Newark 2020: Workforce development initiative hasn’t let pandemic stop it from reaching its goals

When it became obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to last more than just a few weeks or months … obvious that employers were instituting hiring freezes — if not furloughs or layoffs … obvious that the best-laid plans to boost the employment numbers of Newark residents were no longer current, there was really only one thing to do: Adjust the plans.

Oh, and not panic.

The philosophy is simple. The implementation is anything but. That being said, it’s more than doable: Newark 2020 has proven it. So said Aisha Glover, the head of the Newark Alliance, which is overseeing the initiative.

“Everyone is kind of switching gears right now,” she told ROI-NJ. “But we’ve learned to adjust, and there’s still plenty we can do.”

The initiative, which aimed to get 2,020 Newark residents hired by Newark companies by the end of this year, should be a model for other cities around the state and the country.

Led by Glover and program director Della Walker, Newark 2020 created programs to help the anchor institutions in the city understand there is plenty of talent in the neighborhood. They worked with workforce providers (LaCasa, Ironbound Community Corp., New Community Corp., Urban League, Newark Works) to find this homegrown talent. Highly skilled talent.

Della Walker. (Newark Alliance)

When Newark 2020 vetted the applicants, it found that more than 40% of the talent pool had college degrees or more.

It then started connecting them to the anchor institutions, which made hiring pledges. It was going great. In fact, they had reached their 2020 goal by the end of 2019.

Then, COVID-19 hit.

Glover and Walker said they have adjusted well. The Newark Career Summit this summer became a Virtual Summer Career Summit. The needs moving forward were still there — they were just there virtually.

“The summit was really well attended and ran over two full days,” Walker said. “We had all sorts of speakers, from executives to (human resources0 leaders, reaching Newark residents and making sure that they were prepared for this new climate — everything from thinking about how you interview virtually to what the backdrop should be in your home.”

Glover said COVID has not changed the focus of the initiative as much as it has adjusted it.

“The virtual aspect is not the challenge,” she said. “I think the challenge is working with companies as they begin to identify operational challenges posed by the pandemic. What we’re finding is that we’re still able to reach out and touch our partners and stay connected with them. We work around any hiring challenges and identify what roles are able to be done virtually.”

Walker said it’s a matter of keeping in contact.

“We knew some employers are still hiring,” she said. “So, our job is to connect them to the talent that’s out there. While it has been a little bit challenging, most of our anchors so far have remained consistent in terms of their commitment to the initiatives.

“And, if they’re not currently hiring, some of the work that we’re doing is forecasting what may be available as we begin to reopen.”

The initiative, which is part of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s Hire-Buy-Live initiative, is not going away anytime soon. It certainly will live past 2020.

Aisha Glover. (File photo)

Glover, who will soon be moving on to help lead Audible’s new Global Center for Urban Development, agreed. She feels the setup of the program will enable it to outlive the pandemic.

It’s a setup that other municipalities would be wise to copy. It’s more than just a jobs program. The Alliance set up the initiative so it engages employers and is employer-focused, rather than training people, then hunting for the jobs (a reality so many job-training providers face).

And, it’s a program that helps the entire economic ecosystem. For instance, helping Newarkers who work outside the city find jobs in the city is one part of it.

“That’s the idea of Hire-Buy-Live,” Glover said. “We want residents to stay here and buy here. Right now, we have too many Newarkers who are working outside the city and too many non-residents who come in just to work here.”

Then ultimate goal of Newark 2020 is to change the hiring culture of the city’s anchor tenants — you know the names: Prudential Financial, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Public Service Enterprise Group, Audible, University Hospital, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University-Newark, to name just a few.

And that doesn’t just mean offices hiring — but contractors the companies do business with, too.

“That creates other jobs for Newarkers, too,” Walker said.

Some companies even began writing these requirements into vendor contracts.

And while all this was good — and helped the program reach its goal early — Glover and Walker really were concentrating on the bigger picture: To raise awareness of the benefits of keeping the Newark economic ecosystem whole.

That’s why they are comfortable with their plan — and confident it will survive and thrive.

That’s why they’re not panicking.

“We’re now working to ensure that we embed local hiring into the hiring practices within all of the anchor institutions as a part of their hiring initiatives and diversity initiatives,” Walker said. “We like to call it a local hiring and inclusion initiative.”

One that was slowed — but couldn’t be stopped — by COVID-19.