Introduction and summary
State and local governments are struggling to attract and retain well-qualified workers. Public sector employment has not fully recovered since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasingly, officials find that they are unable to compete for skilled workers.1 As a result, communities across the country are paying the price: Classrooms are overcrowded, trash isn’t getting picked up, and ambulance response times are growing.2
To rebuild the public workforce in today’s tight labor market, policymakers must tackle several problems simultaneously.3 Actions should include increasing funding for state and local budgets that have been starved for decades; combating COVID-19 burnout among essential service workers; and closing the growing pay gap between the public and private sectors. According to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, state and local government workers earn approximately 10 percent to 15 percent less than comparable private sector employees.4
In addition, governments should undertake labor-management training partnerships, which can help them attract and retain well-qualified workers. These independent organizations, jointly controlled by unions and employers, allow partners to collaboratively design and manage workforce training, professional learning, and registered apprenticeship opportunities.
In order to educate policymakers on the potential recruitment and retention benefits of public sector training partnerships and thereby spur higher rates of adoption, this report profiles four innovative initiatives:
- Washington state’s Imagine Institute, created through collective bargaining between the state and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 925 members, provides professional development tools and training and builds career pathways for workers in the child care industry as part of a comprehensive effort to improve access to affordable high-quality care.
- Uplift Oregon, a partnership between the state of Oregon, SEIU Local 503, and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 75, trains new public employees to understand and effectively navigate state health and retirement benefit plans.
- Grow-your-own partnerships between school districts, local unions, and colleges and universities offer experienced school staff and community members access to high-quality teacher training.
- The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and District Council 37’s Green Jobs Training Initiative delivers environmental literacy and technical training to new and incumbent workers in order to green the state’s building stock.
To conduct the case studies, the author interviewed professionals involved in several of the programs via phone and video conferencing, from fall 2022 to spring 2023.
Research finds that employer investment in high-quality training programs helps recruit and retain skilled workers as well as improve work quality, boost productivity, and strengthen employee relations.
Research finds that employer investment in high-quality training programs helps recruit and retain skilled workers as well as improve work quality, boost productivity, and strengthen employee relations.5 Public sector training partnerships between employers and unions are also being used to fill positions vacated by the rapidly retiring Baby Boomer generation; increase equitable access to the public sector workforce so that government is ready to serve diverse populations; and provide a pathway to good jobs for workers, particularly workers who face multiple barriers to finding employment or who are unfamiliar with government hiring processes.
This report focuses on these promising but often overlooked partnerships that allow employers to attract and retain new generations of public service workers. While the Center for American Progress has previously written on the benefits of labor-management partnerships in the public sector, they remain relatively little known compared with private sector sectoral training partnerships such as construction trades registered apprenticeships; as a result, there has been only minimal replication of even the most promising models.6
The four initiatives profiled in this report demonstrate that unions, due to their mission and democratic structure, can uphold high-quality training that serves the needs of workers. Also, each program is helping stabilize the public sector workforce, with strategies ranging from recruitment of new and diverse workers to continuing education that ensures existing workers are qualified to support evolving public standards and teaching employees about the unique benefits of public service employment.
These strategies complement, but do not replace, other reforms that governments should adopt to solve public sector hiring and retention challenges. For example, while high-quality training programs can provide a pipeline of new workers into the public sector, government will fail to retain skilled workers in the long term without action to raise wages and support strong benefits. Similarly, initiatives to ensure that public sector hiring reflects the diversity of the communities it serves will be most successful when training initiatives are developed with labor intermediaries who can facilitate the input of those communities’ workers. And of course, unions and employers often report that their ability to create high-quality training partnerships is predicated on the basis of mutual respect and strong ongoing working relationships.7
Indeed, adopting such partnerships can help attract and retain a new generation of workers to public service; improve workforce skills and increase the quality of public services; and ensure that the public workforce reflects the diversity of the communities it serves.
Background: Case studies highlighting successful labor-management training partnerships
From apprenticeships to educator recruitment to benefits navigation trainings for all new public employees, cities and states are working in collaboration with unions to develop high-quality training programs. These models not only deliver high-quality training for workers, but also attract and retain new generations of public workers at a time when labor is in short supply.
