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What We Talk About When We Talk About Workforce Development

As the country continues to navigate the pandemic and its impact on the labor market, workers and job seekers are finding themselves empowered to demand more from their employers—and business leaders are making renewed commitments to supporting their employees. At the same time, though, many young people and their families still face barriers to economic mobility, with millions out of work as the country navigates a rocky road to economic recovery.  

The seismic effects of the pandemic have generated increased media attention on issues of workforce development, economic mobility, and opportunity. But as is so often the case, the more prevalent a given issue becomes in the national narrative, the muddier the terminology used to describe that issue becomes. Today, there is a lack of a strong, clear definition for many words in the lexicon of workforce development. What, for example, do we actually mean when we say “opportunity gap”? What is the precise definition of an “essential worker”? Are “certificates” and “certifications” the same thing—and if not, what exactly is the difference? 

Over the past few months, America’s Promise has been working to address this challenge in partnership with researchers and subject matter experts from a diverse cross-section of workforce-related organizations. This week, in partnership with WorkingNation, we’re excited to share the first draft of our new field guide, designed to serve as an overview of key terms and concepts related to workforce development.  

The guide was a collaborative effort of a diverse group of nonprofit organizations focused on workforce policy and equity issues. We’re grateful for the partnership of [email protected]Strada Education NetworkNational Fund for Workforce SolutionsTalent RewireWhiteboard AdvisorsWorkingNationCognizant FoundationGrads of LifeJFFNational Skills CoalitionNew Profit, and Skillup Coalition as this document has come together over the past few months. 

We’re excited for this guide to kick off a conversation about how our use of language shapes the policies and practices that define the world of work. This is, of course, particularly critical in the context of our country’s effort to reckon with the ongoing reality of systemic racism and inequity. If we seek to build a more equitable, just society, critically examining the language we use – and the language we don’t use – must be part of that project. 

It’s important to note that the goal of this field guide is not to prescribe definitions that will always apply in every case. Rather, it is to shed light on the way that critical terms are (and are not) used by education and workforce experts, so that journalists, analysts, and advocates can move toward a shared understanding of these critical issues.  

It’s also worth noting that this is a living document — so we’re excited for feedback! We look forward to continued conversation, input, and critiques that can help make the field guide as helpful as possible, and help us collectively think more deeply and actively about how the words we use can shape the world we build together.