Midwest Urban Strategies (MUS), an intermediary of urban workforce development boards across the Midwest region, held their Spring Convening in Chicago in March. MUS brings together workforce partners from the following cities: Chicago, Illinois; Indianapolis, Indiana; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri; Wichita, Kansas; Detroit, Michigan; St. Paul - Minneapolis, Minnesota; Cleveland, and Dayton, Ohio, to identify best practices in order to skill up the region for economic opportunities, and explore employment retention for business expansion and workforce retention. Bringing together workforce development experts within the MUS partnership at the recent Spring Convening sparked conversation, with in-depth dives into improving the workforce development system, infrastructure, and racial diversity, equity and inclusion. “Tabletop” discussions allowed smaller groups to present and learn about different topics of interest. President and CEO of the Full Employment Council, Clyde McQueen, also serves as the Chairman for MUS. He gave a tabletop discussion on project labor agreements, community benefits agreements, and how to best establish the terms and conditions of employment for specific projects. “There always needs to be a policy framework that governs the agreement,” McQueen said. Policy also comes into play when discussing diversity, equity and inclusion – as well as practice, McQueen said. Embedding DEI into policy and practice allows it to become part of standard operating procedure for an organization. “We have to develop a system that allows for equitable access to opportunities for everyone,” McQueen said. “We must consider everyone: Rural Missourians, people who live in areas with no access to transportation, people with disabilities. We must be sensitive to the barriers people face, and make sure they are considered when we talk about providing access to opportunities.” Systemic barriers impact a broad range of people, from rural and urban Missourians, who may lack access to transportation and childcare, to African Americans, Hispanic and other minority populations, who historically occupy the highest rates of poverty, McQueen explained. With that in mind, the use of support services become a necessity when it comes to providing opportunity. “Those first two weeks at a new job are particularly hard for an already disadvantaged population,” McQueen said. “They aren’t getting a paycheck, but there are still upfront costs that must be addressed. Childcare, for example, represents a substantial upfront cost. We must accommodate those persons with limited financial means who desire to work but have no cash reserves to sustain their ongoing engagement. Consideration of these types of supports increase the labor market participation of minorities, single parents, and immigrant populations, creating a larger talent pool for employers to access.” Infrastructure-related jobs often reveal gaps in racial diversity and equity for several reasons. One, disinvestment in underserved communities exacerbates already limited job opportunities. Secondly, income is often suppressed by limited advancement opportunities. And third, the systems and structures in place are often complicated and interconnected, which can create barriers to good employment. “We were delighted to host our members, sponsors, and stakeholders from across the region in 2 ½ days of rich learning and networking, all with an eye to improve the public workforce system,” said Tracey Carey, Executive Director of MUS. “Thanks to Paige Shevlin at the Department of Transportation and Joe Kane from Brookings Metro for helping to shape the conversation on building the pipeline for infrastructure-related jobs.” Although there are challenges, the growing need for workers in infrastructure present a great opportunity for racial diversity, equity and inclusion. The jobs available provide the types of opportunities underserved populations need. Infrastructure represents nearly 12% of the total workforce in the United States. On average, jobs in infrastructure pay 30% more to lower-paid workers. Additionally, 54% of infrastructure workers have only a high school diploma, relying instead on on-the-job training to advance their careers. “We have our work cut out for us in preparing enough workers to meet the infrastructure demand, but together we will get it done,” said Carey. To learn more about Midwest Urban Strategies, visit their website here.