to better market itself and emphasize what services it provided.

Workforce boards shifted in their strategy…

In addition to shifts in service delivery, some strategic shifts were accelerated by the pandemic to address the urgent needs and uncertainty around resources.

  • Better coordination across regions: Workforce Boards used the crisis as a call to better coordinate with other Workforce Boards, private sector firms, economic development agencies, community colleges, public agencies, and others to maximize use of available resources.
  • Reaching more out-of-work adults: The online and virtual services being provided are an opportunity to reach adults who would not have otherwise been able to travel to a hiring or training event. They also have needed to reach out to adults who left the labor force in the pandemic due to the many challenges around finding work and balancing health and caregiving.
  • Intentional connection with economic development health: Workforce Boards often struggle with being on the outside of the conversation around economic development across the country. Economic development and Workforce Boards actively recognized the importance of coordination as the pandemic exacerbated workforce challenges and placed a new urgency on skills development for unemployed adults looking to transition to a new industry.

… and will continue to use many of the changes in the near- and long-term.

The Workforce Boards in the Triangle are planning to adapt many of the changes from the pandemic into their work in the future. In addition to greater coordination with regional partners and economic development entities, they see the value in some changes to their programming, including:

  • Continued use of online tools: All those interviewed agreed that the increased use of online tools was a change that would remain in the future. It has broken down barriers such as transportation, childcare, health, and time constraints that many jobseekers face to attend an in-person event. They noted that this emphasizes the importance of quality, high-speed Internet access for economic mobility.
  • Revamped youth programming: Durham was unable to run its traditional Summer Youthworks program in 2020 and plans to use this coming summer to energize and expand its youth summer employment program. With a large share of high-risk students falling behind in virtual schooling, the Workforce Board and its partners see the urgency to invest in summer youth career readiness.
  • Push towards proactive programming: Like nearly all public and private sector organizations, the Workforce Boards did not have a blueprint for how to react to a pandemic and unprecedented economic crisis. While all interviewed said that the Workforce Boards were able to adapt and run their programming to some degree of normalcy, it took several months of figuring out how to work and what the needs were. Their model for response had come from lessons learned in the 2008 recession, but the reaction from jobseekers and companies has been very different in 2020-2021. They are using this moment as a call to be proactive and push for better coordination with partners, more investment in youth programming, and effective marketing of their value and their services.

Workforce Boards are showing their value to economic development.

Strategically, CAWDB and DWDB are seeing this disruption as a call to better coordinate with economic development in the Triangle Region. The region’s continued growth will rely on high-skill industries including health care, IT, life science, construction and skilled trades, and advanced manufacturing as evidenced by the recent investment announcements (Fujifilm Diosynth, Google) and ongoing growth in high-tech industries. The Workforce Boards have the potential to play a central role in addressing the needs of companies looking for skilled work and the needs of jobseekers looking to re-enter the workforce and to find work. They anticipate an uptick in hiring across all industries and upcoming events for hospitality jobs as the Triangle region moves past the pandemic and travel and events resume.  

[1] https://fortune.com/2021/02/13/covid-19-women-workforce-unemployment-gender-gap-recovery/


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