Labor shortages are affecting both public and private employers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are two job openings per unemployed worker.8 Although the private sector has recovered all jobs lost during the pandemic recession and gained 3.2 million more jobs since February 2020, state and local government employment levels are down by 505,000 jobs compared to pre-pandemic levels.9
In a 2022 survey of state and local government workers across sectors, including public safety, health and human services, education, administration, and finance, about one-third of all respondents were considering leaving their jobs and 62 percent reported an increase in departures across their organization since the pandemic.10 Similarly, many state and local agency officials have reported job vacancy rates in the double digits.11 One recent Washington Post editorial labeled the public workers shortage a “slow-moving crisis [that] is paralyzing states and cities.”12
Union involvement in training programs helps ensure that the public sector meets its recruitment and retention goals by ensuring that workers have a voice in designing programs that meet their needs and goals and serving as a trusted validator of program quality. In addition to the case studies below, other successful labor-management training programs have been adopted across a variety of occupational categories, including nursing, home care, health care billing, and sanitation.13
CAP encourages policymakers and worker advocates to consider the case studies in the following sections as replicable models as well as examples to spur creative thinking about which other job categories could benefit from collaborative training initiatives.
The Imagine Institute bolsters stability and raises quality in Washington child care
The Imagine Institute provides training and builds career pathways for new and incumbent workers in Washington state’s child care industry.14 Imagine’s programming, targeted to providers of publicly subsidized care who bargain collectively with the state over rates and benefits, was created as part of a comprehensive state effort to improve access to affordable high-quality care and support care providers.15 Members of SEIU 925 and providers are closely involved in program development.16 As a result, training programs are infused with the expertise of incumbent workers who understand how to successfully navigate the industry and are able to recruit new providers from the communities in which the most need exists.
Washington state’s approach to increasing access to high-quality care
Washington’s approach demonstrates a path forward for policymakers focused on boosting the number of well-qualified child care providers and improving affordability for working families. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed decades of American underinvestment in the early childhood education system and its workers.17 Although the need for high-quality, affordable care far outstripped supply even before the pandemic, employment in the industry declined by more than one-third at its lowest point in April 2020 and is still below its February 2020 level.18 Research shows that low industry pay, few benefits, and lack of respect on the job results in many skilled educators leaving the field entirely, leading to high turnover and negatively affecting child development.19
While Washington is not immune to provider shortages, the state has passed a series of laws to help raise standards and prevent the churn of workers from the industry. These include a capital gains tax directed toward expanding access to subsidized care and supplying emergency relief to providers; recognition of the right of subsidized care providers to bargain collectively with the state over rates, benefits, and other work conditions; and the creation of a child care worker substitute pool to support continuity of care when providers need to take leave.20 Thus, the Imagine Institute is part of a larger, comprehensive strategy to improve pay and job quality in the industry. Training programs and mandates adopted outside such a strategy could fail to reach the communities that need them the most or could create barriers for workers entering the industry and thereby reduce access to care. And while SEIU 925 primarily represents family child care providers, the Imagine Institute benefits the sector broadly and is helping boost access to quality care across Washington state.
The Imagine Institute was created in 2016 to serve child care center workers, licensed family child care providers, and caregivers who provide care for a family member, friend, or neighbor.21 The institute offers several tracks, including preparation for certification as a licensed family care provider and instruction in topics such as business planning, enriching practices and promoting resilience, and providing anti-racist and trauma-informed care.22
For example, the institute’s Imagine U program matches experienced and licensed family care providers with interns who receive stipends while obtaining on-the-job training, mentorship, and observation. Trainers and mentors are all experienced caregivers, and the program provides stipends in order to ensure that low-wage workers can participate. Training modules and internships are offered in English, Spanish, Somali, Oromo, and Arabic.
Since fiscal year 2017, Imagine U graduates have opened 430 licensed care facilities, most of which care for children receiving subsidies, and another 180 are slated to open this year.
