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Stacey Jarrett Wagner: Help Wanted — Ensuring the Success of Regional Collaborations

At a recent conference near Washington, D.C., the sound of deflation was palpable. No, this was not a financial conference; it was focused on closing America’s skills gap.

 

Talk of these stubborn gaps often takes my breath away, because the country has worked so hard since the Great Recession to grow jobs and the economy. Conference hotels should provide oxygen tanks for meeting participants seeking to solve the skills gap problem.

It’s perplexing that, for the last few years, the country hasn’t had the kind of success needed in reskilling adults for 21st century jobs and helping employers find and hire those skilled employees. Yes, there has been some great work done, but we should have moved forward a bit more on the “success continuum.” So many excellent efforts have been already put in place: Brookings Institution’s Regional Innovation Clusters; federal funding of regional clusters for talent management, such as the National Network of Manufacturing Institutes; the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technology Education Centers, with their hub and spoke structure; the Aspen Institute’s Skills for America’s Future. The list goes on and on.

There has been an impressive groundswell over the last decade in supporting regional collaborations to look strategically at how business interests and good jobs intersect in specific economic areas. Fifteen years ago, this kind of activity was just starting out. Now, regional collaborations are understood to be “the way” to address skills gaps and economic development.

But as this thinking has gained traction and momentum, the collaborative effort has not been allowed to be as successful as it should and could be. As with any large initiative, new entrants come on board all the time. And, for them, this is new stuff. But for professionals like me, who have been assisting these efforts for the last 15 years, I keep wondering why we are offering the same solutions and assistance we did more than a decade ago.

Take, for example, employer engagement. This is a term used in regional collaborations to enlist the businesses active in the area in helping to determine where the skills gaps and what the training curricula should be; providing jobs for trainees; and, generally, participating in the workforce education of the region.

Now, large employers have for years been involved with their communities in building their talent pipelines. But small employers don’t have the “bandwidth” for doing anything but keeping their own businesses open. So the dilemma for regional collaborations has been, and continues to be, engaging these place-based small employers who would otherwise be outside the circle in terms of influence, connections and solutions.

Yet, still we struggle to do so. Why? The reasons are many, but one of the main obstacles is, in my estimation, the small businesses themselves. The perception that talent management is complex and time-consuming is a hoary shibboleth that should have gone the way of the Industrial Revolution. We’re in the 21st century now, where the world is our marketplace and recruitment firms are global. Big Data is driving business changes in what seems like the blink of an eye, and the new combinations of skills needed for the Workforce Revolution are changing as fast. This accelerating rate of change, a sort of Moore’s Law for jobs, has destabilized the employment marketplace and only those who were ahead of the curve 20 years ago are feeling okay. The rest must play catch up.

As solution providers, we must help small businesses use the same tools that are at the disposal of large ones: data, analysis, access to resources and opportunities for benefiting from existing knowledge. Large employers sometimes work with their supply chains to share training. It would make sense for many more of them to do so. Small businesses must adopt the technology for data mining that the big guys have. It’s cost effective now, unlike 20 years ago. Understanding how well aligned your business goals are with your workforce investments is critical to reducing expensive risks in hiring and workforce training. And, once small businesses in a region have those data, they will finally have “mass” — as their needs can be aggregated effectively and solved much quicker.

Finally, we need to provide leadership development to regional collaborations so they can count on success sooner. Presently, it takes about three years for a collaboration’s leadership to gel — if it gels at all. That is time, and money, wasted. We need to speed up the time to proficiency by providing strong, hands-on technical assistance and coaching to regional collaborations so that the tools and techniques that make collaborations successful are understood by participants from the start — not after their own epiphanies.

Like many in the Millennial generation, I too believe I can help to make the world (or my little part of it) a better place. But we all need to become much savvier about spreading the word, spreading the data and spreading the leadership. There is a lot of big-time support for regional collaborations right now — let’s capitalize on it together.

Stacey Jarrett Wagner is a principal with The JarrettWagner Group, LLC. JWG specializes in imaginative idea development and implementation for workforce issues such as business/workforce analytics, workforce capacity, alignment of workforce and economic development strategies, post-secondary education transitions and training, research and benchmarking for talent management, non-traditional worker strategies, workforce policy assessment and development, and partnering with philanthropic institutions.

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