Demographic disparities

A Q&A with Amanda Cage

Elisabeth JacobsSeptember 30, 2020
Amanda Cage Headshot

Amanda Cage is the president and CEO of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, a national network of 30 partner organizations that advance a skilled workforce, promote good jobs, and invest in equitable outcomes. Amanda joined the National Fund in March 2020, bringing more than 20 years of federal workforce system, grant making, and organized labor experience to the organization. Throughout her career, Amanda has focused on ensuring economic inclusion and stability for workers and their families. Cage started her career as a labor organizer and was a Trade Union Program fellow at Harvard Law School. Amanda is an Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program 2017–18 Job Quality fellow and a 2019 Leadership Greater Chicago fellow.

In this interview with Elisabeth Jacobs, WorkRise’s interim executive director, we discussed how companies in the National Fund’s network are coping with the pandemic, how they’re applying a racial equity lens to workforce development, and how high-road employers are investing in their workers. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Elisabeth Jacobs: As CEO of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, what are you hearing from employers on their ability to keep workers safe and on the payroll?

Amanda Cage: Before the pandemic, we had a very tight labor market. What we heard was, “How do we get talent, and how do we make sure that we don’t lose talent to our competitors?” That dynamic has been flipped on its head. The response from many employers is now, “How do I make sure I can get these people back if I have to let them go?”

I think, for a lot of our employers, the vulnerability of their workers became apparent in a way that they didn’t see before. Employers in our network are developing novel solutions to support workers. A manufacturer in Wichita introduced a financial wellness program for employees that yielded amazing results: $900,000 worth of financial gain, in the form of increased savings or reduced debt. So, it turns out, these tools to rework how you do things internally make for a more resilient company—and a more resilient workforce.

EJ: The unpredictability of the pandemic suggests that in some cases, workers could be hired by their original employer and the scarring effects of losing a job could be minimized. How are you thinking about the ways we can keep workers connected to their employer or the workforce generally?

AC: What I learned being in workforce development through the last recession was that having a job and trying to get a job are two very different things. We had gainfully employed and highly skilled people who came through the workforce system but had been in their job for 20 years and had no idea how to interview or how to navigate an applicant tracking system on the internet, which were fundamental. Those things really matter when you’re trying to get a job. Dislocated workers, especially those with many years on the job, were really disadvantaged in not having the skills you actually need to find a new job—the networks, all of that kind of stuff. I’m afraid we might see something similar this time around.

EJ: Much of the focus of the work development field has been on closing skills gaps among workers. Others would diagnose the problem as employers not wanting improve job quality or raise wages. What are your thoughts on this?

AC: In the time I’ve been involved in the workforce development field, we have moved from a rapid reemployment strategy—just get people a job—to a skills-based strategy, where we invest money in helping people get the skills to get into good jobs. But in both situations, we’d accepted that there are bad jobs. In the second strategy, which is where I think the workforce development field currently sits, we’ve said it’s okay if there are bad jobs, as long as we give workers a way to get out of them. We need to operate from the premise that it is not okay to have bad jobs. This is critically important, especially as we move into a time of scarcity and high unemployment, where issues of credential inflation and all the things we know come with a recession will be at play.

We are currently dealing with the ramifications of the “best” labor market we’ve had since any of us can remember. Most people were working, but we put them on such a shaky foundation—which has been a disaster. I hope some of the national awakening we’ve seen around inequality, especially as it relates to race in this country, has ignited ideas that will help us really tackle that issue. We’re not going make much progress if we accept that it’s okay to build our entire economy on the expectation that there are crappy jobs.

We need to operate from the premise that it is not okay to have bad jobs. This is critically important, especially as we move into a time of scarcity and high unemployment, where issues of credential inflation and all the things we know come with a recession will be at play.

EJ:  When you say, “No more bad jobs,” how do you define what a “good job” is?

AC: At the National Fund, we’ve put together a good job framework detailing the elements of what makes a good job, and it’s broad. It includes wages, working conditions, opportunity for advancement, worker voice. As an organization that works across industries, we’ve seen those pieces can come together in different ways for different industries. We’re having internal conversations about what a job-quality floor looks like.

In my work over the decades, I can say a good job is not one-size-fits-all. Part of what I appreciate about the National Fund’s framework is that it recognizes constraints and offers flexibility. You may be a small business that will never be able to pay really high wages or may never be able to provide health benefits because you’ve got five employees and are essentially locked out of that system. But that doesn’t mean you’re a bad employer. There are ways we can think about meeting employers where they are and helping them maximize the quality of their jobs, given the kind of employer they are, their industry, the local labor market, and their values. We need a floor, but I think once you establish that floor, there’s a lot of different ways it can go.

