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Notes from the Field

Getting our SWAG On

Cuyahoga County’s Strategic Workforce Alignment Group helps link employer needs with training curricula.

I recently told my 15-year-old daughter that the Cleveland Fed was hosting a SWAG meeting and she laughed. Her urban slang definition of “swag” is confidence and style—think the rapper Jay-Z. She apparently had a hard time imagining a swag gathering of this kind at the Fed. And who can blame her? In this case, SWAG stands for Strategic Workforce Alignment Group, an effort led by Cuyahoga County business leaders and workforce development agencies. SWAG and its component workgroups have been meeting throughout 2013 to figure out how to better align employer needs—in terms of skills for current and future jobs—and the curriculum of trainers, including nonprofit organizations, community colleges, and technical schools.

More than 70 employers attended the meeting at the Fed on October 28. The day began with a panel of large employers—RTA, Dominion East Ohio, University Hospitals, and a recruiting agency—whose representatives described their firms’ hiring challenges. These include an aging workforce; a pipeline of inadequately trained mid-skilled workers; high volumes of applicants for low-skill jobs; and difficulties achieving diversity. They also described how they addressed the lack of soft skills in their applicants, the re-entry (from prison) population, persons with disabilities, and incorporating newer certifications into hiring decisions. Soft skills are basically job readiness skills, such as showing up on time and being able to work on teams and interact with other people. Among prospective employees, panelists noted that ex-offenders and the disabled often face a variety of barriers to employment, including stigmas, although many companies that hire these populations attest to their work ethic and productivity. (See also our recent Fed Commentary, “The Employability of Returning Citizens is Key to Neighborhood Revitalization.”)

Breakout groups drilled down further. One session that focused on re-entry featured a potentially promising practice: the Edwin’s Leadership and Restaurant Institute, a recently opened culinary school that trains ex-offenders for jobs in the hospitality industry. The Institute helps applicants meet their basic needs, including housing and transportation, for the six-month training period to help ensure successful completion of their culinary education.

Challenges discussed at this SWAG meeting have also surfaced as themes from our outreach meetings and roundtables through the course of this year, as both Paul Kaboth and Joe Ott have described in previous “Notes” entries. Be sure to look for our future reports on the results of our research and outreach in both Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.