Building Workforce Relationships with Hard-to-Reach Communities


One of the longest-lasting symptoms of the COVID pandemic continues plaguing communities around the country and the world: The economic impact. From inflation to resource shortages to workforce issues, the lingering impact of pandemic stoppages brings daily headlines and signs of seismic shifts in how potential employees view their role in the workforce.

While communities work to emerge from, and adapt to, a tumultuous economy, true revitalization for states, cities, and counties comes when their residents get back to work. But many workforce development agencies face a variety of challenges in achieving that goal.

Shrinking numbers of potential employees, job seekers with different skills than those jobs with the highest demand, and workers’ ready access to digital information are just a few of the concerns communities face as they revitalize their workforces. This challenge can prove even more daunting for government employers who face internal processes and safeguards that can make meeting immediate staffing needs more difficult than private sector employers may face.

With recent U.S. job reports showing over 11 million open positions for employees, the opportunities for employment are abundant. Yet governments continue seeking ways to connect people with employers, especially when faced with the shrinking workforces and inequitable access to digital information.

Expanding reach to “hard to reach” communities (HTC) is key to not only solving the needs of government employers, but a critical way to diversify the workforce in a way that can better serve the interests of all community groups. Governments that can identify HTCs and create strategies to reach and engage them will have the most success when working to achieve these goals.

Identifying HTC Populations

Those residents in a community who face a real or perceived barrier to full and representative inclusion in the data collection process are considered “hard to reach” communities. Put another way, HTCs are groups within the population that either don’t participate in the data collection process, cannot take part due to lack of knowledge, or actively choose not to participate. Some examples of commonly HTC populations include people experiencing homelessness, historically marginalized groups, and nomadic peoples to name just a few.

HTC populations can be categorized as:

  • Hard to Locate: Populations can be both hard to sample and hard to identify by some characteristic of-interest (such as nomadic peoples and those hard to identify due to stigma/motivated misreporting).
  • Hard to Contact: Once located, populations can be difficult to physically access (gated communities or populations experiencing homelessness).
  • Hard to Persuade: Once accessed, populations may be reluctant to participate in enumeration (political dissidents or those who feel that they are too busy to participate).
  • Hard to Interview: Once engaged, enumeration itself may be hindered by some barrier (lack of a shared language, low literacy, or some form of disability).

Understanding the differences both between and within these audience groups provides the first opportunity to create strategies that engage, inform, and encourage a broader group of potential employees taking part in the government workforce.

Creating Strategies to Engage and Employ HTCs

Much like communications around events or important policy announcements, having a strong and focused communications strategy is vital to reaching those communities that regularly do not participate in government-related communications. While a strategy targeting increased awareness of employment opportunities may follow a similar approach to other communications plans, the experience that a potential employee has with an agency goes beyond a simple call-to-action or transaction. It creates a relationship that, when done well, will seamlessly transition from a government/resident relationship to an employer/employee partnership.

Put People First

Taking a “people first” approach to engagement stands as a cornerstone for almost any effective outreach strategy. Yet when it comes to workforce development plans, too often the focus is placed on the employment opportunities. This seems a natural approach, as workforce development works closely with the needs in the workforce which residents help fill.

Yet by shifting the focus to an employee-centric one, employers not only elevate the importance of the members of their workforce as individuals (instead of bodies to fill open positions), they also provide an easier way to match individual talents with job needs. People-first engagement strategies also can create an experience that helps eliminate barriers and offer easier access for those in HTCs who may avoid complicated or impersonal government experiences.

For government workforce efforts, a “people first” approach can include digital experiences such as resident-centric websites, that offer a hub for personalized information shared in a two-way relationship between the prospective employee and the workforce development office. Tailoring outreach and automating delivery can also accelerate audience growth.

This starts with having a better understanding of both the active communities and HTCs that workforce development is trying to attract. Ask such questions as:

  • Who is the intended audience for reach? ​
  • What are the ideal actions for them to take? ​
  • What are their needs, motivations, behaviors, and how do these factor into their actions?

While an agency might not be able to answer all three questions for all their HTCs, creating strategies and experiences focused on addressing those issues will result in improved connections with all communities.

Go Beyond Digital

Reaching HTCs effectively requires more than just a digital makeover. Creating experiences that address the needs and motivations of potential members of the workforce will mean nothing if they never interact with those experiences. And, as previously mentioned, HTCs tend to be communities that aren’t looking to (or physically can’t) engage with workforce development on a digital level.

By reaching beyond digital efforts and integrating strategies with trusted community partners, agencies can amplify critical information with a partner who can advocate on their behalf. More than that, it can build trust with communities typically underserved by other government programs. ​

Building trust with the underserved often starts by identifying trusted influencers within niche or hyper-local communities. Pastors, school leaders, social workers, and food banks stand as trusted sources for many HTCs that workforce development agencies target. Earnest, honest partnerships with these groups can drive their communities to opt-in to an agency’s goals.​

Widen the Digital Lens

Building relationships within communities is a decidedly non-digital approach to reaching a greater number of people in HTCs. The legwork and time committed to building those relationships is valuable. Once those relationships are formed, however, how can the connection with audiences reached in those communities continue to be nourished?

Relying on only one means of digitally connecting with HTCs can prove inefficient and, ultimately, unsuccessful. While not all HTCs may have easy access to a desktop computer for reaching the internet, a survey by Gartner showed that 97% of people have a cell phone, including nearly 100% of those ages 18-49 and 97% of those who earn less than $49,999 per year.

Creating experiences that provide easy engagement from a cell phone is crucial to success in any modern digital communications strategy. For workforce development efforts, however, the impact of SMS communications (text messages) is also important. That same report showed that SMS open and response rates as high as 98% and 45%, respectively. ​In an area, such as workforce development, where important information related to job openings benefits from instant notifications, text messaging provides a way to engage HTCs where they are and in a way that they are more likely to interact.

Digital connections also offer a way of more consistently reaching HTCs over time than other non-digital approaches. As members of underserved communities are more likely to rent their place of residence or move frequently, regular mail approaches are often less effective strategies, at a high cost for agency budgets. ​

SMS messaging also can prove an effective tactic for HTCs in areas where there is low access to broadband internet, in either rural areas or due to income constraints.​

Create A Multi-Touchpoint Strategy

Just as with any strong relationship, building a connection with HTCs and encouraging more participation in workforce development requires a plan that both respects the audience’s interests while engaging with them in the places where they will most likely decide to take action. But as these communities may already be wary of interaction with government, it’s important to make sure that any internal hurdles that might otherwise interfere with users quickly reaching their end goal are addressed before implementing any external strategy.

From there, create a map that identifies each of the touchpoints between the agency and the audience. By using the “people first” focus mentioned earlier, communications should reflect audience needs at each touchpoint, culminating in a journey that supports the potential employee’s goals and results in workforce development’s intended outcome.

Here is an example of that type of strategy:

By identifying the places where potential employees can interact with workforce development, and making sure that those places are equally consistent in messaging and unique to meeting their needs, the relationship between communities and workforce development will grow and strengthen.

Learn more building strategies that can help reach underserved and hard-to-reach communities in this Granicus webinar!

Discover More Blogs


Ready to deliver exceptional outcomes?

Book a demo