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WorkRise: New Initiative to Transform the Labor Market

In a floundering labor market that is especially hitting low-wage workers hard right now, we need bold initiatives that confront issues of systemic inequity head-on. WorkRise is an innovative new project working to do just that.

Todd Greene was only weeks into his new position as executive director of WorkRise when he presented an Overview of WorkRise to the Non-degree Credential Research Network (NCRN).   

WorkRise, housed at the Urban Institute, is building a national platform for identifying, testing, and sharing bold ideas to transform the labor market. The reality of the vision is big─systemic change that will:  

  • Support researchers studying the state of the pandemic-era job market and labor market inequality. 
  • Issue recommendations and take a position on ways to transform the labor market.
  • Pull in diverse perspectives from the many stakeholders that operate in this space.

Greene is charged to move WorkRise to its next chapter, and he brings unique background to this work. As the previous executive director of the Atlanta University Center Consortium Inc. (AUCC), he led the nation’s oldest and largest consortium of historically Black colleges and universities. He also served as vice president in the research division of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, where he led the community development department, founded and led the Federal Reserve System’s Human Capital/Workforce Development Working Group, and oversaw the creation of the Federal Reserve Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity.

The work now, Greene explained, is to “fund research on promising practices, policies, and programs underway across the country as well as foundational research on labor market trends with the aim of strengthening employers, informing policymaking and practices, and providing genuine economic mobility and security for workersespecially Black workers and workers of color, women, and young people— groups that have faced systemic barriers to opportunity.”

The focus of this work is to accelerate economic mobility for low- and middle-wage workers—workers who have seen their ability to advance in the labor market stalled for decades. COVID has exacerbated this economic insecurity, with workers struggling to make ends meet and save for the future.

Mobility in the labor market is complicated by many factors, so one “solution” will not solve these problems: 

  • Job losses for low-wage workers have been concentrated in the service industries including retail and hospitality, so these workers need new pathways and opportunities. 
  • Economic mobility can be understood through both an intra- and inter-generational lens. Intragenerational mobility examines advancements in a worker’s own lifetime, while intergenerational mobility examines advancement from one generation to the next. WorkRise is focusing on intragenerational mobility and how we might accelerate it for workers left behind.  
  • Workers without college degrees have fewer opportunities to advance since many higher wage jobs require degrees. This movement towards skills-based hiring, but generally speaking, degree requirements, can be an impediment to mobility.
  • Factors other than education and training shape economic mobility─conditions like place and neighborhood and existing systems, how these all work together, including a host of other supports such as paid leave, childcare, and transportation. 

“We do not envision working alone on these issues at WorkRise,” Greene noted. “We envision working as a partner and a platform for incubating and disseminating solutions.”

There are many organizations working in this space, Greene acknowledged. “Our sweet spot is economic mobility in the labor market. Economic security and the ability to meet a basic standard of living is the starting point. We also want to create a labor market in which more workers can seek opportunity and move up the economic ladder through their work experiences.” 

WorkRise intends to “convene the full range of labor market stakeholders who are often siloed and in need of platforms for collaboration,” Greene noted. “Our goal is to break down these traditional divisions, such as employers’ work, organized labor, public and private sectors, and research and policy and practice. We can do this because the goal is economic mobility for all. This is one of the great challenges in society—it requires that everyone be at the table.”

Greene’s main mantra has been to take a “system’s approach, because it’s very seldom that we have meaningful change without having that be system-level, and the work must respect the perspectives of key stakeholder groups.” 

The still-evolving plan is for WorkRise to support research based on stakeholder needs. It will also make recommendations and solutions to drive change: “WorkRise intends to have a position, to have a voice that has gathered diverse viewpoints,” Greene underscored.

WorkRise will surface cutting-edge research questions and develop a research agenda that builds upon key priorities identified by stakeholders to include:  

  • Employers and their networks, especially small businesses because small business contributions often look different than those of large businesses. 
  • Practitioners from workforce development, human resources, and economic development─and policymakers.
  • Researchers and other academics. 
  • Philanthropy, which often takes a leading edge in a change agenda, helping incubate important ideas and activate them.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth are WorkRise’s founding funders. Other funders include corporate and family foundations with diverse perspectives on economic mobility. “They’re excited about the idea of breaking down the silos by leveraging multiple perspectives and working toward a shared vision. Our funders understand that workers’ lives are multifaceted and that there are structural and historic barriers to opportunity and mobility that must be examined,” Greene noted. For a full list of WorkRise funders, please go to

Later this year, WorkRise will issue an open–call for Requests for Proposals (the first RFP resulted in nine awards and a total investment of $2.1 million). The new RFP will invite research proposals to address important components of the developing research agenda. 

An important component of WorkRise’s mission is to share evidence through reports, blogs, data visualizations, and other published products. WorkRise will also host a variety of public and private events to engage folks and disseminate information—while building platforms for collaboration and creating networks for sharing and dissemination.

A key takeaway from NCRN’s webinar: pay attention to WorkRise. The new labor market initiative is timely and needed, with a spot-on vision: focusing on system strategies while researching key aspects of system transformation; identifying stakeholders and respecting their diverse views; setting priorities for the research-to-action approach; taking positions and having a voice; and disseminating findings widely to inform the field and foster collaboration.  

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