Salt Lake County received $221 million in federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan) funds. After an internal competitive process to decide the highest and best uses, the County Council approved $10 million of funding for the Workforce Inclusion & Successful Employment (WISE) program.
We caught up with Jevon Gibb, Salt Lake County economic development director, and Meredith Muller, Salt Lake County workforce development manager, to learn more about this new initiative.
JG: Our goal is to increase access to higher-quality jobs for low-income and diverse populations in Salt Lake County. We’re trying to tap into a portion of the labor market – those within 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines or below – that we think have been left behind. We want to elevate people to their full potential in a way that’s a good investment for the community. Existing workforce development programs work well for the average participant, but we want to try some different strategies to help the lower-income participant.
We anticipate serving between 2,000 and 3,000 individuals over the next five years. We hope to demonstrate that assistance through WISE will increase incomes and reduce the need for other public benefits. In other words, it’s a proof-of-concept initiative with the aim of providing a net-positive tax investment.
MM: What drew me to the program when I applied for the workforce development manager job was the understanding that folks do want to get the training. They do want better jobs. But there are barriers in the way that become too much for individuals to overcome. WISE brings the ecosystem together to create solutions for removing those barriers.
MM: We’re working with Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah Health as our two trainers, and with Promise South Salt Lake, Journey of Hope, Utah Community Action, and Women of the World as the Community-Based Organizations (CBOs).
Promise SSL largely works with populations in South Salt Lake, and Journey of Hope with domestic violence survivors. Utah Community Action targets income-eligible families with a range of services, and Women of the World largely supports the refugee, asylee, and immigrant communities. The CBOs are trusted providers to these target populations.
We are funding these programs to expand and provide wraparound services to even more people than they do currently.
The training organizations will stand up WISE teams to provide five intervention strategies of outreach, advising, career coaching, mental health support, and resource navigation to help remove obstacles that individuals face. The CBOs are expected to provide between two to four of the intervention strategies.
JG: A SLCC workforce development advisor currently may have as many as 500 clients to support. Our funding should get that ratio for WISE clients to 150:1. That means advisors can talk about deeper questions – like childcare support, transportation needs, and certificate needs – to provide a more effective and personalized approach.
We want to give advisors more time to have meaningful conversations with single moms, to provide culturally affirming support, to support Spanish speakers, to have someone who identifies with communities of color, and more. Anything we can do to better equip them to help our WISE clients through their journey.
As we do this, we are trying to keep our role as small as possible and maximize funding to partners for implementation. We have only added one employee for this entire program, which is a challenge, but the goal isn’t to grow government, it’s to create impact.
JG: At two percent unemployment, businesses are scrambling for labor. And there are so many folks in this community who can fill those jobs, but there is some hurdle in the way. It’s so important to make sure that people can get those jobs, and that businesses can have access to the strongest, most diverse labor pool to elevate them to their potential as well.
We’re targeting critical jobs that are currently hard to fill. We worked with the Utah Department of Workforce Services to identify in-demand jobs that have great, long-term career trajectories. At the University of Utah, the focus is on helping people enter healthcare careers – nurses, techs, etc. For SLCC, the focus is on well-paying trade careers – electricians, plumbers, welders, steel workers, etc.
JG: There are a lot of cities, states, and regions that focus on talent attraction, to bring in outsiders to bolster the workforce. WISE is a different approach, in that we’re saying, “Let’s build our talent pool from within. Let’s invest in elevating our people to their full potential while acknowledging that we still need to bring in talent from outside the county.”
Our strategy here is to understand how to invest in public goods and solve market failures. This is something that would not happen without the county, the federal funding, and the connections into the ecosystem to bring everybody together. The collaboration may be hard to measure, but it’s the secret sauce to this. It’s so cool to see the beginning of that “Team Utah” orientation.
MM: There are so many aspects that we could measure, but we can summarize the main metrics around income and tax impact. One, are we driving job placement in high-quality jobs to increase WISE participants’ economic mobility and stability? And two, is the program paying for itself through a net positive tax impact to the state by the end of CY2026?
Specifically, we’re looking at:
We’ll be asking for all this disaggregated by the following demographic requirements:
JG: We are also tracking the finances of the program to keep costs down and impact high. One of Mayor Wilson’s goals is to pursue smart government. We’re trying to run this program efficiently, and we’re on track to spend less than ten percent of the funds over five years on administrative expenses.
MM: We allocated two-thirds of the money this summer, to be distributed over several years. We’ve initiated some payments, and our trainers and CBOs are collecting baseline data this fall. A big part of this program is to measure impact. They’ll kick off providing services in January.
Next summer we’ll do another request for applications from currently funded and new partners. The last distribution of funds will be in 2024. Since we’re using federal ARPA funds, all the money must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
For more information, visit https://slco.org/economic-development/wise/.