How Tech Can Bridge the Employment Opportunity Gap

First published by Walmart, March 22, 2018. 

Technology is quickly changing how we live our lives, helping to make so many things easier, cheaper and faster. It’s also changing the way we work. Research suggests that innovations like artificial intelligence have the potential to significantly shift what certain types of work look like in the future.

While these changes might cause some to worry, they also provide an incredible opportunity to help us work in ways we haven’t before. Imagine being able to match your unique skillsets, strengths, and personality in a way that helps you find the right job. Or learning new skills through an app or platform that performs as easily as social media does. Or technology that connects you directly to services that can help overcome specific career barriers.

Helping bring technologies like these to life is exactly what the Employment Technology Fund (ETF) has set out to do.

Funded by the WalmartRockefeller, Joyce and W.K. Kellogg Foundations, the ETF invests in organizations and companies that have developed technology-enabled solutions that help workers overcome the barriers that often hold them back from advancing their skills, connecting to meaningful work and ultimately living up to their full potential. In doing so, the ETF strives to increase equal opportunities for millions of working adults – many of whom are women, minorities, and immigrants.

ETF’s latest social investments include Signal Vine, a company that uses text messaging to deliver highly personalized and interactive coaching to drive better behaviors and outcomes; SkillSmart, a skills-matching platform that increases transparency in the career development and job search process; and Nepris, a video-driven platform that provides teachers and students a way to connect with professionals around the world. These three companies exemplify a growing force of new entrepreneurs who share the belief that technology can drive social and economic progress.

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Springfield Works Gets State Funding to Expand Programs to Help Job Seekers

SkillSmart with Springfield WORKS

First published by MassLive, March 6, 2018. 

Springfield Works will use $75,000 it received last week from the state to expand efforts to mentor and guide job seekers all the way from initial assessment to employment.

Director Anne Shecrallah Kandilis said Springfield Works will also use the money to expand financial literacy programs aimed at easing the transition form public assistance to self-sufficiency in ways that keep folks from losing necessary services and benefits before they are really ready to go it alone.

The state awarded $500,000, including $75,000 to Springfield Works, through the Urban Agenda Grant Program designed to promote economic development in Massachusetts through the building of community partnerships in addressing obstacles to employment.

Springfield Works is part of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, and its aim is to simplify both the search for jobs and employers’ search for workers.

It uses SkillSmart, an online portal at springfieldworks.skillsmart, where job seekers can catalog their experience, education and work history, see what available jobs they qualify for and learn what training is available that they would need for open jobs. It’s the same online portal MGM Springfield is using to fill its 3,000 jobs. Employers and cities elsewhere also use SkillSmart.

Kandilis said SkillSmart is starting to catch on here even though she’s only got about 100 jobs listed thus far in addition to MGM.

“I have employers calling me every day,” she said. “So certainly the demand for the portal is really great.”

Kandilis said she has 320 job seekers signed up right now and she spent a recent day at the Springfield Public Library signing up more. MGM Springfield has a database of 8,000 job seekers.

“I want a thousand in our portal,” she said.

There are 43 separate agencies and organizations provide workforce training in the city and surrounding communities. Springfield Works’ job is give jobs seekers and those looking to hire one-stop-shopping.

“I think there is a disconnect,” Kandilis said. “Our job is to get people moving from program to program, step-by-step, and on to a job.”

The portal launched in October.

Just 58 percent of Springfield’s working-age population is working or looking for work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Springfield Works received a $475,000 Working Cities Challenge grant through the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 2016.

While directed at Springfield residents, the portal is open to any area job seeker or employer, Kandilis said.  

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said in a news release that he is thankful for Gov. Charlie Baker’s support of Springfield and its workforce.

“I’m proud to support this initiative, which will help advance the city’s economy by enhancing and strengthening the connectivity between employers who need qualified workers to support operations and growth to Springfield residents in need of work,” Sarno said. “I’m also appreciative of our EDC and Springfield Works Director Anne Kandilis’ continued and dedicated efforts in leading this initiative.”

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MGM Springfield Looks to Hire Puerto Rican Evacuees Using SkillSmart Platform

First published by MassLive, January 24, 2018. 

