Employment and Jobs

Reemploying Workers Impacted by COVID-19: Lessons from the Maricopa County Community College District

March 19, 2021  • Zach Neumann

This blog post builds on initial research published in the Future of Work Initiative’s report, Building A Lifelong Learning System: A Roadmap for Cities, and is part of a series of blogs highlighting new and innovative ideas emerging from lifelong learning systems in cities. The Future of Work Initiative is grateful to the Cognizant U.S. Foundation for providing financial support for this project and publication.

When COVID-19 arrived last year, Phoenix, like cities around the world, faced devastating health and economic consequences. As businesses temporarily closed and social distancing requirements were implemented to save lives, hundreds of thousands of workers were displaced, creating economic hardship and instability for families across the metro area. At the peak of the health and economic crisis, unemployment in Phoenix reached 12.5 percent, with workers in the leisure and hospitality industry facing the most significant and long lasting cuts. As was the case in most large U.S. cities, unemployment above 10 percent created immediate concerns about the ability of displaced workers to afford healthcare, food, and housing. And looking to the future, the city’s workforce and training system faced historic challenges.

Potentially permanent cutbacks in the leisure and hospitality industry raised a critical question for workers across Phoenix: how to retrain and employ tens of thousands of hospitality workers whose jobs may not exist after the pandemic. This would not be easy. Any retraining program would have to be remote, affordable, and flexible enough that workers managing family responsibilities from home could participate. Further, it would need to ensure that workers with limited broadband, lack of access to particular devices, or other technological hurdles could engage.

An effective retraining program for hospitality workers would also need to be efficient. Workers impacted by COVID-19 could not afford to undertake a lengthy training as they temporarily or permanently changed roles; once it was safe to do so, getting back into the workforce was an urgent priority. To make informed decisions, these workers deserved a sense of prospective wage levels, job availability, and the level of COVID-risk in new roles. Without visibility into where different training pathways led, workers would be understandably reluctant to undertake training in the midst of a pandemic.

Leadership at Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) went looking for answers. For Darcy Renfro, Chief Workforce and Economic Development Officer, Daniel Barajas, District Deputy Chief Director for Workforce and Economic Development, and Ignacio Molina, District Director of Research and Analytics, this was an opportunity to build on prior work undertaken across the Maricopa System. As they had in the past, the team at MCCCD wanted to build short, accessible pathways between current and future roles for hospitality workers impacted by COVID-19.

To do this, Barajas and Molina began searching for roles that hospitality workers could fill that would exist both during and after COVID-19 and that offered wages at (or ideally above) their current levels. Their goal was to identify high-demand, well-paying jobs in the Phoenix Metro Area that required skills prevalent in the hospitality sector.

Data and analytics played a key role in their search. Molina, a data scientist, used information from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Burning Glass Technologies, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and viability studies conducted within the Maricopa System to develop a real-time picture of skill transferability and labor demand in the Phoenix Metro Area, alongside prevailing wage data. While Molina developed the data, Barajas and Renfro used their network in the community to add context and detail to what Molina was seeing in the numbers. With the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity, the Maricopa Association of Governments, and the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, Barajas identified a group of organizations that could provide feedback on employer demand and the long-term needs of local companies.

Having identified roles that displaced hospitality workers could potentially fill, the MCCCD team needed a strategy to effectively prepare and place these workers. They started by getting a sense of the skills, by role, of impacted hospitality workers and the skills they would need when moving into a new position. To do this, they built a series of translation matrices that compared current skills by role to required skills by future role. For Barajas, this was “an opportunity to find the shortest and most efficient path to get service and hospitality workers into secure jobs during the pandemic.”

Building a large set of well defined skill matrices (capturing 200 occupations and 740 skills) allowed MCCCD to quickly break down the skills displaced hospitality workers were likely to have by role, project these skills onto a new target role, understand what the worker would need to learn to succeed in this new job, and develop customized training programs to facilitate that learning. According to Ignacio Molina, development of robust skills matrices made it possible to “analyze the skills workers have and correlate them with alternative occupations, creating a ‘percent match’ for each occupation.” Skills match data was then compared with information on labor demand and prevailing wages, suggesting possible pathways to new opportunities.

