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Workforce startups targeting gaps between workers, training programs

Wednesday, June 6, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Last fall, Adam Chasen started looking at the many difficulties and inefficiencies Austin’s workplace training ecosystem has with linking up with prospective workers looking to move into higher-paying careers in fields like information technology and manufacturing. It became the mission of his startup company, KeyUp, which he hopes to build into a resource that local governments, colleges and business-focused nonprofits can use to more easily match workers to businesses needing skilled employees.

One of the biggest problems Chasen found right away was that information about training programs and associated resources is so diffuse and disorganized that workers looking to “level up” their career prospects have a hard time making a confident decision.

So, he admits the irony that he spent six months focused on starting and developing his business strategy before he learned about the existence of the Master Community Workforce Plan, a strategy released last June from Workforce Solutions Capital Area in partnership with Austin and Travis County that was created in large part to solve some of the same problems Chasen wants to solve.

If his business that was created to find and better distribute data about workforce training had such a hard time finding that data, he argues, how should average workers feel in any way optimistic about whatever information they are able to scrounge up?

“We are trying to communicate with people who are disconnected because the institutions that are there to support them have gone through generations of alienation,” he said. “How can (the institutions) build trust in communities that are disconnected and make it feel authentic, as opposed to top-down policies? Having meaningful opportunities for real feedback that creates actionable and visible outcomes would be a good start for people to see there’s a reason to trust the government.”

Chasen and founders of a handful other startups looking to address a portion of Austin’s middle-skill job gap have spent recent weeks learning how to more effectively run their businesses as members of Impact Hub Austin’s Workforce Development Accelerator. The program was started to give socially driven startups the tools and mentoring needed to focus their mission and build a sustainable business that can address a component of a larger social problem – helping low- and middle-class residents find jobs that pay them a livable wage.

The workforce master plan identified health care, IT and advanced manufacturing as the three sectors with the largest need for new workers, with the goal of training and elevating the job prospects for tens of thousands of area residents.

Ashley Stroud Phillips, managing director of Impact Hub, said her organization’s dive into addressing workforce issues has found a variety of programs and classes capable of providing enough training. It’s the gaps and incompatibility between them, she said, that is a large part of the problem.

“There’s not a pipeline problem. There’s a system problem, and Austin has an opportunity to invest in the workforce here,” she said. “We have some blind spots in how we’re growing the workforce, and I don’t think we’re that far away from it. There’s very easy ways to shore up the development of the talent that we aren’t looking at.”

Phillips said her goal is for Impact Hub to build enough successful companies to establish a track record that will allow it to become an auxiliary component of economic development programs for local governments. “I would love to be partnered with the city and country and be a funded resource to be a lab to create more efficiencies and opportunities at large,” she said. “I would love to be the platform to move forward the agenda that the city might not have the ability or bandwidth for.”

For now, the organization is focused on growing its first cohort of workforce-focused startups such as Central Texas Allied Health Institute, which was created to provide training for prospective X-ray and pharmaceutical technicians in addition to an assortment of other non-nursing health care roles.

Jereka Thomas-Hockaday co-founded the institute as a complement to her existing health care business, River City Assisting. She said Impact Hub mentors have provided valuable assistance in building her business plan and financial forecasts along with bringing opportunities to explore partnerships with health care systems Seton Healthcare Family, St. David’s HealthCare, and Baylor Scott & White Health.

Thomas-Hockaday said one of the most important problems that needs solving in local workforce issues is improving the completion rate of residents who enroll in job training but drop out because of family need or other obstacles.

“I was surprised how many people here start college but never finish because they had children or life issues that made them have to drop out,” she said. “Austin has done a great job of bringing in high-dollar citizens with tech jobs, but we’ve neglected middle-class and lower individuals who could contribute just as much if given a pathway and access to the education and training that they need.”

Photo by Kelsey Willard, Impact Hub Austin.

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