When it comes to workforce development, learning businesses can play a critical role in identifying and delivering the skills employees need and those that employers want. From attracting and educating workers new to the field to upskilling and reskilling those already working, learning businesses can have a significant impact on the profession or industry they serve.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, we break down the topic of workforce development, including how we define it, key stakeholders involved, and its history in the U.S. We also look at workforce development today and the related opportunities for learning businesses.
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[00:00] – Intro
What Is Workforce Development?
[00:28] – Workforce development can be a complex topic, so we’ll start by defining it.
This is based on the definition of workforce development used by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. We like that definition because it is broad. It encompasses the activities done by various players in workforce development, and it covers the range of perspectives represented by those players.
Workforce development players include the following:
- Education providers (including K-12, higher ed, and learning businesses) and social service providers
They tend to approach workforce development from the perspective of the individual. Their approach to workforce development programs is based on the belief that individuals won’t be able to make substantive contributions to society without access to training and education and that an individual’s basic needs must be met for her to contribute to society. Social services figure in, along with job training and education, to position an individual for success in the workforce.
They tend to approach workforce development from an organizational perspective, focusing on the skills and training their specific organization needs to be and remain competitive or, more broadly, the skills and training needed by their industry or profession.
- Communities and economic developers
They tend to approach workforce development from the perspective of what benefits the community or region. Workforce development from the community perspective tends to focus on initiatives that educate and train individuals to meet the current and future needs of businesses and industries in a region, and it tends to emphasize local or regional needs.
[04:36] – In some ways the regional or local focus can be good, as a tighter geographic focus facilitates communication and coordination among players. In other ways, the local focus can be limiting when you consider the global nature of much of the economy and the growing prevalence of remote work.
There has also been growth in a more nomadic workforce. If workers can work remotely, they don’t necessarily have to stay in one area. They can move around while remaining employed at the same place. These more recent trends toward remote work and a more nomadic workforce are interesting to consider in light of the fact that workforce development tends to be decentralized by nature.
In an ideal scenario, the individual, organizational, and regional perspectives of workforce development would have significant overlap.
The History of Workforce Development
To add some details to our definition, here are some workforce development facts from U.S. history:
- FDR’s New Deal (passed in the 1930s) as a result of the Great Depression is commonly viewed as the start of federal workforce development legislation. During the eight years that this program existed, it generated more than 8.5 million jobs nationwide.
- President Clinton signed the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998 during a period of full employment. It focused on the delivery of workforce development programs and related services through a nationwide network of community-based, one-stop career centers. It gave individuals a single location where they could go and access workforce programs and services. WIA created workforce investment boards, led by businesses, to develop local strategies based on labor market data and to oversee programs in their communities.
- In 2014, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which reauthorized the workforce investment system and replaced the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. WIOA took effect on July 1, 2015, and states and local workforce development boards are implementing the act into the present day.
To learn more, check out The History of Workforce Development from the PA Workforce Development Association.
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Workforce Development Today and the Opportunity for Learning Businesses
The Great Resignation
[10:24] – When we think about jobs and the current moment, it’s hard not to think of the Great Resignation, AKA the Big Quit, AKA the Great Reconsideration. Whatever you call it, this is the fact that a record-breaking 47.4 million people quit their job in 2021. The pandemic has been a major driver of the quitting, but COVID is only part of the picture.
The Great Reconsideration being one of the names given to this phenomenon speaks to the revaluation that many workers are doing. We know low wages and new career goals have driven some of the resignations, and those are the kinds of things workforce development can help with. One of the big goals of workforce development is good jobs.
It’s not any job or jobs at any cost. The goal is good jobs, high-quality jobs…. The U.S. isn’t facing a labor shortage. The U.S. is facing a good jobs shortage.Celisa Steele
To learn more, check out “It’s a Good Jobs Shortage: The Real Reason So Many Workers Are Quitting” from the Center for American Progress.
Even before the pandemic, a lot of workers were dealing with low or stagnant wages, unpredictable schedules, and undesirable working conditions—and going without benefits like health care and paid family and medical leave. The number of good jobs has been on the decline for decades according to the U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index (JQI).
