Workforce Development Should Matter to All of Us

For decades, American voters have consistently ranked the economy as one of the most important issues facing our country. In fact, in a Gallup poll conducted in late-2018, 78 percent of American voters rated the economy as extremely/very important.

It’s clear that Americans care deeply about the economy and employment, and, as a result, they expect lawmakers and economic developers to take swift, urgent action to create jobs. But do voters feel that same level of concern and urgency about the current skills gap facing communities and employers? Are they talking about workforce development at the dining room table in the same way they talk about jobs and the economy?

Most of us don’t realize how much the skills gap touches our daily lives; or that it is vital to spurring economic growth and lowering unemployment. So vital, in fact, that earlier this month 42 of 50 U.S. governors told President Trump that workforce development is their top priority.

The definition of workforce development exists within the name itself – it’s a practice designed to develop a skilled labor force capable of meeting industry workforce needs. Simply stated, workforce development ensures cities, regions and states have qualified people to fill jobs.

If, for example, an automaker establishes a manufacturing facility in a community, the facility manager will need to hire workers who are properly trained and ready to fill those new jobs. He or she also will want to know that the workforce of tomorrow is being developed. Unfortunately, If the local community does not have a trained workforce and a skills gap emerges, the facility manager will likely recruit employees outside of the community and, in some cases, outside of the state. This situation is not ideal for the automaker or the local community.

Although the above example is a hypothetical, the skills gap in America is very real, and it is widespread. A new study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute shows that due to the skills gap an estimated 2.4 million positions may go unfilled between 2018 and 2028, with a potential economic impact of $2.5 trillion.

So, in a society where jobs are top-of-mind for most voters, why do we continue to see so many positions go unfilled?

For many community leaders and employers, the answer is clear – misalignment between education and industry. If educators are preparing young people for career fields with limited labor needs, and industry leaders are not communicating the specific skills they require of their workforce, we’re left with too many workers getting post-secondary credentials with little value and too many jobs going unfilled.

We must find creative ways to identify structural issues and take swift action to address them. In our work in this field, we’ve identified four key components of an effective workforce development effort. They include:

  1. Gather the Facts – to be effective in generating system change for workforce development, you need reliable and valid data to guide your efforts. In-depth labor market studies – much like building (it) together in Birmingham and Inflection Point in Pittsburgh – highlight current and future workforce needs.
  2. Invite Stakeholders to the Table – workforce development is an issue that impacts everyone, so it’s critical to bring a diverse group of stakeholders together to address it. Educators, industry leaders, economic developers, lawmakers, and the public (including parents and students) need to be involved. If you want real buy-in, you must take the time to show all stakeholders how the issue impacts them.
  3. Align Efforts – silos between institutions of higher education, industry leaders and nonprofit organizations can stifle workforce development efforts, so you must make a concerted effort to open lines of communication between all stakeholders, including the public. Doing this helps assure that existing workforce development efforts are focused and coordinated, and future needs are identified. Assign clear roles and responsibilities to the stakeholders around the table and move forward with an action plan that requires collaboration (but avoids duplication).
  4. Measure Outcomes – identify measurable goals and highlight the strategies and tactics needed to achieve them, as well as key milestones along the way. Once you commit to what you want to achieve and how you’ll achieve it, be transparent about your results. Share lessons learned and yes, even setbacks. Celebrate success in ways that move beyond numbers, demonstrating the human impact of your effort on individuals, employers and communities.

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