Since fiscal year 2017, Imagine U graduates have opened 430 licensed care facilities, most of which care for children receiving subsidies, and another 180 are slated to open this year.23 Program administrators report high rates of retention in the field among mentors and graduates.24
In addition, the institute’s Shared Services Hub helps care providers gain access to business-side supports in finance, marketing, record-keeping, taxes, grant writing, and financial planning; so far, it has attracted more than 1,300 members across the state.25 The hub provides free and discounted services as well as training, mentorship, and peer support communities for providers. In an interview with the author, Cate Bridenstine, executive director of the Imagine Institute, said that these peer communities have helped reduce occupational stress and thereby supported retention during the pandemic, as in-home care providers are often isolated from other providers.
Also, the Imagine Institute is the main administrator of Washington state’s Early Care and Education Substitute Pool, ensuring eligibility and providing training. Enabling providers to find well-qualified substitutes helps support continuity of care. Similarly, the state’s child care substitute pool provided 70,000 hours of care for 835 care providers in fiscal year 2022.26
Finally, the institute drew on its expertise and connections to child care providers in order to increase access to pandemic-related stabilization grants and funding opportunities. Since 2021, Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families partnered with the Imagine Institute to build a peer-to-peer technical assistance program delivered in seven languages. Technical assistants were trained to offer outreach and support to providers in order to overcome barriers that providers may otherwise experience in obtaining funds—such as limited access to information channels, limited English proficiency, or limited technical abilities. Between October 2021 and November 2022, the institute’s team has provided more than 23,000 hours of technical assistance, and providers who received outreach or technical assistance have accessed more than $290 million in government assistance.27
While the training institute alone certainly cannot solve all the barriers that working families encounter when accessing care, it is integral to Washington’s overall care strategy and contributes to the well-being of workers and families across the state.
Uplift Oregon ensures that public sector workers understand the value of benefit plans
While labor-management training partnerships typically focus on occupation-specific interventions, the state of Oregon is partnering with SEIU Local 503 and AFSCME Council 75 on Uplift Oregon, a new-hire training program to ensure employees understand and effectively navigate state retirement and health benefit plans.28 The relatively new partnership is helping increase training consistency across public sector employees and support workers to select benefits that match their needs. Moreover, the training helps workers understand the value of the high-quality benefits negotiated by the state and unions—a particularly important retention tool during a tight labor market.29
Although public sector employers, on average, provide more generous health and retirement benefits than private sector employers,30 public officials report that workers often misunderstand the value of these benefits or have difficulty enrolling in the right level of benefits to meet their needs. In a recent survey of human resources professionals working in state and local governments, only 41 percent said they felt employees were “financially prepared for retirement.”31
Uplift’s workshop, focused on reaching new employees before they sign up for benefits, is helping tackle this problem. Program Director Kelley Weigel told the author that the state of Oregon currently hires an average of 140 people per week, and sometimes as many as 250 in the summer season.32 Uplift leads 90-minute trainings to explain health insurance plans, retirement plans, loan forgiveness, employee assistance programs, and flexible spending accounts. This helps workers select appropriate plans, prioritize retirement savings, and appreciate the value of the benefits in ways that support the retention of skilled employees.
In 2017, then-Gov. Kate Brown (D) laid the groundwork for the partnership by signing an executive order to improve and expand training focused on core skill sets common to all state employees, including right-sizing benefits.33
Ensuring that workers receive standardized, high-quality training on how to navigate the Oregon benefits system is important to the state for several reasons. While some new workers are familiar with benefits sign-up processes, many are signing up for a health and retirement plan for the first time. The training can help boost workers’ savings and wealth and ensure that they select the most appropriate health care plans to meet their needs and budgets—and thereby support better long-term health outcomes.34 Such selection may also result in immediate and long-term cost savings. In prior years, according to program administrators, a significant portion of state employees selected the most expensive health plans when a lower-cost plan could otherwise meet their needs.35 By encouraging workers to save more for retirement now, Oregon can ensure that employees will not have to heavily rely on government services when they are older.
The training can help boost workers’ savings and wealth and ensure that they select the most appropriate health care plans to meet their needs and budgets.
