Workforce development is an American economic development approach that attempts to enhance a region's economic stability and prosperity by focusing on people rather than businesses. It is essentially a human resources strategy. Work force development has evolved from a problem-focused approach, addressing issues such as low-skilled workers or the need for more employees in a particular industry, to a holistic approach considering participants' many barriers and the overall needs of the region.
Work force development has historically been found in two forms: place-based strategies that attempt to address the needs of people living in a particular neighborhood, or sector-based strategies that focus on matching workers' skills to needs in an industry already present in the region.
Across both approaches, themes for best practices have emerged. Successful work force development programs typically have a strong network of ties in the community, and are equipped to respond to changes in their environments. Additionally, they take a holistic approach to the problems faced by participants.
The responsibility for work force development in the United States has rested on the government's shoulders for at least a century, since the advent of public schools. This formal system of education replaced earlier days in American history when students whose parents desired them to learn a trade other than their parents' were apprenticed. Informal schooling took place at home, depending on the household's ability and income level. Public schools were created to prepare students to earn a living wage by providing them with skills such as reading and arithmetic. However, an employer still typically provided vocational training on the job.
Traditional work force development has been problem-focused. Economic development practitioners evaluated neighborhoods, cities, or states on the basis of perceived weaknesses in human resource capacity. However, recent efforts view work force development in a more positive light. Economic developers use work force development as a way to increase equity among inhabitants of a region. Inner-city residents may not have access to equal education opportunities, and work force development programs can increase their skill level so they can compete with suburbanites for high-paying jobs.
Work force development today often takes a more holistic approach, addressing issues such as spatial mismatch or poor transportation to jobs. Programs to train workers are often part of a network of other human service or community opportunities.
- 1 Approaches to work force development
- 2 Successful conditions for work force development programs
- 3 References
Approaches to work force development
Researchers have categorized two approaches to work force development, sector-based and place-based approaches. The sectoral advocate speaks for the demand side, emphasizing employer- or market-driven strategies, whereas the place-based practitioner is resolutely a believer in the virtue of the supply side: those low-income job seekers who need work and a pathway out of poverty. However, contemporary strategies often use a mixed approach.
Sector-based approaches consider the sectors, or industries, in a region that are in need of specific workplace skills. These strategies focus on the demand side of workplace development and consider the industries in which it is most likely that new employees will be hired. Sector-based programs may have higher entrance requirements than place-based strategies because their ultimate aim is to aid the sector at which they are targeted, not to increase the general hirability of the most disadvantaged residents.
Creation of a sector-based program
Sector-based strategies are designed to fit the needs of both industry employers and workers who want to improve their skills and advance their career development. By definition, sector-based approaches must target a specific industry.
An initial assessment can reveal which industries would be good targets for a region, and assessments during the program can help refine the program's focus.
Appropriate strategies are typically created through networks and partnerships. These partnerships are designed to connect low-income or disadvantaged individuals with employment in jobs that offer the promise of financial stability and significant growth in the industry in the near future.
Community involvement is also an important component in building a sector-based strategy. Specifically, the involvement of an intermediary with deep knowledge of the industry is necessary. The intermediary can facilitate partnerships with employers, and help create solutions for both employers and potential employees. Employers will be encouraged to participate in activities such as developing curriculum, creating evaluation and assessment tools, and committing to job shadow programs.
Because the sector approach targets an entire sector, rather than a single company, a sector strategy often involves the government working side-by-side with industry leaders to help an entire sector become more competitive.
Several potential barriers exist for employing sector-based work force development strategies. First, in many regions a skills gap exists between what workers know and what employers need. Although demand might be high for a particular occupation, it may be unrealistic to train a low-skill population in the necessary skills.
Second, rapid change makes sector-based strategies difficult. Quick turnover in technology can make a training program obsolete in a few years.
Last, many potential workers in the United States demonstrate low literacy or educational levels. In some regions, work force development programs will have to teach basic skills like reading as well as giving instruction in more specialized tasks.
Place-based approaches, which consider the supply side of the workplace (workers), are primarily focused on the characteristics of people in the region or community where the training program will be located. Place-based strategies often help participants gain initial access to the labor market while addressing other essential concerns to the region, such as housing development or English skills. In general, place-based approaches aim at training the unemployed workers and enhancing their skills for entering the labor market.
Place-based strategies have been criticized for their focus on finding jobs for participants quickly, rather than evaluating the quality of those jobs
Elements of place-based programs
Place-based approaches have provided an ideal framework for state and local government to address the issue of unemployment and poverty problems in local communities or regions. A strong place-based effort will focus on the most pressing needs of local residents, such as physical or substance abuse or financial difficulties, along with providing employment training. The program may want to provide mentors who can connect participants to resources, rather undertaking the large financial burden of providing these services.
Successful conditions for work force development programs
Although work force development strategies vary by whether they are focused on demands due to the location or from industries in the area, or both, common threads run through the success stories evaluated by economic developers thus far.
Pre-assessment of community needs
Prior to implementing a sector- or place-based approach, an analysis of the community's current and anticipated needs should be undertaken. One report details a sector analyis to determine the need for more healthcare workers in a particular community, for example.
Ties with employers
Both sector and place-based strategies emphasize the importance of ties with the employers. Even in place-based strategies focused on finding work quickly must tie efforts to employers to determine who is hiring.
In place-based programs, this may entail determining general skills that are lacking in a specific population such as English-speaking skills.
Work force development programs can be evaluated based on the strength and number of ties with community employers during the creation stage of the program, as well as their ongoing participation to constantly assess which skills are most needed. “Employer leadership is key to long-term reform” of work force development systems.
Programs must be flexible, so that they can change when market or work force conditions change. One marker of adaptability is the presence of mechanisms to listen to what the community saying, evidenced by the close ties with community stakeholders and nonprofits as explained above.
- Giloth, Robert P. (November 2000). "Learning from the field: Economic growth and work force development in the 1990s". Economic Development Quarterly. 4 14 (340-359).