WorkForce Central put a glaring, unflattering spotlight on a big problem in our community this week.
Across Pierce County, nearly 40,000 adults lack a high school diploma or GED.
Meanwhile, nearly 15,000 young adults — ages 16 to 24 — are not working and not in school.
Among both groups, communities of color are disproportionately affected. Geographically, the highest concentrations are found in Parkland and Spanaway, Central Tacoma and in Lakewood near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
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These statistics — gleaned from Census data — are being highlighted by the federally funded workforce development agency for good reason. For an organization tasked with helping to connect people to jobs and employers with qualified candidates, they’re clearly troubling and need addressing.
That’s where 38-year-old Tamar Jackson comes into the picture.
Jackson has been WorkForce Central’s director of community engagement for the last four months. Raised on Tacoma’s East Side, Jackson is a former long-time blue collar city employee, having done stints in solid waste, patching potholes and as a journeyman pipe layer for Tacoma Water — all while supporting his two daughters.
Jackson — who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree but does have a keen sense of how to connect with people with pasts similar to his own — finds himself tasked with helping WorkForce Central effectively reach populations that often don’t trust agencies that aim to help because, more often than not, they’ve failed to actually listen.
Jackson was hired to help address this disconnect. His career trajectory also is evidence of what can happen when people are given a legitimate opportunity to lift themselves up.
All of this serves as the backdrop for WorkForce Central’s recently launched “Power Up Pierce” initiative, which aims to cut both the number of young adults not working or in school and the number of adults lacking a high school diploma or GED in half by 2025.
The agency describes these as “bold goals,” which is both accurate and a bit of an understatement. It won’t be easy.
“We know that our system as well as other systems in this community have failed certain populations,” said WorkForce Central Chief Executive Officer Linda Nguyen this week.
“It’s a long prospect, but we’re up for the challenge. We have no choice,” Nguyen added. “We have to change the way we think. We have to change the way we hire. We have to change the way we reach out to these communities.”
Admitting past failures is never easy, so Nguyen and the organization she leads deserve credit for taking that step.
At the same time, highlighting a problem is the easy part.
How WorkForce Central and the host of local organizations it partners with are actually going to tackle these bold goals remains the tricky, somewhat ambiguous part.
But how do you actually fix it?
While WorkForce Central acknowledges it will take things like resolve, partnerships and cooperation between local community and technical colleges — describing the effort as a “coalition of government and nonprofit organizations” — that’s also jargon-rich emptiness without tangible changes from bottom to top.
Addressing the underlying trust gap and doing what Nguyen described as “community engagement in its purest sense” are what will make the real difference, she said.
In the past, Nguyen admits, “What we’ve done hasn’t really worked.”
In addition to highlighting the need, the data paints this picture as well.
Again, that’s where Jackson comes in.
“I’m a kid from the city. I was born in poverty and raised by a single mother. I made it out, and now I’m just coming back to give back to my city,” Jackson explained. He’s confident that his history will help him reach people that have previously fallen through the cracks.
In his first months on the job, Jackson said he’s been traveling to local schools, churches, community centers and union halls, spreading the word that things will be different. He’s there to listen to what people need, he said — for real, and not for show — and hopes to prove that his employer is in this for the long haul.
“We are starting fresh and really trying to reinvent ourselves to a community that feels like we didn’t take care of them before,” Jackson said.
“We don’t want to assume anymore. We want to know. We want to figure out a way to fix it and follow up,” he continued. “Sometimes people just want to be heard and know that things are possible and that there are options out there. We want to show them the options that are available and that we’re not going to leave.”
Whether Workforce Central and the community at large will be able to accomplish this, together, remains to be seen. We should all hope it succeeds.
At this early stage, what seems certain is that they’ve found the perfect ambassador in Jackson and that his story provides proof of what’s possible when people take a chance and believe.
“I was given an opportunity by people who saw things within me and wanted to see me go further and believed in me before I believed in myself,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy by any means.
“But I do think it’s possible.”