In addition, the state is focused on highlighting its provision of top-quality benefits as a tool for worker retention. According to Berri Leslie, interim state chief operating officer and director of the Oregon Department of Administrative Services, the state’s high-quality employee benefits can represent as much as 40 percent of overall compensation; better benefits training, therefore, helps the state distinguish itself as an “employer of choice.”36
In surveys conducted after completion of the training, 92 percent of participants said their state benefits were good or excellent.37 In addition, the vast majority said the training improved their understanding of their retirement benefits (84 percent) and health care options (83 percent), and 82 percent reported feeling more confident in selecting their benefit options.38
Although Uplift Oregon began as a small pilot program, it was able to scale up quickly and meet the needs of government agencies as hiring boomed across the state. The program currently runs five to seven workshops weekly to provide participants with an adult education approach to understanding and accessing their benefits package as well as knowing its financial value.
Before the creation of Uplift Oregon, the state had developed training materials on its benefits systems, but many agencies did not have the capacity to deliver the training as frequently. Through the state’s partnership with unions, it was able to ensure training consistency across agencies and support programmatic sustainability—and unions also see the benefits of explaining unions’ role in negotiating for high-quality benefits.
Initially, program organizers assumed that all training would be delivered in person but made the shift to online live virtual workshops during the pandemic. The team ultimately found this format efficient; all workshops are now offered online. On average, 75 percent of new employees complete the workshop within 30 days of being hired.
Moving forward, interviewees said that the partnership is exploring new training modules that would benefit government employees more broadly. For example, the program is piloting the Uplift Oregon Peer Equity Network, which supports actions to promote equity and coordinate wellness programming offered by health care provider networks.
While the Uplift partnership is the first of its kind, state and local policymakers should consider how adoption of such a program in their community could help support the retention of a new generation of public sector workers.
Grow-your-own investments help build career ladders for experienced teacher’s aides
In response to a post-pandemic rise in teacher departures and long-standing difficulties in attracting and retaining well-qualified staff in K-12 public schools—particularly among communities of color—school districts are partnering with educational institutions to create high-quality grow-your-own programs. These programs can be important tools in recruiting and training experienced school staff and the surrounding community, who are more likely to stay in a district long term. Yet the programs vary considerably in approach and quality. Policymakers adopting or expanding grow-your-own programs should involve unions in the program design at the outset to ensure programs are focused on worker and classroom needs and maintain high standards for program instruction.
One recent survey finds that 79 percent of teachers are somewhat or very dissatisfied with their job conditions—a 34-point increase since the start of the pandemic—and many districts had difficulty attracting and retaining well-qualified teachers even before the pandemic began.39 Moreover, while research shows that increasing workforce diversity can help improve student outcomes,40 there is a significant mismatch between the racial and ethnic identities of students, who are more likely to be nonwhite, and teachers.41
A grow-your-own teacher residency program created by Tennessee’s Clarksville-Montgomery County School System and Austin Peay State University Eriksson College of Education in 2019 has garnered significant nationwide attention for its ability to address both these issues. The program provides an accelerated path for participants to become full-time teachers in area schools.42 With enrollment equally split between existing district teacher’s aides and recent high school graduates, the program is targeted toward participants of color and first-generation college students and allows them to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years at no cost.
The program is designed to support access for existing workers by allowing them to earn while they learn. Training teachers are paid to work as instructional aides during school hours under the guidance of a master teacher for two years, while their own classroom instruction occurs during evening hours and primarily online.43
Program graduates hired by area schools are required to stay with the district for three years but are likely to stay even longer, as many are experienced workers and community members with long-standing ties to the area and an understanding of the strengths and challenges within the district. Grow-your-own programs may support retention of existing teachers as well, as master teachers become directly invested in a district’s success, and the wider community of experienced teachers and staff could be encouraged by the fact that their school is receiving needed attention and investment.
Indeed, after graduating just three cohorts of teacher residents, the Clarksville-Montgomery district is on track to eliminate its preexisting teacher shortages—and in 2022, its program qualified as the first registered apprenticeship for teaching in the country.44 While the program previously benefited from American Rescue Plan funds, qualification as a registered apprenticeship program will increase access to federal funding and thereby support long-term sustainability.45
While Tennessee is a leader, neither grow-your-own programs nor degree program opportunities for teacher’s aides are unique to the state. Yet programs range in approach, including short-term programs to provide high school students opportunities to explore the field, as well as those to partially fund degree opportunities for paraeducators.46 Worse, some states have enacted legislation aimed at increasing the teacher supply by reducing training requirements, and a growing number of for-profit organizations offer alternative teacher certification programs that often have poor program quality and completion rates.47
Policymakers can ensure that grow-your-own programs prioritize high-quality instruction by involving unions at the outset.
