For some, the U.S. economy is humming along: unemployment is at its lowest level since before the Great Recession, wages are improving, and the current economic expansion is poised to become the second-longest period of economic growth in our nation’s history. That’s all good news.
At the same time, there are many people who face financial uncertainty. For them, the American Dream remains far out of reach. They’re unsure about where they fit into today’s economy.
During my time as mayor of Albuquerque, we sought to create an economy that left no one behind. We worked collaboratively within our community and tried a number of approaches. Some worked better than others, so as our national and local leaders look for solutions to shared economic challenges, it’s worth shining a light on an example of what worked here in Albuquerque.
In 2013, we launched Talent ABQ to open up the hiring process to more people. We started with the understanding that some people simply don’t have the opportunity to spend years working toward a higher education degree – especially in distressed communities. We then built on our belief that the lack of a college degree shouldn’t be a barrier to a well-paying job, especially if you have the requisite skills to do that job well. Data shows that there are many people who cannot check the box for a college diploma but can still score very high for the skill sets needed by employers and for their ability to learn on the job.
Through Talent ABQ, we leveraged $200,000 and a matching foundation grant to set up sites around the city and encouraged people to take free tests to evaluate their current skill sets. We then recruited more than 100 partner employers who had traditionally taken the approach that a college degree was necessary for employment within their organization. They were asked to re-think skills-based hiring, and many did. To set the example, we used skills-based criteria to hire hundreds of people within city government, and in just two years we added more than 500 people to the city workforce through Talent ABQ. For those test takers who needed some skill refreshers, we worked with Central New Mexico Community College, libraries and other public facilities to open “skill-up” centers. By offering creative workforce development tools to people at sites all over the city, we were able to bring together our community’s resources to serve as a model for economic opportunity for low-income and financially insecure people. And it worked. We really did create better opportunities in Albuquerque for people who needed them.
Albuquerque is not alone in recognizing that even during the recovery from the Great Recession, middle-class wages in many areas are largely stagnant, and real wages for low-income workers have declined over the past 30 years. Some communities are struggling with automation and the changing nature of work as their economies disproportionately continue to produce low-paying, unpredictable jobs.
Albuquerque is not alone as a place where intentional efforts are being made to create economies where opportunity is strong and rising. A study by economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman and Nathaniel Hendren spotlighted a number of other communities where children born in poverty have a better chance of building a better life for themselves and their families – the proverbial American Dream. Places like Salt Lake City, Utah and Bucks County, Penn., are creating the types of environments where economic mobility is open to more people.
So how do we take what’s working in Albuquerque and other communities – whether it’s programs, economic development strategies or other approaches – and introduce them to more places?
That’s an important question, and it’s the big idea behind the Communities Thrive Challenge, a partnership between The Rockefeller Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The Communities Thrive Challenge is a $10-million funding opportunity to identify, strengthen and lift up community-driven approaches all across America.
Programs like Talent ABQ and other meaningful initiatives in cities around the country can lift people up and create real opportunity. This can only happen if they are taken to scale nationally. I’m serving on the Expert Panel of the Communities Thrive Challenge to help ensure that other standout solutions like ours get the support they need so everyone has the opportunity to learn about what’s working in communities across the country.
It’s an important sign of progress that two major philanthropies want to learn directly from communities about the economic programs and ideas that are making an impact at the local level. There’s a lot of work to do to get where we want to be as places of opportunity – so let’s join together and tap into local solutions that spur real change for more people.
Richard J. Berry served two terms as mayor of Albuquerque.