In Puerto Rico, Omyra Merced worked at several hotels planning events. “I worked in tourism and event planning, doing weddings and parties, things like that,” she said Wednesday. “After the hurricane, many of the hotels closed, so finding employment is difficult.”

Merced was one of a dozen Puerto Rican evacuees who attend an informational session at the MGM Career Center on East Columbus Avenue to fill out job applications.

“We’re here to talk about career opportunities that we can offer to those individuals displaced by the hurricane in Puerto Rico,” said Jason Randall, MGM Springfield‘s director of talent, acquisition and development. “We recognize that Puerto Rico does have a vast hospitality industry, including gaming and operations, and there are individuals who have backgrounds in these fields who are displaced in this area.”

With 3,000 jobs to fill at MGM, Randall is confident that some evacuees will have a chance at a new career and a new start in life.

“We will talk about jobs with anyone who wants to listen,” Randall said. “We are committed to 3,000 jobs, of which 80 percent are going to be full-time positions on property with us, so our goal in 2018 is to fill all of those positions.”

While the language barrier has been a major hurdle for many people seeking jobs, MGM has many employees fluent in Spanish. Several of them were on hand Wednesday to guide the applicants through the process of submitting their resumes and applying for jobs using the SkillSmart program available in the career center’s computer lab.

MGM Springfield is expected to open in September.

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Veterans: America’s Skilled Workforce


veterans skills gapVeterans and their spouses have the right skills.

On this Veteran’s Day, our thoughts turn to those who have served and are serving our nation in the military. There is often talk of sacrifice and service, but most of our population has very little understanding of what our Veterans have done or the commitment they’ve made.

In fact, only about 7% of the total U.S. population, or about 22 million people, have served or are serving in the military. When you consider that nearly two-thirds of these Veterans served prior to the Gulf wars, then it’s not surprising that most people in the workplace have very little opportunity to interact with someone who may have served and have any understanding of how much value a Veteran can bring to their organization.

At SkillSmart, we are honored to be supporting the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corporation in implementing the Military Corps Career Connect (C3) program to assist transitioning military, military spouses and Veterans in finding employment opportunities in their community.

We know that those serving and supporting our military acquire numerous skills during their duties each day, but don’t know how those skills correlate to civilian jobs. Using our technology, we can help employers better communicate the skills they’re seeking and help Veterans better see how the skills they’ve gained in the military can land them a good job.

We hope that our contribution can help improve the lives of some of those who have chosen to defend ours.

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Getting Smart About Skills Transfer Could Solve the Skills Gap

First published by SHRM, November 7, 2017. 

A poor understanding of how job skills transfer among occupations—especially from occupations in decline to in-demand fields—is one of the biggest reasons for the nation’s skills gap. But employers and job seekers can identify similar skills for different jobs with tools that help recruiters expand their searches for qualified applicants and help workers move across occupations and industries.

“Most organizations haven’t quantified the skills they’re seeking, so if I haven’t articulated what I’m looking for, it becomes harder for me to look at a skill someone may have used in a different industry and see how that translates to the job I’m trying to fill,” said Mike Knapp, CEO and co-founder of SkillSmart, a job placement platform that connects employers, job seekers and educational partners to help close skills gaps. “Added to that, people haven’t quantified their own skills from previous jobs, so even if I knew what I’m looking for, how would I know that person had those skills?”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network (O*NET) is one place to start. O*NET is a continually updated database containing hundreds of distinguishing characteristics for almost 1,000 jobs across the U.S. economy. The information includes:

•  The knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to perform each job.
•  Occupational interests and work styles associated with each job.
•  Tasks and activities that make up job duties within each occupation.

“O*NET can be very useful for talent acquisition,” said Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. “I use it myself when searching for research assistants. My team will get together and decide what skills we need in order to complete a project. We go to O*NET to help us craft the job description because it provides the knowledge, skills and abilities one would use in that job.”

It’s also a great tool for determining skills overlap, she said. O*NET identifies similar required skills among different occupations, so people considering a career change can identify new opportunities and employers can feel more secure in widening their search parameters.

