Workforce Development: If We Don’t Lead, We Fall Behind

Note: This is the seventh in a series of posts analyzing the nine key strategies cited in our 20/20 Vision Report.

At a time when tens of millions of Americans are out of work, the recency effect can make it hard to remember the near-record low unemployment of just a few months ago.


COVID-19 changed a lot of things – but it did not remove the longstanding imperative to improve West Michigan’s talent system. If anything, this need has only been amplified.


The pandemic-forced unemployment of this moment is staggering, but it is a short-term problem that will eventually be solved. The long-term problem remains: West Michigan does not have enough working-age adults to meet normal levels of talent demand.


Therefore, it is more important than ever to remain fixed on our goals, including the 7th strategy highlighted in the 20/20 Vision Report issued last year:


Strategy 7: Become a national leader in workforce development.

The report called for building on West Michigan’s recent success, assets, and collaborative spirit by taking leading practices to scale and replicating successful national strategies.  


Fortunately, we have a head start on this work. However, adult education and workforce development resources are limited. These programs must be efficient and effective, with outcomes that lead to employment or a demonstrably higher level of education and skill. These efforts must take intentional steps to ensure equity in employment outcomes and economic mobility for people.


As the Vision Report noted, there are several workforce-development paths that take a system from “good to great,” including:

  • Aligning curriculum, training, and credentialing to the needs of employers.
  • Helping adults integrate career exploration and work experience with education and training.
  • Partnering with others to encourage upward mobility of job seekers and the employed.


The ideal result will be evidence-based strategies to improve job-training programs that lead to employment – supporting employers and job-seekers alike.


The role of employers

Employers need to take a greater role in developing their talent and partnering with education and workforce organizations to meet their current and long-term challenges.


Again, the Vision Report highlight several strategies in this area that are the hallmarks of a great system. These include employers who:


  • Use evidence-based practices for hiring and talent development.
  • Partner with other employers in their industry to forecast demand.
  • Communicate competency requirements to talent suppliers, employees, parents, and students.
  • Participate in efforts to alleviate barriers to employment and causes of turnover.


The importance of foundational skills

Even before the economic shock of COVID-19, the workplace was becoming increasingly knowledge-based. This transformation is accelerating as employers adopt new processes and operations, including an increasing reliance on digital access and remote work.


Unfortunately, too many adults in West Michigan already lack a high school diploma or equivalency. And those who lack basic employability skills – such as literacy, numeracy and digital literacy – are finding it increasingly challenging in the pandemic era to access training opportunities. Meanwhile, early data suggests low-skill and low-wage earners are suffering disproportionate losses in the sudden downturn.


This adds urgency to the need for West Michigan to recognize that employability and digital skills are foundational requirements for employment and economic mobility. This is an opportunity for funders to align their support with evidence-based strategies for maximum impact.


Our region has the means to reach our goal of becoming a national leader in workforce development. Years of work and collaboration have brought us closer than ever. Now is not the time to lose sight of that.

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