EJ:  I know you and the National Fund are engaged on the issue of breaking down racially unjust barriers to opportunity. How are you applying a racial equity lens to the fund’s work and how workforce development systems specifically can dismantle the structural racism in our labor market?  

AC: Currently, there’s no explicit solution or action to dismantle racial discrimination in the workforce field, and that needs to change. I think if you ask career coaches or job developers or people who run workforce programs, they will acknowledge there is a race dynamic around what kind of workers end up in what kind of jobs, whether that has to do with social networks or the way job postings are marketed.

Having research that helps us understand the dynamics of occupational segregation would be helpful. Occupational segregation as an impediment to mobility is something we haven’t even scratched the surface of. Although employers, especially in corporate America, have done work on implicit bias, occupational segregation is a deeper issue that needs to be tackled.

The National Fund is working closely with PolicyLink’s National Equity Atlas to look closely at disaggregated data around occupations in industries in 5 job markets across the United States. We are digging into these data with other stakeholders who are part of the workforce development ecosystems. Seeing the racial dynamics of your workforce fundamentally changes the way you think about things—especially when it’s stark and right in front of you.

We are also inviting stakeholders to come together and identify strategies to address these racial dynamics and disparities. Between now and early next year, we will be releasing those reports, which contain both the data and the strategic responses from those communities. In other words, we’re both revealing the problem and understanding what resources we need to solve it.

I think delving into disaggregated data can be instructive in so many different spaces. The National Fund is doing it locally by looking at a workforce ecosystem, but employers can do similar things with internal audits around the racial dynamics of positions and pipelines within their organizations. We need to look at policies that seem to be race neutral but aren’t at all.

EJ: Earlier you mentioned financial wellness as a way employers can support economic security for workers. How do you relate the concepts of wealth, racial equity, and mobility?

AC: We spend a lot of time talking about wages, and maybe about benefits, an even a little bit about assets. But for economic mobility, wealth plays a much bigger role, and I think we tend not to think about that within the worker context. When it comes to asset and wealth building for people of color, the things we tell them to do to build wealth can sometimes cause harm.

I worked for a couple years on a project that was all about getting adults who had dropped out of college to finish their degrees. Across the board, these folks were told to make sure they go to college, do what they need to do to scrape money together to do it, and move forward. And they were often in worse financial shape after starting a degree program. Many people ended up digging themselves into a financial hole—with educational debt being the thing that brought them down—and still never getting a degree.

I think delving into disaggregated data can be instructive in so many different spaces. The National Fund is doing it locally by looking at a workforce ecosystem, but employers can do similar things with internal audits around the racial dynamics of positions and pipelines within their organizations. We need to look at policies that seem to be race neutral but aren’t at all.

EJ: What research do you and other workforce development practitioners need to do your jobs better?

AC: Much of workforce development is based on the fundamental premise of career pathways. I’ve been in the workforce development field for 15 years, and I’m still not sure we have figured out career pathways. We have this logic around stackable credentials, and we have programs that train people. But we haven’t had access to good information about people’s actual career progressions. Are these career pathways really how it happens in the real world? Because if not, we’ve built a lot of our work on an incorrect premise.

EJ: Do you see the confluence of events—the disparate impacts of COVID-19 and the protests against all forms of racial injustice, as well as greater dialogue about inequality—pushing employers to rethink their obligations to workers? 

AC: We’ve seen a dialogue emerge out of the proclamation about stakeholder capitalism from the Business Roundtable. Some employers are putting actions behind their Black Lives Matter statements. I think there needs to be conversations about what the responsibilities of employers are in these spaces.

In industry partnerships, you’ll see high-road employers working together to change some of the conditions within the industry. What doesn’t work is for one employer to take a risk and pay the price for something the rest of the people in their industry are not doing. I think the pandemic has created a shared sense of urgency, an openness to try new things. Maybe it is employers stepping up to say, “Hey, I haven’t been willing to say this in public, but maybe having a minimum-wage floor would actually be useful in some way, because it removes a competitive constraint we just don’t need to fight over anymore.”

What I see is the appetite of employers who want to do the right thing or rethink what they’ve been doing—and that is big. There are some employers who really, truly care about and want to invest in their employees. Employers didn’t know things were so hard for their employees, whether related to economic security or racial tension. But their eyes have opened up to it. Well then, let’s make it easy for them to do better, and let’s give them a forum to learn from each other.