The blog shared in this post was originally published on on December 21, 2017 and was written by Naheed Huq, who works with SEMCOG members on community and economic development and workforce issues. View the original publication of this blog on the SEMCOG website by clicking here

In 2017, about 20 local workforce development professionals participated in the Detroit Workforce Systems Leadership Development Academy. The goal for the academy was to develop strategies to “better engage employers, understand industry workforce needs, develop successful career pathways strategies, and strengthen connections between training providers, job seekers, and employers.”

I had the privilege to be a part of this program, and the lessons we learned are invaluable to solving workforce issues in Detroit and Southeast Michigan.

The year-long academy provided an opportunity to understand and address the needs of residents and employers in order to build a stronger and more skilled workforce, an essential component of a vibrant and growing economy. Participants developed a stronger understanding of the workforce ecosystem in Detroit and the region by:

  • Learning about innovative strategies for connecting job seekers with training and career opportunities from across the country;
  • Identifying critical challenges impacting job seekers and employers;
  • Developing workforce leaders by improving awareness of the roles of different organizations in the workforce arena; and
  • Making stronger connections and relationships among partners to create a sustainable and effective system that benefits both job seekers and employers.

At a time when shortage of marketable skills among available workers is probably the biggest constraint to economic growth, we need to connect residents to resources which help develop in-demand skills.

As SEMCOG’s 2045 Regional Development Forecast shows, the time to solve this problem is now. The region’s population – while growing slightly – will age significantly over the next 30 years, reducing the traditional working-age population and creating labor shortages.

Detroit, in particular, continues to experience unemployment levels that are significantly higher than the region and state. Connecting Detroiters to workforce training and essential services will prepare them for career pathways in high-growth industries transforming the region’s economy.

Working in teams, academy members developed three initiatives to address some of the region’s most serious and longstanding workforce issues.

Workforce whisperers: Engaging the disengaged

This group focused on creating opportunity for adults who are disconnected from the workforce system and labor market. They carried out surveys and focus groups of adults who are taking part in training/education programs (referred to as “engaged”) and adults who are currently not participating in the workforce system, are unemployed or underemployed (referred to as “disengaged”). Among the key themes for the “engaged” group was internal motivators, and focus on gaining certifications, employment, and income. The “disengaged” group also values training, work, and certifications, but they have had negative experience with the workforce system, and face more transportation, health, and childcare barriers.

Here are the team recommendations:

  • Tie trainings to industry-recognized credentials;
  • Explore training opportunities that engage the entire family (multi-generational approach);
  • Create “real-time” feedback systems for customers of the workforce system;
  • Increase accessibility and effectiveness of workforce programs and services by increasing hours of operation, locations, and simplifying on-boarding processes; and
  • Identify professional development opportunities for workforce staff to improve customer service and interaction and integrating best practices related to serving adult learners.
“You Got Skillz”: Creating a marketplace for competency-based hiring

This group analyzed opportunities for creating a skills-based marketplace that is easy to understand, valued by employers, and empowering for job seekers to build on prior learning experiences. Skills-based hiring helps job seekers to build on existing skills and validates skills and competencies that they may have acquired through non-traditional experience, such as volunteering and non-credit continuing education. A functioning system will:

  • Require assessment of the skills needed to succeed in specific careers;
  • Identify which industries could benefit from this concept; and
  • Align skills and training to career pathways.

Skills-based hiring could help address the “skills gap,” create a more inclusive hiring process, connect workers to jobs and careers, and encourage more collaboration between employers, education, and workforce development. It has been successfully used by employers in health care in Grand Rapids and manufacturing in Cleveland. The concept of broadening hiring practices is also gaining momentum in Europe with EY (Ernst and Young), among other companies, expanding its recruitment pool to employees who may not have met previous requirements. Recommendations of the You Got Skillz group were to:

  • Identify and develop a skills assessment tool in partnership with organizations having expertise in this field;
  • Work with specific employers to identify required skills and embed these in job descriptions; and
  • Develop a pilot to test and improve this approach.
Just work: Improving the quality for workforce practice

This group focused on improving transparency, clarity, and standard language for workforce programs to make it easier for job seekers, funders, and workforce agencies to align efforts and improve outcomes leading to employment. Their overarching goals are to develop workforce development guidelines to elevate the many workforce agencies in the city; perform at consistently high levels to address talent demand; identify gaps; assess impact; improve outcomes; and leverage resources.

These guidelines would establish organizational excellence by:

  • Identifying key governance and operations criteria;
  • Ensuring quality programs meet the various needs of jobs seekers, including but not limited to employer-driven training, coaching, and access to supportive services; and
  • Facilitating professional development for workforce development professionals, including keeping staff aware of industry-specific needs and ensuring a quality client-centered approach.

The recommendations are to:

  • Select a lead entity to develop guidelines (vetted by community stakeholders) and provide technical assistance, and
  • Launch guidelines as a system enhancement tool that “lifts all boats.”
Putting solutions into practice

All the capstone projects identify approaches to improving the workforce system, but require support for implementation. Contact Jeannine LaPrad at the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce if you are interested in helping implement any of these initiatives.

Thanks to our funder JP Morgan Chase; consultants Dee Wallace, Marty Miles, Jeannine La Prad, Larry Good; and the many experts from all over the country who shared their experiences of connecting people to jobs. As a result of the academy, the fellows are better equipped to lead change to strengthen opportunities for both job seekers and employers, and contribute to economic prosperity in the city and region.

The Detroit Workforce Systems Leadership Development Academy is sponsored by JP Morgan ChaseCorporation for a Skilled Workforce, and the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program.

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