By Kate McEnroe, President of Kate McEnroe Consulting
We are living in a time when frustrated employers facing shortages of qualified job applicants co-exist with both young and experienced workers experiencing persistent challenges in finding opportunities to create a sustainable career. In response, an impressive amount of work is being done across the country to boost the short and long-term workforce pipeline at all levels.
A lot of progress has been made connecting educational institutions and workforce agencies to existing and new businesses so that training program are well aligned to job opportunities. The job is never really done, and funding is always a challenge, but in many cases the questions of what needs to be done has been answered, at least in theory.
As is often the case in economic development, though, just as momentum builds to address one challenge, another makes itself known. States and communities on the forefront supplementing their pipeline training programs with initiatives designed to make sure enough people are recruited into those programs. Even the best programs can’t address a skills gap if no one shows up to take advantage of them.
Short Term Initiatives Address Today’s Challenges
When a company or site selector talks about workforce development, they are talking about two things – programs that recruit and train adults that are ready to enter the workforce in the short term, and programs that train today’s students to be tomorrow’s employees.
In a low unemployment economy, the first group will likely consist of some people who are job ready but need to be enticed into a new opportunity as well as some people who need skill upgrades or support services before they can be effective employees.
Expanding on the programs offered to newly graduated high school students, many initiatives are now being developed to afford adult learners and individuals returning to the workforce with scholarship assistance for additional training. Burleson Works, based in Burleson, Texas, recently awarded five local residents with scholarships to train at nearby schools for specific occupations with local companies, and includes placement with those companies upon successful completion of the required programs, demonstrating how highly-targeted programs can produce highly-targeted results. At the state level, Tennessee Reconnect is a program designed for adult learners that provides last dollar scholarship assistance for students who may also be eligible for the portion of HOPE scholarship dollars set aside for non-traditional students.
Another barrier to finding and keeping a job for some lower-income families is reliable transportation. A patchwork of publicly and privately funded programs, some designed to subsidize transit and some targeted to support car ownership exist across the country, but the barriers persist. In Seattle, for example, the Orca Lift program offers reduced-fare transit cards to qualifying commuters. While transit subsidies can work in areas with public transit, in many areas cars remain the key to job access. Since 1999, Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan has assisted 1,000 families facing this challenge with its Workers On Wheels program; Goodwill manages similar programs in several locations across the country. Vehicles for Change, which started in Baltimore and has expanded to Detroit, has a similar program to help qualified families purchase cars. In Phoenix, Labor’s Community Service Agency, a partnership between the United Way and the AFL-CIO, manages the SHIFT program.
Tomorrow’s Pipeline Needs Our Attention Today
Capturing the attention of investment decision makers with innovative workforce development programs is half the battle – communities must also capture the attention of the people that the programs are targeted to. It is one thing to do that with people who are actively looking for jobs, but it is another to try to appeal to young students and their parents who are some years away from experiencing the consequences of the decisions they make today.
Career Days on Steroids
Awareness of opportunity is one of the first steps to motivating people to take advantage of workforce development programs. While career days have been around for decades, in recent years they have been expanded and redesigned to appeal to younger and younger students and to offer a more realistic view of the jobs available locally. Once limited to folding tables with brochures in the school gym, regional events from North Dakota to Michigan to Mississippi to South Carolina now attract eighth graders from multiple counties to large civic centers and arenas where they can interact with employers and experiment with hands-on exhibits. In addition to the primary audience of eighth graders, some regions are now extending invitations to older at-risk youth, parents, and even the general public to portions of the events.
A Whole New Twist on Signing Days
One of the ways to reinforce social support for students who decide to engage with workforce development programs is to publicly acknowledge the commitments they are making. Following the model of signing days for athletes, some apprenticeship programs are now creating signing day ceremonies, a welcome celebration and public reinforcement of a decision that will benefit them, their employers, and their community. Trident Technical College in the Charleston, South Carolina area, Career Wise in Colorado, and Corinth High School in Alcorn County Mississippi, are just a few of the places that are raising the profile of these programs by highlighting the individuals who are taking advantage of them.
Though the Department of Labor has tied the concept of signing days to National Apprenticeship Week, some cities and counties have expanded the concept. Former First Lady Michelle Obama started to support college signing days in 2014, and this May was among many high-profile people attending an event in Philadelphia that is in its fifth year. The Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania took a broader approach by holding a signing day in May for 104 students from 11 career and technical high school programs who were committing to employers, the military, or further education. In Newnan, Georgia the focus was on the employers as a signing day event was held to publicize the commitments that local companies were making to participate in the state’s Consortium for Advanced Technical Training (GA CATT) program.
Free College Programs and Completion Support
With inspiration and social support in place, the remaining hurdle is often connecting with programs that are affordable, both in terms of cost and time commitment. Some free college programs, such as the Georgia Hope Scholarship and the Kalamazoo Promise were founded years ago but new programs with their own criteria and scope are emerging in states, counties, cities, unions, and companies with increasing frequency. Limitations on the programs of study they underwrite or the institutions that students can attend are not uncommon, while in other cases programs are expanding to explicitly include non-traditional and returning adult learners. The Huffington Post reported in early 2018 that 12 states and more than 200 localities now offer some type of free tuition program to four-year colleges, community colleges, and technical. Earlier this year, the Utah legislature passed a program designed to provide incentives to students who choose to pursue studies in five high demand areas and to forgive outstanding tuition and fees after graduation by 25 percent for every year the students remain working in the state.
While these and other college access programs are increasing enrollment, other programs are now starting to focus on improving college completion rates and making sure students don’t leave without marketable credentials.
Georgia State University is a prime example of a school that increased its below-average completion rate by 20 percentage points from 2002-2014 using a combination of a grant program and interventions. A research project was undertaken that identified behaviors and decisions that may be early indicators that a student is at-risk of failing or dropping out, and the school added 42 additional counselors to work with those students. Even more impressive is the fact that the same program dramatically reduced the racial disparity in completion rates.
Putting it together
Many states and communities have full portfolios of workforce development programs that they continually refine, even while facing funding and capacity challenges. The most competitive areas will be those marry these programs with awareness and access initiatives that help students make smart investments in their future, and help employers understand where they will find their workforce today and tomorrow.
About the Author: Kate McEnroe is President of Kate McEnroe Consulting and has been advising corporations on location strategy and economic development organizations on marketing strategies for over 20 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.