Chart that lists possible future occupations for displaced hotel clerks, including merchandize displayers and window trimmers.
The initial skills translation matrices developed by Barajas and Molina sought to establish a skills percentage match with in-demand roles in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. These matrices sought to break out the new skills that workers would need to learn to transition to new jobs. Click here to enlarge.

Armed with a general sense of the skills that hospitality and service workers could apply to new roles, Barajas and Molina developed a process to test the skills of these workers while also giving them a sense of their options. Former service and hospitality workers in search of new opportunities took a simple skills evaluation that tested various personal and professional dimensions. At the end of this assessment, they were shown pathways to new careers that included the cost of training, location of training, time to completion, and prospective wages in the targeted role. Depending on their needs, workers were able to sign up for shorter or longer training through an arm of the Maricopa Community College System, with data forthcoming on program completion and post-training placement.

Chart that shows how MCCCD looked at displaced workers’ current skills, connected them to training opportunities, and then to future occupations. It highlights the example of a baker transitioning to a pharmacy technician role.
MCCCD established a short, navigable process to understand the skills of incoming workers, develop effective academic interventions, and place them in new careers. Click here to enlarge.

Workers who selected a program were connected with a community college training provider within the Maricopa system to enroll and apply for various forms of tuition support to offset some or all of the costs of training. Upon completion of their selected programs, these workers will receive job placement assistance and counseling to complete the transition from their previous role.

Maricopa’s efforts to rapidly retrain and place workers in Phoenix points to a future where mid-career workers are able to make rapid transitions between different roles and industries through training and career guidance programs that specifically target required skills. As the pandemic has shown us, our economy can change rapidly; America’s community college system and other training providers are in a position to develop short-term, targeted training programs that can help workers bridge to new industries and careers in a limited amount of time.

Based on their work during COVID-19, the MCCCD team has developed a process that they hope will guide workers in making training decisions for years to come. Their objective is to create, develop, and market short, affordable credit programs that will help workers quickly identify and add more skills and certifications that can help advance their careers.

Drawing on their work at the beginning of the pandemic, MCCCD has continued to refine its skills matching tool. Prospective students now have access to an online database that uses the skills needed in their current role to offer a percentage match with potential new roles that have stable or growing demand, potential wages, and a specific list of the skills that can be applied to the new role (categorized by type).

Workers looking to change careers can use the tool to explore options, understand training requirements, and make decisions with far greater transparency than they have had in the past. Further, this process allows MCCCD to capture changing skill needs across Phoenix and adapt their offerings accordingly. Already, the district has seen a 10 percent increase in certificates issued across the system as workers update skills and transition into new roles.

MCCCD’s goal is to scale this tool to serve all workers who have not obtained an advanced degree. Visibility into how the labor market is changing can help prevent workers from experiencing unexpected or prolonged interruptions in their careers—something that will be especially important as technology evolves and we face unplanned disruptions to the economy. For Daniel Barajas, this is a chance to give students something they’ve never had before: “the opportunity to see where their time and money is taking them, and the ability to make real decisions about their futures.”

Too often, training programs are not connected to meaningful job opportunities and real career pathways. They provide skills that are dated, not connected to local labor demand, or unrelated to the previous work and life experience of the trainee. As a result, participants are often unable to complete the full program or do not see an increase in wages upon graduation. MCCCD’s efforts to use existing data to connect workers with real, local jobs, and the training they need to do them, points to a future where public, post-secondary educational institutions offer short, customized courses that help workers quickly transition into new careers.

The Economic Opportunities Program is excited to be partnering with the Center for the Future of Arizona to sponsor a Workforce Leadership Academy this year, which will convene and connect workforce development leaders from the greater Phoenix area to collaborate solutions to common challenges. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for more information later this spring.


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How can local systems help reemploy hospitality workers displaced during COVID-19? Phoenix leaders built short, accessible pathways between current and future roles. Read more from @ZachNeumannCO.

[email protected] and @CognizantFdn are exploring innovative ideas emerging from lifelong learning systems in cities. Read about recent efforts in Phoenix to reemploy workers displaced during COVID-19.


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The Future of Work Initiative aims to identify, develop, and amplify solutions that address the challenges of today while building toward a future in which workers are safe, empowered, and equipped to thrive in our changing world. The Future of Work Initiative is an initiative of the Economic Opportunities Program.

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