Policymakers can ensure that grow-your-own programs prioritize high-quality instruction by involving unions at the outset. For example, in Newark, New Jersey, Montclair State University is partnering with the American Federation of Teachers on a dual-enrollment teacher pipeline program that will allow high school students to earn college credits and guaranteed admission to the university’s Teacher Education Program after graduation.48 And, estimating that New York state will need more than 180,000 new teachers in the next decade, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) recently announced a $30 million investment in the Empire State Teacher Residency Program that will support two-year residency programs. Participants will earn a master’s degree or teacher certificate; be eligible for free or reduced tuition and a stipend; and work under an experienced mentor to gain teaching experience.49
Research confirms that increasing union involvement in professional development opportunities can support teacher retention and student achievement. For example, a 2017 study found that while only 13 percent of schools allowed teachers to play a moderate or large role in determining the content of professional development opportunities, doing so is correlated with significantly higher rates of student achievement.50
In August 2022, the Biden administration held a White House briefing where it committed to prioritizing the education sector in funding for future apprenticeship opportunities. The administration also announced that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers would be partnering with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to “identify best practices and support their members in pursuing registered apprenticeships or other key strategies that ensure teacher quality while offering increased pathways for entrance and growth in the profession.”51
As the grow-your-own residency and apprenticeship model continues to gain momentum, state and local policymakers should ensure that workers and their unions are involved in the planning and design of programs from the outset. Doing so will support enrollee success and inclusion as well as maintain quality standards across the K-12 education sector.
New York’s Green Jobs Training Initiative supports environmental literacy for public workers
In 2019, New York state adopted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which has been implemented with the ambitious goal of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 85 percent by 2050 as compared with 1990 levels.52 In order to guarantee that the public workers charged with implementing efficiency conversions have the environmental literacy and technical skills needed to reach these targets, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority—the agency charged with promoting energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources—is supporting the education fund of District Council 37, New York City’s largest public sector union.53
Increasingly, cities and states across the country are focused on strategies to reduce building-related GHG emissions.54 Direct emissions from the building sector are rising nationwide, accounting for more than one-third of GHG emissions in the United States.55 In New York City, nearly three-quarters of GHG emissions come from energy used in buildings.56
Public sector workers—ranging from maintenance workers in government buildings and public housing to auditors and inspectors of residential and commercial buildings to government architects and engineers—play a critical role in implementing emissions reduction protocols.
In order to ensure current public workers are qualified to support New York’s public standards, as well as attract new workers to the field, the District Council 37 training fund program instructs participants on the implementation of energy operations and measures in large buildings, including commercial, institutional, and residential spaces. Participants in the training program engage in modules that include residential, multifamily building maintenance; commercial and industrial energy audits; and carbon accounting.
Graduates receive industry-recognized credentials from the U.S. Green Building Council, the Building Performance Institute, and the Association of Energy Auditors, helping ensure that public workers stay up to date on leading efficiency practices and allowing agencies to conduct the work in house, rather than relying on outside contractors that are often more costly.
While the program was forced to move from in person to virtual instruction at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 workers graduated from the program during 2021–2022, its first year of activity, with 90 percent of enrollees successfully completing the program.57 In the next round of training, the education fund hopes to reach 375 new participants.
The Green Jobs Training Initiative draws mainly from incumbent public employees but also incorporates new workers from communities across the city to increase diversity and build a pipeline of skilled workers. Moreover, approximately half of program participants belong to a disadvantaged community or priority population.58
Through its efforts, the training is helping reduce GHG emissions across the city’s building stock while attracting and retaining well-qualified public sector workers.
Public sector labor-management training partnerships are a powerful but underutilized tool in recruiting and retaining well-qualified public sector workers. The case studies highlighted in this report demonstrate that including worker organizations in public sector training programs helps uphold high standards in program design; ensure programs are connected to and recruit from local communities; and support government efforts to solve the nation’s current public worker shortage. By replicating these models, state and local policymakers can attract and retain a new generation of public service workers and increase the quality of services for communities.