After just one month of the state’s stay-home order, Washington unemployment spiked to more than 18 percent. This prompted the folks at Tacoma’s workforce-development agency, WorkForce Central, to come up with a way to eventually put 150,000 Pierce County residents back to work.

Despite facing arguably the worst unemployment crisis in generations, the organization’s newly appointed CEO, Katie Condit, spoke with optimism about how the organization had pivoted to meet the needs of the community during the pandemic.

Originally from California, Condit initially came to Tacoma to attend the University of Puget Sound. After receiving a degree in sociology and theater, her teaching interests sent her abroad — first to London, then to Prague, where she spent a year helping business leaders improve their English.

Condit continued her education at Notre Dame, where she received a master’s in sociology. As a National Science Foundation research fellow, she examined the impact of alternative school pathways on students of color, young people with disabilities, and those involved in the juvenile justice system.

Most recently, Condit spent five years as executive director at Better Together Central Oregon, an educational nonprofit counterpart to Graduate Tacoma, and helped build public-private partnerships that generated career pathways and internship opportunities for young people across six school districts.

Condit said returning to Pierce County has felt like a “homecoming.” She joined WorkForce Central as CEO in July, bringing a passion for workforce development solutions and cross-sector partnerships. “I think there’s magic in public-private partnerships,” she said. “When we take our government and education and nonprofit entities and tap into expertise in the private sector and vice versa, we seem to be able to create some pretty incredible opportunities for young people and communities.” South Sound Business recently caught up with Condit to discuss the South Sound’s labor force and how it has been impacted by COVID-19.

How are Pierce County industries faring?

Hospitality was growing with the growing economy and then suddenly took a turn with COVID and is now one of our most-hurt industry sectors in Pierce County; retail is another. Where we do see growth is in (the) manufacturing sector (and) also in health care across the board. Behavioral health, mental health providers, (and the) behavioral health industry have continued and will continue to grow. We have a number of providers — health care is one of them — in what I’m calling “recovery sectors.” We have a number of nonprofits, like food banks, who are really hungry for capacity and need more workforce on the ground today. Those are interesting sectors to watch as we think about recovery and coming back online.

How is WorkForce Central supporting young people who are graduating into the current economy?

We have this really strong focus on young adults entering the workforce. One of our strongest charges is engaging young people who aren’t currently connected to education or employment. And we have a suite of wraparound services for these young people through our local provider where they’re engaged.

Leaving school and entering this economy right now (also) is incredibly difficult. And so (we’re) developing some of those shorter-term pathways: training and certification programs through local colleges, that are recognizing when young people are coming out there may not be jobs in COVID, where young people can get immediate training or one-time trainings that might boost their opportunities to enter the workforce meaningfully, without having to receive a two- or four-year degree.

We are working with the goal of giving young people opportunity. We are working in partnership with Pierce County and Goodwill on building a Recovery Corps, an opportunity for young people to come straight into work in those recovery sectors.

WorkForce Central received $2.5 million in federal recovery grants to ramp up efforts to get people back to work after the pandemic. How is that money being spent?

Part of that will be that Recovery Corps model … subsidizing wages for young people and adults in the short term to get them on or back on an employment path. A large portion of that funding will go to expanding services for our providers to be able to expand their staff to reach more adults and dislocated workers and those who were impacted by COVID. What we’re (also) seeing is more individuals knocking on the door at (our workforce development system) WorkSource saying, “I’ve never been unemployed before. My training for the last 30 years has been in this company as an administrator. And I have no sense of what it’s going to take to upskill or rescale.” At WorkSource, we’re needing to grow the capacity to meet that need. So that is a large portion of what that funding was for: growing that capacity around coaching, job placement, and connecting people who have all of a sudden found themselves unemployed into meaningful opportunities with additional supports.

What shape do you anticipate the region’s economic recovery will take, and how are you planning?

One of the things I’d say that’s really interesting about this recovery that is certainly folded into the core of our planning is that we keep hearing about business and organization sustainability and growth. … In many ways, for the first time, that does not equate to job growth, because we are looking at such a rapid pace future of automation — in a significantly faster way than maybe we were pre-COVID. This push and shove to automate, to make sure that we’re able to be up and running with fewer people — our prediction, and what we’re seeing already happen, is it will lead to business sustainability and growth without that same number of job opportunities.