Opinions on what constitutes a good, high-quality job differ. The Job Quality Index looks at money, specifically the weekly income a job generates for an employee. A September 2020 report from the Center for American Progress asserts that we need to go beyond income only. It asserts that good jobs are “the kind of jobs that afford economic security and participation in civic life as opposed to occupations that require few skills, pay low wages, or are vulnerable to outsourcing.”
Job quality should also consider worker safety, commute time, working environment, the right to unionize, and equal pay and discrimination.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
[13:28] – There is a push for diversity, equity, and inclusion and a focus on DEI in workforce development. This is where the societal or community perspective of workforce development comes into play. Marina Zhavoronkova, a senior fellow for workforce development at the Center for American Progress has a February 2022 article that points to the fact that construction and other industries supported by the new bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act face labor shortages. That act allocates $1.2 trillion toward repairing the transportation system, ensuring access to clean water, connecting people to high-speed broadband, and more in the U.S. She asserts that workforce development systems can help narrow the labor shortage by supporting efforts to bring in women and workers of color.
To learn more, check out “Meeting the Moment: Equity and Job Quality in the Public Workforce Development System” from the Center for American Progress (also by Marina Zhavoronkova).
Another thing to note when looking at workforce development in the current moment is that workforce development plays a role not only in attracting and skilling new workers but in upskilling and retaining workers. And when the labor market is as tight as it is now, the retaining piece becomes as important and valuable as the attracting piece, especially to employers.Jeff Cobb
Partnering with Employers
[15:51] – Learning businesses should take the time and money to invest in finding and forming partnerships. If you’re going to be an education provider in the workforce development realm, then close alignment with employers in your industry or profession is essential.
That alignment with employers is part of your marketing. It is also a big part of how you know that the products and services you offer will be seen as valuable.
Also, if you can go beyond alignment with employers to actual partnerships, then you can make the design and development of new products less risky. Depending on the nature of the partnership, you may share design and development costs with an employer-partner, or you may pre-sell to that employer-partner, so you go into design and development knowing that you’ve got a B2B sale already guaranteed. Whether what you’re doing “counts” as workforce development or not, your work to align with or to partner with employers is valuable. It’ll be useful broadly in your learning business because it keeps you connected to the industry or profession you’re serving.
In our years of experience working with organizations, we haven’t seen enough intentional effort to communicate with employers, understand their needs, and use that as the basis for creating products that you know there is demand for out in the marketplace.
We recently spoke to Clare Marsch, SVP of training and development at the American Bankers Association (ABA), and she talked about how close ABA is to the banks, which are the employers in ABA’s field. ABA offers in-bank learning programs, and they work closely with their members to create programs. That keeps them aligned with employers, and that’s something that most trade and professional associations can do—make use of their members to get and stay connected with employers.
Clare also pointed out that one of the important things she and her team do is seed the market for future bankers. ABA has relationships with colleges, universities, community colleges, and educational organizations that spread knowledge of the banking industry to the next generation of workers. So ABA is both professionalizing current bankers and seeding the market for future bankers.
Given the benefits of partnering and working with employers, why it doesn’t happen more? At least part of the answer is likely related to the time and effort required. When we spoke to Lowell Aplebaum, he talked about the need for potential partners to come into discussions with open minds. The time, energy, and open-mindedness required for effective partnerships are barriers. But they’re worth taking on because the potential return is huge.
[20:48] – We invite and encourage you to take time to reflect.
- What role does your learning business play in attracting and educating workers new to the field, industry, or profession you serve?
- What role might your learning business play? There may be opportunities to revisit and refine what you offer or add new offerings.
- How clear are you on the needs of the employers in your field, industry, or profession?
- When was the last time you verified those employer needs? Make use of relevant existing research and/or conduct your own. (We recommend Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce as a good potential resource. Specifically, check out Workplace Basics: The Competencies Employers Want, which explores how 120 knowledge areas, skills, and abilities are demanded across the workforce and within specific occupations.)
- What are the implications and opportunities of recent and still unfolding trends, like automation and artificial intelligence? What do these trends mean related to skills gaps, upskilling, and reskilling? How might your learning business help?
[23:46] – Wrap-up
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