“You can line two occupations up and compare them for shared competencies,” Smith said. “Even if someone has trained for occupation A, they may have 90 percent of the competencies for occupation B.”

A 2017 New York Times review of the database showed how much overlap there is between seemingly dissimilar occupations. Service industry jobs, for example, require social skills and experience working with customers—abilities which also apply to sales jobs. The skills of tractor-trailer truck drivers are most aligned with jobs like rail yard and locomotive engineers and crane operators. Not surprisingly, payroll specialists’ skills match up with tax preparers, accountants, court clerks and legal secretaries. The article relates how a man laid off from oil production work couldn’t find a stable new job working in oil and gas. He was eventually hired by aerospace and defense firm Lockheed Martin for an advanced manufacturing job after a 16-week retraining course leveraged the mechanical aptitude and other skills he already had.

Work in Progress

But there are drawbacks to the O*NET database, according to experts. Knapp pointed out that the information—based on the government’s Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) codes, last updated in 2010—is out of date, and also doesn’t reflect how any particular employer defines the skills that make up their jobs. It is scheduled to be updated in 2018.

“The SOC codes are behind,” Smith agreed. “Every job is included in the database, but some will not have their own classification. For example, app programmers are included under the classification for software programmers. Cybersecurity professionals are subsumed under information security analysts.” If an employer wanted a breakdown of competencies for an app programmer, the skills for software programmers and other jobs under that classification would be included as well, she explained.

In addition, the tool can’t produce customized results for organizations looking to hire for specific skills. “Being an additive database, you end up with a compendium of all skills associated with a particular occupation, and not necessarily what an employer would be seeking to hire in any particular locality,” Knapp said.

SkillSmart takes a more tailored approach to match workers with employers in need, he explained. “Our sense was to go out and work with employers to see what they were hiring for at any given point in time and build an index of skills back that way.”

The idea is that skills for any particular job change over time as technology changes, and employers seeking to hire for the same occupation, even within the same industry, could be looking for slightly different things.

The problem is tellingly expressed by the example of a large hospital system in Maryland with a nursing shortage, Knapp said. “The nursing shortage is not unusual. But a university that is closely connected to that hospital trains nurses. The system doesn’t hire those nurses because they are not trained on what the hospital actually needs.”

SkillSmart breaks job seekers’ experience down into skills, and then assesses and designates a proficiency level for each applicant based on the skills an employer has identified. Applicants remain in the local talent pool and can later be pegged with the right set of skills for another job, even in an entirely different occupation. “We try not to leave any job seeker without a clear next step,” Knapp said. “Job seekers should have a clear understanding of what skills are in demand. And if they need additional education or training, they know precisely where to go.”

That’s because SkillSmart attempts to work with the local community—employers, educational institutions and workforce development programs—to develop learning opportunities to fill in skills gaps, highlighting another limitation of O*NET.

“While you have a clear idea that a certain skill is required for a particular job, the major shortcoming of O*NET is that it doesn’t provide information on how to attain those skills,” Smith said. “Without that, how can a curriculum be developed based on knowing a particular occupation uses certain skills? How can we develop a curriculum that translates that knowledge into learning a particular competency?”

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Milwaukee Bucks Retrain Jobless Workers to Build New Arena


First published by Dusty Weis, Association of Equipment Manufacturers

At the urging of local officials, contractors on the $524 million project have approached hiring challenges with bold, unconventional workforce development strategies that help people get needed job training. Equipment manufacturers that struggle to find skilled workers could replicate these successful workforce development program models by utilizing new recruiting software that links applicants to needed training, partnering with local governments, connecting with the community and utilizing regional job training services.  

From a distance, it looks like any other large-scale work site. Newly-placed steel girders arch overhead as hundreds of yellow-vested workers swarm over the NBA’s newest arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, still a year away from its completion in time for the 2018 basketball season.

But a closer look at the construction crews reveals a workforce made up of at least 40 percent Milwaukee residents who were, until recently, underemployed, jobless or even unskilled. These nontraditional work crews are gaining valuable on-the-job experience and providing for their families thanks to a partnership between the Bucks and the city of Milwaukee aimed at helping disadvantaged urban residents benefit from the city’s boom in downtown development.

