Toward a more equitable workforce in Austin, TX: Local leaders work to break down barriers for Black and Latinx job seekers

Third Sector partnered with Austin Workforce Solutions (WFS), the Ray Marshall Center at the University of Texas (RMC) and the Travis County Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to facilitate a series of three workshops for 40 Austin area workforce leaders, including community-based organizations and community colleges. The workshops, funded by the Prudential Foundation, built on the Austin Community Workforce Master Plan (MCWP or Master Plan), which has an overall goal of 10,000 residents living at or below 200% of poverty securing middle-skill jobs by 2021. The workshops focused on developing a “continuous improvement” process for MCWP stakeholders, one that celebrates progress, creates space to go deeper with challenges, and develops human-centered solutions. 

The result of these three workshops was deeper conversations within the group about systemic racism and its effect on the Master Plan. Workforce leaders took new tools and concepts back to existing committees and designed a continuous improvement forum, with a focus on collaboration in the virtual environment.

What We Did

Prior to the workshops, Third Sector conducted a listening tour with all 12 organizations participating in the workshops:

Through workshops, participants practiced a complete continuous improvement process --- identifying challenges, examining and prioritizing root causes, and developing an action plan to prototype and test solutions. 

  • Workshop 1 delved into the challenge of retaining people of color in training and certificate programs. Participants examined data disaggregated by race and conducted root cause analyses to uncover systemic challenges in the Austin workforce system. 
  • Workshop 2 took a human-centered approach to solutioning around priority root causes. Understanding that people of color are not a monolith, workforce leaders centered Black and LatinX job seekers (young people and adults) in designing three solution ideas. 
  • Workshop 3 asked participants to design a continuous improvement process for iterating on solutions and collaborating across the workforce system long-term. Participants created new forums, one for community based organizations and one for all workforce stakeholders, to continue making progress toward the ambitious goals of the MCWP.

“When we started this project, it felt tangential and not related to our core work. Over time it became core to our work and you jump started us into future gear and even changed the overall dynamics of the Master Plan” - Greg Cumpton, evaluation partner at UT Ray Marshall Center

Third Sector used a racial equity-centered approach to arrive at three proposed solutions specifically designed to improve program retention and job placement outcomes for Black and LatinX adult and young adult job seekers in Austin:

What We Learned

Centering the conversation on race: Given the racial disparities in employment and wage outcomes, addressing Austin’s workforce system challenges from a racial equity lens was a consistent thread throughout each planning discussion and workshop. Participants began by examining disaggregated data and unpacking root causes of racialized outcomes in Austin’s workforce system. Participants then developed solutions around specific groups of people by race and age. In the final workshop, participants planned how to share decision-making with students and community members. Workforce partners also committed to writing explicit racial equity goals into the next version of the Austin Metro Area Master Community Workforce Plan.

Adapting to virtual format: Due to COVID-19, the initial project plan of hosting full-day, in-person workshops had to be reworked for a virtual format. To accommodate this shift, Third Sector held 1:1 calls with each participating organization, introducing our team and workshop content and asking for context on their current priorities and challenges. This intentional relationship-building led to higher workshop attendance than initially projected. We were also able to adjust workshop content to be responsive to both the immediate crisis (COVID-19) and sustained, long-term challenges (disparate outcomes for students and participants of color). Content was also adjusted, enabling the experience to be interactive through use of virtual breakout rooms, collaboration and co-creation using Google Slides, and co-facilitation with project partners (WFS, RMC, and HHS).   

Creating sustainability by leaning on local relationships and context: Third Sector worked closely with project partners, leaning on them for local context and workshop facilitation. With their insights, Third Sector was able to tailor workshop content, activities, and discussion to Austin’s context, including historical challenges with coordination between CBOs and community colleges. This approach invited workforce leaders to share ownership of a continuous improvement process that is inclusive, accountable, and collaborative by definition. 

“The skills we learned from you are continuing to bear fruit. Last week we reconvened all the CBO partners for their first ‘new table’ meeting. We used your google slide interactive format and it was fantastic! In 90 minutes we mapped their ecosystem, funding sources and supportive partners, and identified challenges they are facing in light of COVID. Your great instruction continues to influence the Austin non-profit community.” - Megan Elkins, director at Workforce Solutions


It’s hard to imagine that three workshops can have an impact on a large initiative that has already been underway for several years, especially when those workshops are entirely virtual. This partnership with WFS, RMC, and HHS shows that it is not only possible, but also exciting and transformational! The partners were invaluable collaborators who trusted Third Sector to make last-minute pivots based on what we heard from the group. Participants came to workshops embracing the spirit of continuous improvement and ready to have difficult conversations about racial disparities in their local workforce system. We look forward to seeing how this new focus, new structures and tools, and this tremendous group of innovators will continue to improve outcomes in the Austin workforce system. 

Thanks to support from: