EmpACT Design and Evaluation

The challenge

Job training programs are a popular strategy to help people find quality jobs and increase their wages. But workerers often face an opportunity gap, not always a skills gap. Job training is important, but programs tend to be built on the assumption that marginalized people lack technical and soft skills and must be taught how to adhere to dominant workplace culture.

Frontline employees regularly demonstrate a keen ability to learn and adapt on the job. Their ability to solve problems, communicate, and work as a team are the coveted soft skills needed to traverse the volatile nature of work in a fragile economic recovery.

We must confront the outdated mindset that frontline jobs are “easy” and workers are “unskilled”. Referring to workers as “unskilled labor” creates a narrative bias that can cause employers to miss and undervalue the efforts of frontline workers. Even the terms “low-wage work” and “low-wage workers” reinforce the bias that frontline employees do not bring valuable skills to the job and that it is inevitable that these jobs pay low-wages. Frontline workers are valuable and essential, not replaceable or sacrificial.

Key Insights 

  • Frontline workers regularly demonstrate empathy, interpersonal skills, time tradeoffs, and quality control. In high-stakes fields like health care, childcare, and permanent supportive housing, staff de-escalate conflicts, practice trauma-informed care, and respond to physical and mental health crises. To have healthy companies and communities, it is imperative that frontline employees are valued and compensated with living wages that reflect the skills they bring to work.
  • While an important contribution, organizational policies and procedures alone do not hold the promise of repeatable, ongoing safety for a simple reason: they miss factoring in frontline workers’ humanity. Without continuous learning, practice, teamwork, and input from frontline staff responsible for implementing safety precautions, even the best safety training and guidelines, will only yield temporary results.
  • Frontline staff often lament that leadership doesn’t listen or trust their ability to effectively do their job. When frontline workers have the opportunity to engage with leadership, to provide feedback and understand the intention behind policies, they are more willing to work together. When frontline workers are given the opportunity to contribute or provide feedback, policies are effective and feasible, achieving the standardization and compliance that employers seek and creating a work environment where everyone can thrive.
  • “When people have lived experience, you can’t replicate or teach it. They stay committed, have compassion and understand the big picture” says Andrea Carnes, Deputy Director of Plymouth Housing. When employees feel their work is meaningful and their personal skill sets are valued by the organization, they are likely to stay with the organization.

Strategies and Recommendations

The Prosperity Agenda offers three strategies for employers who want to increase safety, reduce turnover, and contribute to a resilient economic recovery.

  1. Increase worker resilience through wages and benefits
  2. Invest in safety through relationships, not just protocols
  3. Engage employees through meaningful, not menial work

Read the Strategy Brief to find out more

Tools and resources

Based on our research with over 200 frontline workers, managers, and leaders, we designed and tested empACT: Employment as a Practice, an employee development program that builds on the skills and relationships frontline staff already have.

There are no employee handbooks or training that can outline every scenario frontline staff might face. Therefore, ongoing spaces for staff to share, process, and reflect on their experiences are essential. empACT:Employment as a Practice combines these practices with targeted communication and teamwork skill building to create pathways for career advancement.

The essential components of empACT are available for immediate and free use

Introduction to EmpACT

Part 1: First Day Kit

Part 2: Team Meeting Agenda

Part 3: Mission Board

What’s Next

  1. Join the national Fight for $15 minimum wage
  2. Organize with Working Washington or your state’s … Jobs with Justice
  3. Join us! We are excited to continue this work through a partnership with What’s Next Washington and several large-scale employers to recruit, hire, and develop workplace opportunities for 70 million Americans with a conviction history. The Inclusive Recovery Project continues to seek employer participants and funding. Reach out for a conversation by emailing design@theprosperityagenda.org

Thank you:

Thank you to our project partners: Plymouth Housing, and Downtown Emergency Service Center, and Downtown Seattle Association. Their commitment to quality jobs, worker voice, and collective resilience guided this research and strategy design. Additional thanks to JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for their generous support of this project.

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