In order to meet the city’s hiring requirements and qualify for public financing, Bucks Senior Vice President Alex Lasry says the organization and its contractors have had to implement a creative workforce development strategy template, employing unconventional recruitment efforts and even finding ways to train underqualified workers. But he says the benefits of putting local people to work on the project go beyond good corporate citizenship, and he sees lessons that other employers, including equipment manufacturers, could apply to their own hiring efforts in urban areas.

“There are qualified workers out there, and there are people who want to work that are out there,” Lasry says. “I think what separates us really was the outreach and the dedication we’ve had to making sure this was a top priority of the project.”

Workforce Development Program Models that Break the Cycle

This untapped labor pool starts just a dozen blocks to the north of the new arena, where people are buzzing over a different development. In the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood, a small supermarket has opened in what was once a boarded-up pharmacy, providing residents with convenient access to fresh fruits and vegetables for the first time in years.

In its subtlety, the transformation taking place in this historically African-American neighborhood contrasts with the $524 million arena and massive high-rises going up in downtown Milwaukee. But, in a zip code where the median household income hovers around $30,000 and unemployment is over 15 percent, the slower, more gradual improvements are no less important.

For decades, this and other Milwaukee neighborhoods have been mired in a cycle of poverty, where finding a job requires skills and experience, but skills and experience come from holding down a job.

“That cycle, sometimes it’s not just the economics,” says Alderwoman Milele Coggs, Bronzeville’s representative on Milwaukee’s city council. “It’s mental, too, it’s emotional. Once you’ve been caught in that cycle, you start asking, how many more jobs am I going to apply for and get denied?”

So when negotiations began over the incentives the city would offer the Bucks to build their new arena in Milwaukee, Coggs and her colleagues in city government saw an opportunity to help break that cycle. In exchange for city financing assistance, the Bucks would have to employ at least 40 percent of their construction workforce from the city’s Residents Preference Program (RPP), which maintains a list of unemployed and underemployed city residents.

“If we’re putting taxpayer dollars into a project, it just makes sense that the taxpayers should benefit from that project,” Alderwoman Coggs says.

On a project that will employ thousands of people across several years, Lasry says meeting the city’s 40 percent RPP requirement while staying on-time and on-budget is no simple task. “There are only so many qualified, experienced workers,” he says. “But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”

To address the challenge, the team pledged $375,000 to workforce development and training efforts, and asked the city to make a matching pledge, launching a one-of-a-kind partnership.

“We weren’t going to BS around and hire people to just sweep floors or hold up a sign,” to meet the RPP goals, Lasry says.

Build-Your-Own Workforce

As the Bucks arena project was ramping up, another major addition to the Milwaukee skyline was winding down. At a price tag of $450 million, the new high-rise headquarters for the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company employed more than 40 percent of its construction workers through the RPP—many of whom then joined the ranks of the Bucks arena workforce.

“I think that’s great,” Alderwoman Coggs says. “The point is not just to have people temporarily hired, but to give them the skills to get hired on an ongoing basis. Northwestern Mutual went above and beyond to ensure that they would meet and exceed those numbers.”

But other developments were tapping into Milwaukee’s RPP well of workers too, and, in order to meet their quota, Lasry says the Bucks had to build their own workforce through training and recruitment. Their first innovation was to employ a new piece of online software called SkillSmart Seeker, which helps create a path to employment for unqualified workers who would typically receive an outright rejection.

Lasry says all job applicants can apply via SkillSmart Seeker, which charts their qualifications and certifications. In cases where applicants come up short, SkillSmart Seeker creates a list of steps they can take to qualify for a job and connects them with resources to complete those steps, including local jobs training agencies, technical colleges and apprenticeships.

“We’re not telling anyone no,” Lasry says, “we’re just telling them not yet.”

“So many people may not have the proper certification, but they’re willing to get it,” Alderwoman Coggs says. “If they know what they need to do, they could go get qualified for future opportunities.”

