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Philanthropy Thought Leadership

Talents should be equal to opportunity

United Way workforce initiative aims to advance economic mobility, promote competitive economy

By John Helton, executive director of Atlanta CareerRise

It’s not easy to climb the ladder to economic prosperity in Greater Atlanta. But it doesn’t have to be that way. All people need is an opportunity. 

In recent years, Atlanta has seen significant job growth, and opportunities for work have exploded. But while Atlanta boasts this incredible record of new business attractions, our region has consistently ranked at the bottom of the list of metropolitan areas when it comes to economic mobility. 

This is a consistent trend in predominantly black neighborhoods and low-income, where residents are three times more likely to be among the working poor, and that’s because they do not have the opportunities to pull themselves up to the next rung of the ladder that exist in other areas.

We work to reverse the trend and make sure residents have access to well-paying jobs, that a parent has the opportunity to provide for their family—to make sure their children are well. United Way of Greater Atlanta has led this work through its CareerRise initiative. This work feeds into United Way’s mission to ensure that all children and families are well. 

United Way saw after its strategic planning meeting about two years ago that the zip code a child lived in too often determined the fate of that child. United Way saw that, statistically, because of what zip code a child was born into, he or she was handed a disadvantage beyond their control. Through a set of 14 measures, United Way calculated at the time a child well-being score of 58.9.

On May 9, 2019, officials announced the score had improved in two years to 61.8. That equates to a change in the lives of more than 82,000 children in the region living in low or very low child well-being. By using the child as the lens, United Way could identify the big picture needs of the community, and the families within those communities, such as the desperate need for higher wage jobs. 

United Way launched its CareerRise regional initiative to help address the economic mobility problem. CareerRise was formed in 2011 in response to the widening gap between in-demand job and the skill sets lacked by unemployed and underemployed labor force of Greater Atlanta. CareerRise’s mission is to increase regional prosperity by creating and strengthening partnerships and systems that meet employers’ needs for skilled talent. 

CareerRise works with local training providers, workforce development organizations, and employers to help residents earn certifications and participate in programs that help them get hired and earn more money. 

Most recently, United Way has collaborated with the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, Atlanta Regional Commission, Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and Metro Atlanta Chamber to establish its Regional Workforce Initiative. Together, we will work to define problems and identify opportunities for the strategic development of the Greater Atlanta region’s workforce system. 

The goal of the Regional Workforce Initiative is to advance economic mobility and promote a competitive Greater Atlanta economy by creating an accessible, holistic and responsive regional workforce system. 

We want to make sure we are not leaving potential on the table. We want to make sure that talents are met with equal opportunities. We have been tasked with creating a system to align, leverage, and maximize workforce development efforts.  The system must be demand-driven based on industry needs and growth so that people have better opportunities for their families. 

The way we improve is by having honest discussions around economic mobility and its impact on our overall economy. We truly believe what we are doing around workforce development has the potential to change lives and strengthen our regional economy, and not just now, but for generations to come. 

We can reverse the negative trend, we can help people do better for themselves and do better for their families—all they need is the opportunity and the support to succeed. 

For more information on Atlanta CareerRise, click here.

John Helton is the former CEO of CobbWorks, Inc. and has worked in child welfare and workforce development for over 25 years. He has served on numerous community and professional organizations and advisory boards, including: Cobb Community Collaborative, Cobb Chamber of Commerce-Leadership Cobb Class of 2010, Georgia Workforce Leadership Association, Southeastern Employment and Training Association, Harmony House Ex-Offender Re-entry Initiative, Communities in Schools, and the Stadium Neighborhoods Community Trust Fund.


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