And so, we’re asking the question of, “Where will wages live? What will businesses and organizations continue to need to pay people for?” That’s where conversations around health care, and specifically behavioral health, continue to come up. One of the questions we’re asking and work that we’re putting in place is: “How do we more quickly, while still thoroughly, educate people into behavioral health fields, like mental health care workers, which take years and years of school for certification?”

Have you found an answer?

Overall, how we’re planning for the future is, we’re thinking a lot more strategically from a step in, (on-the-job training) perspective. Even if your pathway is four years of college or more, step in and be trained on the job as you go, as opposed to going to school for four years out of high school and then coming into work for the first time. … We tend to have this dichotomy of either you’re going to college or you’re not. The future is blending what that looks like, and stepping into career pathways earlier, and gaining that experience on the job and paid work.

What support have you been able to provide to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID?

Something that’s coming up again (is that) our industries don’t always reflect our community, from a diversity perspective, in terms of leadership or even engagement and employment. And so, we have businesses saying, “Gosh, I’d love to diversify my workforce. I hired two people who are experiencing disabilities, who don’t stay or don’t have what it takes.” And so, we’re doing a lot of work with businesses to ask … “What does it take to shift some of your policies and practices to make that easier to make retention true for communities who are disproportionately impacted? What does it look like for businesses or organizations to diversify (their) board of directors and think about communities of color in those leadership positions?”

We’re not just asking those questions, but (we also are) looking at our business solutions team as an opportunity to, frankly, hold the mirror up to ourselves at WorkForce Central and do that better. But to also think about ways that businesses and cultures where employees are showing up to work every day are inclusive, are accommodating, (and) are places that people with different lived experiences want to and can show up and perform well.

Nearly a third of Pierce County’s labor force commutes out of the county for work. What impact does this have locally and how is WorkForce Central working to address this?

I will start by saying we’re not against people commuting to work if they’re in work that they love and with wages that they find livable and meaningful. But above and beyond that, when people are commuting out, they’re also often spending out. So that’s fewer resources that are going to local businesses and organizations in Pierce County.

With COVID, it’s been interesting because we have far more people working remotely than getting on the road and commuting. What we don’t have clear data on, and it will be interesting to see, is how many more of those resources are being spent locally. I think living wages and space are big parts to that question of what brings businesses and/or residents to work in or set up shop outside of Pierce County. In some cases, you can find a job that’s similar in Seattle that pays a higher wage that makes it worth it for a commute. So, some of what we’re doing is taking a really hard look at living wages in Pierce County and what our businesses and our industry sectors (are) paying workers compared to King County.

Do you see work-from-home as the new normal?

It is really hard to predict what this will look like when COVID shakes out, in terms of where people land, but what we think will be true is that this trend in remote work isn’t disappearing. We’re not going back to the old normal. We’re taking a hard look at local wages, but also encouraging and working with local businesses and employers to design hybrid models in the long term. (That way you’d be) paid an equal living in Pierce County that you would in King County, and also have the opportunity to stay in a hybrid work mode that allows you to stay home with your kids, or with your family, or in a comfortable and safe space.

What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead for workforce development in the region?

Unpredictability. In economic and workforce analysis (we often) have some foundation on which to predict current and future trends. We just don’t have that right now.

I think this balance of safety and mental health support with economic productivity and businesses reopening will be a challenge. Because one of the other things that’s true is there are jobs open and there are people to fill them, and people do not feel safe going to work right now. There’s so much heavy mental pressure on our community, and communities across the country, that engaging in a new job is unfathomable in some ways to many people who can’t even meet their own basic mental health needs.

Third and, frankly, looming largest, is whatever public education does is going to directly impact the workforce. We now have skilled and unskilled labor who were ready to go back to work, but who now also have to be first teachers to their children. Without options for where to put young people, especially in meaningful education environments, the entire idea and structure of the home and parental responsibility have shifted in a way I don’t think we could have predicted. That is taking a toll on parents’ ability to think about being productive members of the workforce.