And there will be many such opportunities. In addition to the arena, the basketball team is building or plans to build a practice facility, a sports clinic, an entertainment block, apartment buildings, parking garages and more. With 10 years’ worth of ancillary development in the works, Lasry says it will be to the team’s advantage to grow the pool of qualified workers.

So, with SkillSmart Seeker as a conduit for training new workers, Lasry and his team set about getting more people into that pipeline. Instead of a traditional job fair at the team’s headquarters, they offered opportunities directly to people in their own neighborhoods, holding “jobs town hall meetings” in nearly a dozen different parts of the city. Hundreds of Milwaukeeans turned out, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, and each was given an opportunity to sign up for SkillSmart Seeker and register for RPP on-site.

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SkillSmart connects people, training, jobs in Western Mass.

First published by Jim Kinney at, October 25, 2017. 

Baystate Health has 12,000 employees and makes about 1,400 new hires a year of folks from outside its system, said President and CEO Mark Keroack.

And as the city’s largest employer, Baystate’s gotten used to creating its own pipelines, or dedicated training programs to fill its need for workers, Keroack said.

That’s changing with Springfield Works and SkillSmart, an online portal for job seekers that tells them what skills they need for the job they want. It also helps them identify the skills they have already — either from school, the military or just from living their lives — and helps them find places that offer the training they need.

Baystate is one of 20 local employers that have posted a total of 100 jobs in the new SkillSmart portal, accessible at It’s a project of Springfield Works and the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts. Springfield Works and the EDC rolled it out Wednesday with an event at the UMass Center at Springfield in Tower Square after 18 months of tinkering.

MGM Springfield already uses SkillSmart to evaluate job seekers for the roughly 3,00 jobs it pledged to create when its $960 million resort casino opens 11 months from now in September 2018.

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Group Students Hands Raised Graduation Concept

States Use Workforce Data to Connect Colleges to Careers

First published by SHRM, October 12, 2017. 

A new study highlights how several states are helping students choose what to study depending on the skills local employers say they need.

The report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), a nonprofit research and policy institute based in Washington, D.C., outlines ways that data is being translated to help job seekers and employers better understand the connections between the skills available in local talent pools and what students study in college.

“Learners and workers need a modern guidance system with clear and comprehensive consumer information that will help them make good college and career decisions,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the center and the report’s lead author. “Such a system will also help employers frustrated by skills shortages to more precisely identify and hire talented workers, colleges to refresh and strengthen their programs to improve student outcomes, and policymakers to better allocate resources to build strong economies.”

The report features examples of eight states integrating data to:

• Assist schools in developing curricula aligned with the skills and abilities that job seekers will need to succeed with local employers.

• Help workers understand how to take advantage of postsecondary education and training options as they change jobs and navigate their careers.

Applying Data—Quickly

“The challenge is to use local market data that is captured in real time so that students can see the relevance of what they’re doing and employers can see how those skills connect to what they need,” said Mike Knapp, CEO and co-founder of the job placement platform SkillSmart, which connects employers, job seekers and educational partners to help close identified skills gaps. “It is also important for the states to allow school systems to make curriculum modifications based on local market needs, or for the states to be able to aggregate the real-time skills of local industries into a broader statewide curriculum. There are some good tools out there that walk students through their interests and how those align to the workforce but [that] don’t then link to local or regional markets.”

In Maryland, for example, state officials implemented several new assessments to ensure that high school graduates are “college or career ready” but neglected to connect the test results to the skills employers said they needed, Knapp said. “While the effort is good, it’s still going to take a while for states to go from a theoretical exercise into a practical local activity that shows students how the skills they’re learning in school link directly to jobs in their communities.”

Lessons Learned from the States

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Indiana Chamber Foundation created IndianaSkills in 2012 as an online jobs database that allows employers to compare educational requirements by job, view wages paid to similar employees around the state and create job descriptions. Job seekers can use the site to find career opportunities and short-term training programs that best match their skills and interests, are in high demand and offer competitive wages.

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Maryland Meeting the Urgent Demand for Cybersecurity Workers

First published by I-95 Business, October, 2017.

