Mon, May 20, 2024

Guest Column: Local Leader on the Stronger Workforce for America Act

We live in a time when things are objectively better for all people than almost any time in history, and also happens to be filled with divisiveness and mistrust of our institutions. The recent passage in the House of Representatives of the Stronger Workforce for America Act gives me tremendous optimism that we’re turning a corner in America; that civic engagement and bipartisanship can indeed make a difference.

It is true, the confluence of the digital and gig economies, globalization, climate change, and the pandemic created a perfect storm of stresses in our communities. Much of this is manifested in a 4 decades-long decline in entrepreneurship rates in America, which has further reduced our dynamism and resiliency. As Americans, we think of ourselves through the lens of exceptionalism. We don’t like to feel insecure. It is this feeling of insecurity that gives us pause, that creates conflict among us, that creates mistrust in the institutions that govern our society.

It is through this lens that I share a story of hope for the future, and why I have faith in our institutions.

Eric Parker (r) with Congressman Rick Allen in Washington D.C.

For those unfamiliar, I have spent the last 12 years of my life championing the startup ecosystem of Augusta, Georgia, our state, and more recently, our nation. In 2012, I cofounded theClubhou.se to provide a space for people in our community to gather, solve problems together, and always through the lens that those solutions might become the businesses that transform our economy and build resilience in our community. In 12 years, we have helped over 2,500 founders start and grow a business, creating jobs for themselves and others.

One of the core challenges in this work is that founders are at a stage in their lives where they have put everything they have on the line to solve a problem that exists in our community. Organizations like mine depend on a loose network of highly competitive government and philanthropic grants to support them. As an example, in 2016, we were fortunate enough to win a grant from the Kauffman Foundation. This allowed us to provide training, plus room and board for founders in Augusta while they launched their businesses and provided jobs in the economy. It was an amazing program. Our program was one of 14 programs selected out of 800 applicants in the country, and it was our third attempt to win this grant. This grant also helped me to get a paycheck for my work for the first time after 3 years of volunteering full-time to support founders. The grant lasted two years, and then we had to wrap up the program, let our team go, and return to volunteer roles in supporting our community until we won another grant.

It was a frustrating experience, shared by many organizations doing the challenging work of community-led economic development. This movement towards economic independence has developed into a multipronged profession called ‘ecosystem building’ that includes community builders, coworking and makerspaces, CDFIs, and many other champions of founders that exist throughout every community in America. Our work is essential to the nation, but often unsustainable and unrecognized.

In 2019, we found an important piece of the solution. America’s workforce development system provides $10.5Bn in discretionary funds to our states and our local community to support training programs that help people prepare for and find employment. This money is governed by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. In 2019, I read the legislation and discovered that Entrepreneurship is one of the training pillars included in the legislation. In fact, it is so prevalent in legislative intent that it is referenced 7 times. This was the answer to provide organizations like theClubhou.se with a dependable, non-grant-based method of performance-based funding. This would allow us to invest in program excellence instead of grant writing. There was one catch, nobody in America was using their workforce funds to do this type of training.

That year, we launched Make Startups to tackle the challenge of aligning entrepreneur support programs with how our workforce system functions. This started by working with financial institutions such as Wells Fargo, SouthState Bank, Truist, and Venture South to develop learning and assessment standards that could make it easier for them to provide access to capital for a new business owner. With this, we formed America’s first and only finance industry credential for startup founders. With our incredible partners at WorkSource East Central Georgia and the CSRA Regional Commission, we were able to get state and local workforce board approval and piloted a truly innovative program in Augusta, Georgia.

We soon began working with organizations around the state and country to replicate this model and soon found that replicating the trust we have with our local workforce boards was difficult to replicate. The bias against entrepreneurship as an employment pathway is very strong. Despite obtaining state approvals in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Colorado, we were unsuccessful in convincing local workforce directors to use any of their funds to support entrepreneurs.

Congressman Rick Allen (far right) at a Make Startups meeting in Augusta

It was at this stage that I wrote my first policy paper and shared it with U.S. Congressman Rick Allen, our local representative. His office met with us and our founders to learn more about what we were trying to do. A few weeks later, we were surprised when they reached out to let us know they were working on legislation to address the challenges that entrepreneurs face in our workforce system. A few months later, he introduced the Startup Act, as a bipartisan bill introducing multiple provisions to our laws that would make it easier for entrepreneurs seeking help. Many of those provisions were then incorporated into the Stronger Workforce for America Act which overwhelmingly passed the House in April 2024 with bipartisan support by a vote of 378-26.

We face a great many challenges as a society. Divisiveness is easy, but it’s in finding innovative solutions that we can agree on where we have an opportunity to move forward together as Americans. I know I am fortunate to have been in a position where I could work without pay for years to find a solution to a systemic problem that we face, but my hope is that we all can benefit from this experience. It actually IS possible to engage the political process, but try to approach it with solutions. Become the expert on a subject so that you can share that expertise and provide a path forward instead of just pointing out another obstacle.

Eric R. Parker, AIA
Cofounder & CEO
Make Startups

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