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WBJ: Professional services has a major racial gap in hiring. Connected DMV wants to solve it.

To read the original story on the Washington Business Journal please click here.

By Hannah Denham – Staff Reporter, Washington Business Journal

Feb 11, 2022

Connected DMV is teaming up with local community colleges to channel low-income Black and brown students into high-paying professional services jobs that ramp up talent — and keep it local.


The initiative launched by the local nonprofit that focuses on regional growth is called Nextversity. The three-year program will guide community college graduates through learning the professional skills and training needed for jobs in consulting, hospitality, finance and law, roles that otherwise typically require four-year degrees, networking, a bolstered resume and other resources they may not have access to. The pilot starts next year, when a cohort of 30 graduates will be selected from Northern Virginia and Prince George’s community colleges.


Students in the cohort will work alongside trained supervisors on projects related to the professional services industry, said Sarah Bauder, vice president for development and workforce initiatives for Connected DMV, who is co-leading Nextversity with Mimi Yeh, Connected DMV’s vice president of human capital. They’ll also rotate between project assignments, to expand what industries they’re exposed to and make more informed decisions about what career paths they’re interested in pursuing. Nextversity will also supply students’ needs with technology and family support, for wraparound services.


Upon completing the program, students will receive a Nextversity certificate. Bauder said she hopes the industry will come to recognize the program's graduates as ideal job candidates. The program will be funded through philanthropy and public funds from D.C., Maryland and Virginia, she said, though she didn’t specify how much it will cost to launch and sustain the program.


The program will scale to 175 students each year, until the total cohort reaches 500, said Stu Solomon, president and CEO of Connected DMV. The goal is to solve one of the region’s major workforce gaps, where local talent isn't filling professional services industry’s needs, and so employers hire candidates externally, who move to D.C. and leave after a year and a half.


To Solomon, this initiative differs from other similar regional workforce programs because participants work in cohorts, they undergo consistent training that can be scaled up, and the program emphasizes the changes the industry needs to make to prioritize the changing workforce.


Planning for Nextversity started a year ago, Solomon said, after local leaders in business, government and education discussed the need for more apprenticeships at the organization’s regional congress meetings. The initiative also aims to address regional divides across the Potomac River, to prioritize the voices of community college graduates, and to meet companies’ goals to transform their employee base into one that’s reflective of the diverse community, Bauder said.


“Many of us come out of the corporate world, and it was very difficult to hire this demographic,” Solomon said. “We all want to. We all intended to. But we weren't terribly successful in doing that because our own organizations were not adept at flexing to the wide variety of backgrounds that are required for that.”


The region’s four major community colleges teach more than 92,000 students each year, including nearly 23,000 Black students and 20,000 Latino students, Connected DMV points out on Nextversity’s landing page. And the workforce gap in these industries is wide: the region has 12,500 open entry-level business positions, yet fewer than 12% of the currently filled positions are held by Black or brown people, Bauder said.


“If we’re going to make some changes in these major corporations, we can’t just expect for the persons from the communities of color to find them,” said Falecia Williams, the president of Prince George’s Community College, who is co-chairing the initiative. “We really have to be intentional about opening the door, and also the internal systems that organizations think about in how they embrace their work and how they embrace the members of their respective work communities.”


Along with Williams, the initiative is co-chaired by Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College, and Mary Brady, president and CEO of The Economic Club of Washington, D.C. Montgomery College and the University of the District of Columbia are also on the steering committee, Solomon said.


“There are pathways into positions that are in high demand in our region, especially around professional services, that too often our students, whether they're from NOVA, Prince George's, Montgomery, or beyond, simply are not considered for,” Kress said.


Nextversity is still in the development stage, and the team plans to flesh out the details of the selection process over the next three months, Bauder said. They’re also working to build relationships with companies through Brady's connections at The Economic Club, which she said has the resources of 970 individuals plugged into the business community who are ready to contribute to the region’s educational needs.


“The reality is that our business leaders need that critical thinking skills not in 10 years, they need it now,” Brady said. “I think that, right now, we’re ripe for disruption.”