Redirecting Our Approach to Workforce Development to Ensure Workforce Success

June 19, 2017

workforce training

The President has been highlighting infrastructure and workforce development this week, which is exactly what we’ve been working on at SkillSmart for the past two years. For us this is not a theoretical exercise – we’re working with partners to construct real projects, hire real people and grow local economies. I wanted to share some observations from the communities in which we’ve been working.

Earlier this week, I listened from the back of a Detroit community room as city representatives and local developers gave updates to citizens on local projects. Wherever we travel, we try to find ways to connect with the local community, and I was fortunate to get word of this briefing where citizens heard updates on development projects, asked questions, and voiced concerns. Most of the meeting consisted of general city updates and questions about noise, cost, access, and benefits; but, the drama of one exchange made me perk up and put down my plate of chicken schwarma.

First, a bit of background, Detroit developers that engage in projects beyond a certain contract threshold are required to hire 51% of their workforce from Detroit. If they fail to meet this requirement they are assessed a substantial penalty. Well, one citizen didn’t think that the fact that developers were simply paying a penalty was sufficient.

She stood to voice her frustration that the developers that weren’t meeting the 51% requirement weren’t fulfilling their responsibility. Immediately, the developer’s representative responded that building the workforce wasn’t their responsibility. The exchange escalated from there – as the citizen couldn’t believe that the developer didn’t think it their responsibility to hire locally, particularly given the requirement.

To conclude the heated exchange, the developer clarified, that it was their responsibility to hire Detroiters, it just wasn’t their responsibility to ensure Detroiters had the skills to get hired.

The developer – and the citizen – was right. And wrong.

This conversation is representative of hundreds of conversations that are taking place all across America.

There is a lot of talk about the job market, and recently much more talk about infrastructure, but there is far too little conversation regarding the workforce and how to ensure workers actually have the right skills to be qualified today and successful tomorrow.

Late last year I gave a TEDx talk that put a spotlight on our broken talent development system. I argued that it’s broken because everyone points the finger at someone else.

Businesses, for the large part, expect the education system to deliver them a well-trained individual who’s able to step right into the job without any training or assistance from industry. You will be hard pressed to find a traditional four-year institution that considers preparing students for work as part of its mission. Somehow, the fact that 85% of students say that they went to college to get a job has been overlooked by our traditional four-year schools. We also face the dilemma of our society’s unfounded negative stigmas toward other, more blue-collar pathways such as community college, vocational training, and technical schools – even if they lead to good paying jobs.

And, we can’t overlook those job seekers who simply want to know where to get better information about what jobs require, how well qualified they are for those jobs, and where they can go if they need additional skills to be qualified. The current system is a black box that that leaves everyone blaming others – just like what happened at the Detroit community meeting.

The only way this problem will actually be addressed is for all stakeholders to recognize the seriousness of the situation and their role in solving it. Simply, employers are the final consumers of the workforce, and must provide clarity around which skills and experiences are valued for a particular position.

Imagine how much more effective the job application process would if a person could see exactly which skills and experiences were necessary. Both the employer and job seeker could focus on the formal and informal experiences that demonstrate the qualifications for the position.

This would move the system away from the many substitutes used now like labels and assumptions from previously held jobs or schools attended – which are often not relevant to the job at hand.

The developer wasn’t wrong in saying that it wasn’t solely their responsibility to develop the local workforce. Nor was the citizen wrong to expect business to play a role in developing the workforce. We must recognize that it’s everyone’s responsibility and we all have a stake.

At SkillSmart, we’re implementing solutions to help the stakeholders work together to ensure local communities have the tools to thrive economically. In Springfield, Massachusetts we’re working with MGM Resorts to connect with local government, community colleges and businesses to skill-up and hire 3500 employees for a new hotel and casino. In Wisconsin, our work with the Milwaukee Bucks has started a broader conversation around how capital projects can stimulate workforce development activities and how a city can do more to align workforce development initiatives. In Washington DC, we’re helping the general contractor of the nation’s largest transit project communicate their hiring needs to the community, link job seekers to local training, and build a pipeline of qualified local employees.

Though the dynamics of every city are different, in everywhere we travel it is common to hear “at the end of the day it’s all about jobs.” We would argue, at the end of the day, it’s all about workforce. And if we are serious about making sure locals have the skills demanded by industry, building the on ramps to opportunity, and truly creating access, then the business, education, and social sector must realize the important role each must play in preparing the workforce of tomorrow today.