Cybersecurity is one of this century’s most urgent global imperatives. Financial damages are measured in the trillions of dollars and are a result of the proliferation of digital devices into every aspect of our daily lives in pursuit of the holy grail of convenience, access and speed with little or no regard for protecting valuable assets from adversaries. And these cyber adversaries are increasing the sophistication, variety and frequency of attacks. Adding to this is the fact that cyber attackers have advantages: it’s easier to attack than defend, and there are many weaknesses in all but the very best systems.

Maryland’s Unprecedented Opportunity

There is a silver lining in this gloomy cloud, and it’s Maryland’s opportunity for unmatched job creation. As a result of our proximity to and experience with the U.S. intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense as well as our stellar academic and training organizations, we have some of the most skilled cybersecurity workers and the highest geographic concentration of cybersecurity workforce in the country (according to NIST’s CyberSeek program data). And with the U.S. federal government market no longer capable of delivering high job growth, focusing on capturing high market share in a high growth, high pay industry like cybersecurity is smart.

Globally, there are 1 million open cybersecurity jobs, a number that experts project to rapidly increase to 1.5 million. With the cybersecurity jobs demand exceeding workforce supply, Maryland companies are competing with companies across the United States and internationally for existing talent, leading to a need to embrace “new collar” jobs, a phrase coined by IBM CEO Ginni Rometty referring to jobs that require skills but not necessarily specific degrees.

Solution: Maryland Cyber Jobs Platform

To take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity for job creation, the non-profit Cybersecurity Association of Maryland, Inc. (CAMI), in partnership with Germantown-based SkillSmart, recently launched Maryland Cyber Jobs (MCJ) at MCJ is a state-ofthe- art online jobs platform. What makes this platform unique and more valuable in comparison to traditional, mass-market job boards is its reliance on a skills-based methodology and algorithm to identify qualified candidates that match employers’ specific needs. It’s a process that ultimately saves employers time, effort and money.

The platform also helps candidates identify not only jobs that match their current skills but also skills they might need to acquire for the jobs they want. There is no cost for job seekers to create a profile and use the MCJ platform, which will show them how they stack up (score) against specific hiring requirements for individual jobs. MCJ goes a step further in the job search process, presenting job seekers with information and connections to education, training, certification, internship and apprenticeship resources where they can get the skills and experience needed for jobs of interest.


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Enough Talk, Let’s Get to Work

Why is it that each day we see a story about a company that can’t find workers, communities without jobs, and graduates not finding work?

It’s not that we don’t have jobs. 
We have 6.2 million unfilled jobs in the U.S., more than at any time in our history.

It’s not that we don’t have training. 
We have more capacity and more students enrolled in our community colleges, training programs and universities than at any point in history.

It’s not that we don’t have good people willing to work.
We have more high school graduates, vocational school and community college graduates, and university graduates than any time in our history. We have thousands of experienced, underemployed Veterans transitioning from the military.

All the same, more people are struggling to find good jobs than at any time in our history – and this is a problem that we can tackle right now in every community in the U.S. Let’s start with what’s broken and then address how to fix it.

First, job boards don’t work. Simply matching job descriptions to resumes does not lead to good outcomes and job descriptions don’t do a good job of telling an applicant what they need to do to be successful. Ask any employer, all you get is a time-wasting list of unqualified candidates to sort through.

Second, when an individual is not well qualified for a job, there is no clear path of how to get there.

Third, just because a course is offered at a local college doesn’t mean that it will help you get a job.

Finally, most people, employers, or schools don’t want to do anything differently, even thought the current process doesn’t work.

Let’s resolve this Labor Day to fix this mess. Here’s what to do:

First, employers must identify the skills they need and use this in their job postings – not just entry-level.  This will make it clearer within their organization and to applicants what they must do to be successful.

Second, job seekers must use the specific experiences they’ve had in their life (school, work, volunteer, etc.) to demonstrate how they can do the skills the employer is seeking.

Third, local colleges and training programs must look at the skills the employers are seeking to ensure their courses provide students with what they need to get hired.

These three simple steps will help align the interests of the three key stakeholders in a community – employers, job seekers, and educators – and train better employees, improve education outcomes and make stronger employers.

In the words of Home Depot – Let’s Do This… and we can help.


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