So What? Signs & Signals of Systems Change with East Scarborough Works

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The East Scarborough Storefront recently released a Learning Report that reflects on the outcomes, changes, and learnings that have resulted from the collective investment of the East Scarborough Storefront and the other ecosystem players involved in East Scarborough Works (ESW) over the past five years. 

This is the first in a series of blog posts that summarize key takeaways from the report. This post answers the question, “So What?” In other words, what changes have occurred in the local employment ecosystem as a result of 5 years of the East Scarborough Works approach, and what is the significance of those changes?

To date, East Scarborough Works (ESW) has worked with local networks to co-design and develop local workforce development pathways in three sectors: hospitality, social services sectors and the construction trades. Over 362 job seekers have connected to these workforce development pathways, where they received the individualized support, training and connections they needed to progress towards well-paying, stable employment, and there have been 121 hires over and above regular employment work in the community. 

These impacts on the lives and employment journeys of individual jobseekers are very meaningful. One of the first jobseekers to land a Construction Craftworker apprenticeship with LiUNA through the East Scarborough Works construction pathway had figured (like many other people of colour working in construction and maintenance on a job to job basis) that he would never be able to get a decent job with growth potential in a union. He considers ESW to be the key that opened that door for him. However, individual-level change is only part of the impact ESW aims to achieve.

The systems affecting pathways to employment are deeply rooted in white supremacist, bureaucratic and institutional norms. By taking a Connected Community Approach to workforce development, and by focusing on the leverage points where a place-based network led by a small non-profit organization like The Storefront can intervene and influence, East Scarborough Works ultimately aims to shift these systemic barriers.  

The Difference Taking a Connected Community Approach has Made

A key conclusion of the Learning Report is that that there are distinct benefits to taking a Connected

Communities Approach to workforce development in the context of a marginalized and racialized community where jobs are being created. These include: 

  • Increased trust. Trust between local residents and employment service providers leaves residents better positioned to receive comprehensive support, and helps employment service providers leverage training and wrap around services more effectively. 
  • Increased resident influence. Incorporating jobseeker feedback in recruitment and hiring protocols helps ensure inclusive hiring practices and shifts the employer / jobseeker power dynamic. 
  • Improved communication. Avenues for jobseekers to learn about upcoming opportunities, and within a timeframe that allows them to prepare for and develop a clear line of sight for themselves towards those roles, improves employment outcomes for jobseekers who are further away from the labour market. 
  • Collective problem solving. The more opportunities there are for employers and service providers to work together, the greater their ability to collectively tackle complex systemic issues among players in the ecosystem, including and especially racism. 

While these benefits all facilitate systems change in workforce development, they do not tell the full story of what systems-level changes are happening or how they are occurring. To understand and track how ESW is disrupting the systems that limit local employment outcomes, the Learning Report draws on Ursula Wright’s 6 Conditions of Systems Change. Using that framework, we have learned that by using a relational approach and through co-creation and collective design, East Scarborough Works is making incremental but critical changes within the following key leverage points for systems change: 

Working Group Notes on the importance of addressing anti-Black racism from the 2022 East Scarborough Works Symposium
  • Mental Models
  • Power Dynamics
  • Structures and Processes
  • Policies & Resource Flows

Changes in Mental Models

An observation attributed to another scholar of systems change, Donella Meadows, is that “the most profound changes in a system come from changing its purpose.” Changing mental models around the purpose of the employment ecosystem is therefore the best way to change the way it functions. The ESW Learning Report describes a greater familiarity with place-based workforce development among key players as a result of ESW, and a greater understanding of why taking a “whole ecosystem” approach is important. At the most recent gathering for the ESW network in May 2022:

  •  71% of participants reported they had learned more about their role within the ESW ecosystem and the pathway approach to local workforce development
  •  64% of attendees reported they learned more about how different cohorts can work together to strengthen the pathways to local jobs for local people

These key players are now planning in the context of a workforce development ecosystem. While this shift in mental models can be seen across the ecosystem, the most significant and impactful shift was with local anchor institutions. These are large public or non-profit organizations, such as hospitals, universities or colleges, that receive significant public investment, employ large workforces, and are rooted in a community. At the University of Toronto – Scarborough Campus (UTSC), champions at the senior leadership level are now demonstrating their commitment to embedding change by bringing the right people to the table, such as those who can make adjustments to HR policies, or who can identify jobs in their upcoming construction projects that can be filled by local apprentices. 

Changes in Relationships and Power Dynamics

Signs and signals of positive change in relationships and power dynamics include better communication and stronger relationships between all stakeholders. The most substantive shift was in breaking down silos. As a result of this shift, key players have made stronger collective commitments to strengthening workforce development pathways within their sectors. For example:

  • 7 East Scarborough employment agencies have formed a network to coordinate outreach, align training and share data previously held only with one organization;
  • Local labour union LiUNA is receiving requests for local apprentices to fill specific positions directly from the General Contractor hired by a local anchor institution. This request comes through the influence of that anchor institution employer who has grown their commitment to local hiring through ESW.
  • When jobseekers require “wraparound supports” unions and employers recognize that individuals connected to East Scarborough Works have access to a robust network of support agencies, and therefore will be more likely to succeed. 

Changes to Structures & Processes

As a result of engagement in ESW, employers/anchor institutions have piloted changes to recruitment practices that better enable marginalized job seekers to secure employment. These practices are now becoming institutionalized and beginning to show tangible employment results. For example:

  • Candidate tracking and feedback loops with local employment agencies are in place at UTSC and in development with the Toronto Zoo, which is working on new ways to integrate community-based recruitment.
  • There are improved communication channels to inform diverse local candidates about the specifics of upcoming job vacancies with local institutional employers.

Changes Policies & Resource Flows

In the case of East Scarborough Works, community players have leveraged resources from private foundations to influence entrenched institutional practices at anchor institutions. However, for embedded change to happen within institutions or organizations, structures and processes need to be enshrined in policy and sustainably resourced to make the change(s) practical. Signs and signals that this shift is occurring include:  

  • The Toronto Zoo is investing its own resources to advance a local hiring pathway, which will aim to create paid positions for youth at the Zoo drawn from community-based recruitment
  • Creation and resourcing of new roles at UTSC to support embedding and operationalizing their local hiring commitment
  • Early adopter resourcing and championing of ESW by municipal political leaders and key municipal departments 

So, now what? 

The Storefront considers the signs & signals of change described above to be the foundation of a fundamental shift in the local employment ecosystem toward greater equity. We’ve taken to describing this shift using the analogy of laying railway tracks. Each of these systems change “tracks” help to reduce the number of instances where workplaces in East Scarborough are struggling to recruit qualified candidates while local residents from equity-deserving groups are simultaneously struggling to find employment. They support everyone in the local employment ecosystem to achieve their aspirations more quickly and efficiently. And they are also the mechanism that will guide and carry our next steps in this local workforce development initiative. 

The next blog post in this series focuses on this next phase. Read on to explore what we’ve learned so far about the key challenges and barriers that still remain, and how they can be addressed to make equity-driven local workforce development pathways operational, in a sustainable and scalable way.

If you are part of the East Scarborough employment landscape, whether as a service provider, an employer, a trainer, a union, a funder, or a jobseeker, connecting and coordinating with each other is the first step in addressing fragmentation and forging a stronger community ecosystem. Here are some actions that you can take right now to help make it even easier for more local jobseekers to find smooth, aligned pathways to decent local jobs in East Scarborough. Systems change involves us all! 

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