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Playbook provides workforce development guidelines

January 05, 2017
By: Ellen Marrison

Across the U.S. people are working to build a more talented, skilled workforce, but often those efforts happen in isolation, separated from larger economic development efforts without engaging community and business leaders. A recently released playbook from the Aspen Institute and Futureworks, Communities That Work Partnership Playbook, aims to change a siloed approach and explores seven regional efforts to develop the local workforce for different industries and occupations. The playbook highlights key takeaways and is intended to provide guidance to others developing talent pipelines.  SSTI also talked with individuals in Milwaukee and Kansas City about their regional efforts to develop the talent pipeline. 

The Communities that Work Partnership was jointly launched in April 2015 by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) at the Department of Commerce and the Workforce Strategies Initiative at the Aspen Institute (AspenWSI) to document and accelerate the development of employer-led regional workforce partnerships across the country. Seven regional teams were selected competitively in July 2015 to participate in an exchange focused on strengthening local talent pipelines and improving access to quality employment. The seven teams highlighted in the Playbook represent Buffalo, Phoenix, Houston, the San Francisco Bay area, northwest Georgia, New York City, and Washington, DC.  Challenges facing both workers and employers in today’s market include more complex technologies in the workplace that require advanced worker skill sets, changing educational requirements, and finding workers to fill middle-skill level jobs. New approaches to finding the right talent will require working across program and jurisdictional boundaries to be more comprehensive and strategic, the study maintains. 

Different industries and sectors are included in the Playbook, such as information technology, health and life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and energy. Each of the nine “plays” highlighted in the report describes a strategy and its importance, provides an example and a set of action steps that may serve as a guide for other regional partnerships. Four areas of workforce development are covered: building partnerships; beyond labor market information – collecting new data; business engagement and skills development – balancing customization and standardization; and, beyond job-specific skills – additional strategies for improving the talent pipeline.

In recognizing the differences present in communities across the country, the report states that “it is important to point out that building partnerships to address critical industry and worker needs and strengthen regional economies is not akin to assembling a bookcase for an empty apartment. Rather, developing an effective partnership and workforce strategy is more like building custom cabinetry for an established, one-of-a-kind home.”

Milwaukee Grow. Here. campaign benefits businesses and schools

One region that is facing its own set of challenges is the Milwaukee area where a campaign called GROW.HERE. is underway to address the workforce needs of the area. The timing of the campaign was fortunate as it was underway at the same time the state issued an educational mandate that requires students in public schools to explore a career and academic pathway. The region had completed a metropolitan planning process that focused on industry clusters that were positioned for growth. The regional economic development organization, Milwaukee 7, was tasked with addressing the skills development part of the plan.  SSTI spoke with Susan Koehn, director of industry partnerships - talent development initiative, about the campaign.  With nearly 20 percent of the workforce employed in manufacturing and finding it challenging to recruit workers to an area with harsh winters, a new approach was needed.

“Without a long-term approach to growing, keeping and developing our own workforce, we’re doomed to fail,” Koehn said. Two themes arose from conversations with stakeholders: the skills gap was no longer an issue of training or curriculum being aligned with industry – it was a “people gap” where employers needed qualified workers to fill the jobs and short term strategies like cherry picking recent vocational education graduates or poaching other companies would no longer suffice; and there was a call to action to rebrand the image of the manufacturing careers available in the region.

Deep thinkers that had been convened on the subject knew that students connect to experiences more than flashy marketing campaigns, and they knew they had to reach students on a different level. While the region was considering how to reach their target population of 350,000 11 to 24 year-olds, Wisconsin Statute 115.28(59) was signed in 2013, which requires an academic and career planning (ACP) plan for students in grades 6 to 12 in a school district. Requirements of the plan include an analysis of local, regional, and state labor market needs and the educational and training requirements for occupations that will fill those needs, as well as a strategy to engage businesses and workforce development organization in implementing the program. The ACP plan is to be implemented statewide beginning in 2017-18

Koehn said the mandate was a huge ask of industry – to provide job shadowing, internships, or other career-based activities to a large number of students. Yet the legislation dovetailed well with the effort underway in the Milwaukee region to develop the workforce. “We recognized the massive opportunity,” Koehn said, adding that companies “all of a sudden recognized they were in the catbird seat.” The state had purchased a software plan that students can use to help in the career planning and an add-on tool that allows local companies to input information about their enterprise on the site.

“I told the companies, this is your key to the kingdom,” Koehn said. The initiative will benefit companies who have a vehicle to connect with students early in their careers and helps fuel a long-term strategy for the region, she said.

Once schools recognized the resources and the network that was at their fingertips, it relieved a burden of trying to make the connections with industry for their students. “The schools are over the moon,” Koehn said.

The ability to bring both sides together broke down silos that had existed previously, she said. The initiative’s success relies on “networks of networks,” and all parties will need to push the program forward to make it successful, she said. The goal of the program is track at least 200,000 career-based learning experiences by 2020 and have 200+ companies that are willing to record talent pipeline improvement data.

Having the state mandated education requirement was a game changer for the Milwaukee initiative, Koehn admits, but other regions can build out the networks and develop a playbook of their own.

Business-led initiative in Kansas City

KC Rising, in the Kansas City, MO, region, is part of a business-led initiative to write and implement an economic development plan that recognizes human capital as a strong basis for the success of the region. Donna Phelps, project manager of KC Rising, in an interview with SSTI said area businesses and other partners came together to plan once they realized that economic trends detailed in a Brookings Institution report for the region were pointing to a diminishing vitality. Business leaders knew that if they had received the same news about their companies, they would write a new business plan, and they adapted that thinking to the success of the region. Phelps said that one of the leaders said that “we looked around and said we weren’t doing terrible, but the check engine light was on.”

Using focus groups and discussion with local industry leaders, current needs were identified, as well as those five years down the road and projections for the future. An educational assessment and discussions with 17 higher education institutions explored the needs identified by employers and the current course offerings that matched those needs, as well as discussions about the mismatch and how to address it. While it is difficult for higher ed institutions to change their academic offerings quickly, Phelps said their response has been terrific. “While they can’t turn on a dime, having the muscle of the business community saying this is what we need has made a tremendous difference,” she said.

The goals for the KC Rising program are three-fold, Phelps said: to increase the number of quality jobs in the region and the corresponding credentialing necessary to meet the needs of those jobs; to increase household income; and to increase gross regional product. They turned to the Brookings Institution for guidance, who told them they were too aggressive in the first year of the plan, Phelps said. But they didn’t account for the resolve of the people in the community. “We are a region that is ‘roll up your sleeves and do the work,’” Phelps said.

Business leaders were cold called to recruit their help on the project. “The enthusiasm has been absolutely incredible,” Phelps said. Their only impediment is the capacity and time to do the work.

KC Rising is now at the end of the second year and writing the action plan for year three. Early results are promising. For example, a shortage of medical technologists had been identified in the life sciences sector and through KC Rising’s work with higher ed institutions, more training is now offered to help fill those positions with local talent.

Other efforts are just getting underway. Another program called KC Degrees is helping to identify adults with some college education that may be interested in returning to an educational pathway that would result in a career in a sector that is in need of people. Cyber security, which was not part of any institution’s course offerings five years ago, was talked about during discussions and now several community colleges are offering programs focused on the topic. A separate advisory group is now being planned with the higher ed community for 2017 as a result of the interest surrounding the initiative.

Metrics are in place to measure the success of the program, but Phelps said it may be difficult to show a significant impact in just five years. “The hard data to say it’s working will take a while,” Phelps said. “It will be a leap of faith, but the business community is at the table.”

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