Empowering Futures: Insights on Workforce Development Programs

Workforce development plays a pivotal role in fostering economic growth and development in our community and equipping people with the necessary skills to contribute to a resilient and competitive workforce. Rose Community Foundation recently held a learning session to explore the opportunities and challenges within workforce development in the Greater Denver region and how individual donors can support this work. 

The panel included representatives from three Foundation grantee organizations; TeRay Esquibel, executive director of Ednium: The Alumni Collective; Maria Gonzalez, founder and CEO of Adelante Community Development; and Helen Young Hayes, founder and CEO of ActivateWork. Their organizations work to increase financial security, dismantle generational cycles of poverty, and grow assets for individuals and communities furthest from opportunity. 

“While the significant growth of the Greater Denver region presents tremendous opportunities, it also exacerbates many longstanding challenges. At the root of these challenges lies the reality that the benefits of this growth are not equitably experienced across racial, gender, economic and geographic lines,” says Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, Rose Community Foundation president and CEO. “Philanthropy has an important role to play in addressing barriers to workforce access, creating pathways to connect people with opportunities and building a more inclusive community.”  

Current Challenges 

While there is data indicating our regional workforce is thriving, the reality is that many obstacles exist that impede Coloradans’ equitable access to quality job opportunities. These include barriers to digital literacy, immigration policies that complicate job searches for newcomers and the ongoing decline in the labor force as older workers retire. And while Colorado is one of the most educated states in the country, there is more to be done to ensure students receive the necessary career and technical training for success in tomorrow’s workplace. 

TeRay believes there is a disconnect beginning within the educational system. “I think we often mistake outputs for outcomes. If you look at the school system and how we are measuring success on the front end, we’re measuring graduation rates, attendance rates – a lot of inputs and outputs,” says TeRay. “The way we measure success is focused on institutional needs rather than people’s individual outcomes.” 

Maria acknowledges that, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, the digital landscape is evolving at a pace that is difficult to keep up with through traditional teaching methods. Entrepreneurs often face challenges when attempting to digitize their businesses; maintaining a website can be costly, and some entrepreneurs may not fully grasp the benefits of promoting their business online. “Latinos in Colorado, particularly those who are Spanish-speaking, are often completely left behind,” she says. 

Helen acknowledges that over the past four years, the pandemic and the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence have accelerated the future of work beyond what was previously imagined. “We are now in a knowledge-based economy, with remote work, cloud-based systems automation and artificial intelligence,” says Helen. “This has resulted in a rapid obsolescence of skills and the need for workers to constantly reinvent themselves.”  

Solutions in Action  

Ednium: The Alumni Collective works with Denver Public Schools alumni to change the way that school systems educate and reinvest in local talent. They aim to set students up for success not just by achieving the grades needed to graduate from higher education but by obtaining the skills to thrive beyond graduation. 

“Just because a student has graduated doesn’t mean they have all the skills that they need –  especially our first-generation students,” says TeRay. “As a community, our success should be measured by the ability of our children to thrive and contribute meaningfully to our city. Otherwise we are building a house of cards.” 

TeRay thinks that financial security is the first step towards additional metrics of personal success. “Once you establish financial stability, it increases your ability to improve your mental and physical health, build positive relationships and have a sense of purpose and self,” he says. “It’s more than connecting people to a job or living wage – it’s fundamentally changing the way people are able to interact with the world.” 

ActivateWork connects diverse, qualified talent with potential employers through skills training, community resources, individual coaching and professional development. Helen reinforced the benefits of investing in workers through rapid credentialing initiatives, which allow people to acquire the necessary skills to sustain jobs, contribute to the economy and experience economic mobility. Helen recently worked with a learner who immigrated to the United States with a master’s degree in information technology but struggled to find employment. After graduating from the ActivateWork program, she successfully found full-time employment with a competitive wage. 

How to Support Workforce Development Initiatives  

In addition to financial contributions to local nonprofit organizations, the panelists emphasized the need to build connections with employers to expand networks and help with creating the infrastructure to measure success based on life outcomes. By continuing to collaborate and innovate, a path can be paved for a more inclusive and thriving workforce, empowering individuals and strengthening our community. Learn more about Foundation grantees that are addressing workforce development in the Greater Denver region. 

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