Mayor Eric Johnson will today appoint Lynn McBee as the city’s workforce development czar, a topic that was foundational to his 2019 campaign.
McBee is the CEO of a statewide network of STEAM schools for girls, a board member for the Bridge homeless shelter, a philanthropist, until recently co-CEO of EarthX, and third-place finisher in the 2019 mayor’s race. During his campaign, Johnson called workforce development his “number one priority.” But the pandemic derailed efforts on that front. Only recently has his strategy come into focus, and McBee will be charged with pulling it off.
“I know there is a huge need in construction trades and warehousing and healthcare. Now, how do we let people know about these opportunities?” McBee says. “I’ve heard too many people say we can’t find nurses, we don’t have people that are technically trained enough. … Those jobs are there.”
Johnson commissioned a report in April about the city’s workforce. It was released in November and puts numbers to what was largely anecdotal: majority White, college-educated Dallasites hold the jobs that pay the most, while Black and Latino residents are disproportionately likely to earn $32,000 or less each year.
The mayor is nervous that automation might wipe those jobs out in the coming years, but the report signals something deeper. The city and its partners haven’t done enough to recognize the disparity in its workforce. These entities have failed to organize resources to provide education that could help elevate families out of poverty.
According to the report, just 40 percent of all jobs in Dallas pay more than $32,000 while also offering “positive or stable future growth.” The report defines a “family-sustaining wage” as $42,000 or more annually. White workers hold 54 percent of these jobs, a little less than double the total share held by Latino (16 percent) and Black (15 percent) workers. According to U.S. Census data, the median income for a family of four in Dallas is $86,200.
“We got here because of decisions that were made 10, 20, 30 years ago,” McBee says. “This is how it plays out, right? If you don’t give people access to opportunities, if you don’t give them the resources, then guess what happens. This is what happens.”
The report sees a path in what it terms “upskilling,” providing more education to men and women who are between ages 35 and 64. This population, the report found, is less educated than their younger counterparts and more likely to work a job that pays $32,000 or less. Women fare worse than men. About 40 percent of households with a single mother live below the poverty line.
To start, McBee will be charged with creating a formal agreement between partners in the effort: Dallas College and Workforce Solutions of Greater Dallas, for sure, but also maybe the United Way and large employers. This interlocal agreement would be the first formalized entity operated out of the mayor’s office. The goal is to pool resources, to use McBee as a sort of connective tissue between the organizations.
There are similar efforts in the city but none targeted at this population of working-age adults. Perhaps most similar is the Dallas County Promise, which grouped together school districts, colleges, universities, and employers to create targeted curriculum that allowed high schoolers to graduate with associate’s degrees and contacts within the industry they intend to pursue.
This effort will have different challenges: transportation, child care, flexible hours, and language barriers. These are adults, people with lives and families and responsibilities. And that’s where Johnson’s effort might be most ambitious. There hasn’t ever been a holistic, intentional strategy to provide further education to adult Dallasites, particularly with help from private businesses that would benefit from a more educated pool of workers.
“I think Dallas doesn’t tackle problems, or it hasn’t in the past, as a collective mindset,” McBee says. “What’s the whole ecosystem look like? If you do this and you do this, maybe we do this—I think we’ve gotten better at tying things together, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
She talks about her volunteer work as the co-chair for the community nonprofit For Oak Cliff, which serves the 75216 ZIP code. That organization frequently goes door to door to better understand the services it can help with. McBee sees parallels with the outreach that will be required here.
“Every bad statistic that’s in the report is being lived out there. And it’s just 30,000 people,” she says. “There’s been a lot of canvassing, tons of canvassing, lots of walking door to door working to really understand what the capabilities of the household are and what the needs of the household are.”
In a year, the mayor wants to see an interlocal agreement in place, an outreach strategy, potential curriculum, and a digital “navigation tool” that will help residents see the training and jobs available to them. From there, McBee may choose to step away and have a nonprofit run it.
Success, McBee says, would be “how many enroll, how many graduate, and how many are placed in jobs.”
“This is too important,” she said. “It’s something catalytic that can move our city forward.”