Linking the unemployed to jobs: integrating transit planning and workforce development

Unemployed, Pedestrians boarding Metro Transit LightrailPhoto: Metro Transit transit-dependent workers are often caught between a rock and a hard place: they may be qualified for suburban jobs they have no way to get to, but unqualified for downtown jobs they could easily reach by transit. These two statements describe the interconnected problems of spatial mismatch and skills mismatch.

In a new study, University of Minnesota experts analyzed conditions in the Twin Cities metropolitan area and laid out an approach for reconciling those mismatches by coordinating transit planning, job training, and job placement services.

“Spatial mismatch is a serious problem in the Twin Cities region and it appears to have worsened since the turn of the millennium,” says Yingling Fan, associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the study’s principal investigator. “The biggest concentrations of unemployed workers lack frequent transit service to some of the richest concentrations of job vacancies, particularly jobs in the south and southwest metro.”

The researchers Person working with equipmentPhoto: Shutterstock found that accessibility to job vacancies via transit varies significantly by residential location and industry sector, with vacancies in certain sectors much more easily accessible from some parts of the region than others. “While transit access is generally good in the inner city, some areas of intense disadvantage—such as North Minneapolis, Brooklyn Park, and Midway St. Paul—have relatively poor access to entry-level jobs despite being near major employment centers,” Fan says.

They also identified in-demand occupations that offer a living wage, have low educational requirements, and are found across the regional economy. Some examples include health care aides, administrative assistants, machinists, and truck and bus drivers. “These jobs are not distributed evenly throughout the metro, though, so there is a need to combine job training and transit planning,” Fan says.

The researchers also analyzed the impacts of the proposed regional transit system buildout and found it would significantly increase access to jobs for disadvantaged areas. For example, they estimate a 23 percent increase for Brooklyn Park, 18 percent for North Minneapolis, and 17 percent for the Gateway Corridor along I-94 east of St. Paul.

At the scale of the region as a whole, the mismatch between unemployed workers and job vacancies would lessen with the proposed regional transit system, but only slightly. “Transit plays a crucial role, but it could be even more effective if efforts to get workers to the jobs they need were better coordinated with efforts to give them the skills they need for those jobs,” she says.

The team’s policy recommendations center on finding “sweet spots” for coordinated transit planning and workforce development and creating a future transit system to serve the needs of disadvantaged workers (see sidebar).

Co-investigators were Andrew Guthrie and Kirti Vardhan Das, research fellows in the Humphrey School. Sponsors were Hennepin County, the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota, and the McKnight Foundation.

“The McKnight Foundation focuses on low-income people and places that have been left out of the picture previously,” says Eric Muschler, program director with the foundation. “Dr. Fan’s research pulls these areas together so policymakers can see how policy can connect, reinforce, support, and provide benefit to the people that we care about.”

Policy recommendations include:

  • Redefine “accessible jobs” based on access by transit, not geography.
  • Consider the entire pipeline linking workers with jobs: individuals’ skills and interests, available training, jobs reachable by transit, and interested employers.
  • Collect data on job-seekers’ skills to help select occupations for training programs, and tailor those programs to participants’ capabilities and needs.
  • Identify employers who stand to benefit from engaging with workforce development and transit planning efforts. The employers may include those facing labor supply problems in inaccessible suburban locations.
  • Redefine flexible transportation to take into account disadvantaged workers’ often complex lives and nontraditional schedules. Serving disadvantaged workers well with transit will mean fast, frequent, regular regional service and local connections tailored to demand.
  • Pursue diverse first-mile/last-mile solutions to connect workplaces with transit lines. Engage transportation management organizations and also consider employer or district shuttles and car or bicycle sharing.
  • Pursue transit-oriented economic development to direct future job growth to transit-friendly areas.

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