For Youth Job Training Programs to Work, Employers Must Have Skin in the Game

Sloane: First-of-its-kind workforce program is using $7.6 million in grants to increase employer investment and commitment in talent development.

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Employers often complain about how difficult it is to find talent for open positions or how education and training programs must better align to workforce needs. Meanwhile, education and training providers bemoan a general lack of clarity from employers on the skills necessary to secure employment. Taken together, this means workforce training programs have fallen short for both workers and employers. Innovation is needed to meet current and future talent needs.

Philanthropic investors can shift this paradigm by demanding that nonprofits partner with employers to make written commitments to underserved youth to provide full-time employment based on objective criteria, such as satisfactory completion of training milestones or other proof of mastery of necessary skills. Too often, employer partnerships — particularly involving young people who are out of work or not enrolled in school — carry minimal expectations for significant employer investment or involvement, allowing companies to benefit from training programs that do the heavy work of talent acquisition and development without having to make tangible contributions to those efforts. Funders must require more than superficial employer partnerships that offer little beyond internships and minimal direct involvement.

Heckscher Foundation for Children led such a paradigm shift with financial support for a first-of-its-kind workforce program using two-year grants to increase employer investment and commitment in talent development. Through the Heckscher Foundation Challenge, New York state and city colleges and nonprofit community-based organizations were invited to submit proposals, with employer partners, for meeting workforce needs in the state and boosting employment and earnings outcomes for young adults under 25 years of age.The application process required employer partners to commit to hiring, in writing.

The call for proposals in June 2023 was a resounding success; nearly 100 were received from across the state, culminating in a total of $7.6 million in support to 20 grantees and their employer partners. These ranged from community-based organizations such as Commonpoint Queens, The Door, East Side House, Henry Street Settlement, JCC of Staten Island and Say Yes Buffalo to established workforce programs like NPower, St. Nicks Alliance and Wildcat Services and specific industry training programs like Covenant House, Drive Change, Hot Bread Kitchen and Reel Works. The roster also counts three City University of New York colleges, three SUNY State University of New York colleges and one high school dedicated to career and technical education.

Along with the nearly 100 proposals came 234 employers that submitted letters committing to guarantee hires. They are geographically diverse, representing the entire state of New York, from New York City to rural locations. Employers were also diverse across industries and business sizes, ranging from companies with 10 or fewer employees to multinational corporations with over 90,000 workers. However, not all industries were represented, or on the leading edge of talent development, and there was limited involvement from several prominent New York industries, such as financial institutions. While the employer response to the Heckscher Foundation Challenge is to be commended, it should serve as a call to action for employers and industries that have yet to shift their partnership paradigm to a more direct and active role.

Industries encompassing applicants to the Heckscher Foundation Challenge:

Number of proposals received, by industry. “Other” includes pet grooming, agriculture and law enforcement (Heckscher Foundation Challenge)

The foundation required all grantees' applications to detail short- and long-term outcomes that the youth would accomplish to show how those goals would be carefully tracked and reported on through quarterly status calls. As of June 2024, the one-year anniversary of the grants, the majority of participants are on target to meet their training and hiring commitments. While some of the programs are still ongoing, with young people continuing to sign up or still working to complete their training, several have already seen multiple cohorts finish. Thus far, over 180 young people have completed training, with 98% earning industry-relevant certifications/credentials or passing required licensure exams. In addition, 98% of them secured full-time jobs with employer partners, with an 80% preliminary three-month retention rate in jobs that traditionally experience high turnover, such as food services.

To view the grantees and their employer partners, please visit the Heckscher Foundation Challenge training partners and employer partner webpages.

By funding programs that do not include job commitments from employers, philanthropic investors miss a critical opportunity to catalyze deeper, transformative change within organizations and the broader community. Without these higher standards, philanthropic funds are underutilized, perpetuating cycles of inequity, underemployment and minimal impact rather than fostering genuine, lasting progress in employment practices and community empowerment.

Disclosure: The Heckscher Foundation provides financial support to Maybach Media.

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