The Simplicity and Complexity of Workforce Development Systems

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March 29, 2014; The Oklahoman

When Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin discussed workforce development at the National Governors Association, which she currently chairs, who could argue with her contention that education and training were critical components of workforce development in order to help people find paths into middle class incomes and lifestyles? Discussions of workforce development sometimes sound so logical and obvious: Get the employers to the table, make sure the development process is industry-driven so that there are jobs there for the people who get education and training through the network of agencies involved, focus on building and adapting job skills, and follow the data to know what industry clusters are generating jobs and what they need in employees. As complex as that sounds, if it were only so easy!

In reality, the dynamic of building and operating workforce development systems is more than challenging due any number of factors, including political and ideological differences regarding what might constitute effective workforce development for the twenty-first century.

For example, in Iowa, Democrats have charged the state’s workforce development administrator, Teresa Wahlert, with “subtly pressuring administrative law judges within her agency to side with or aid employers in cases considering unemployment benefits for former employees.” The state’s flagship newspaper, the Des Moines Register, followed up on one state senator’s charges with a call for a federal investigation that her undue influence over the ALJs might contribute to “a hostile work environment for judges who did not follow her ‘pro-employer, anti-employee philosophy.’”

It is a little striking to see how many workforce development efforts don’t seem to have much connection to organized labor. One would expect to see the central labor councils of the AFL-CIO broadly and visibly connected, but sometimes that isn’t the case. Politics may be playing a role, expressed in controversies such as the debates currently being waged over “right-to-work” laws in Missouri, where the AFL-CIO plus nonprofits such as the Interfaith Council of Greater St. Louis are facing off against Republican state legislators and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Balancing the economic imperative of preparing workers for jobs with considerations of fairness and equity requires an ability to address and overcome political divisions.

The issue in Iowa might be one of senate Democrats versus a Republican governor, Terry Branstad, whose office vigorously defended Wahlert and attacked the Democrats for playing politics. But it doesn’t always break down as one political party versus another. In Idaho, the questions are from Republicans to Republicans. A Republican state representative has called for an evaluation of Idaho’s Workforce Development Fund to examine the balance of successes versus failures. The Fund subsidizes worker training provided by employers, so long as the jobs (new or those in which retraining helps workers avoid layoffs) pay more than $12 an hour. As of October 2012, the state itself had deemed only 40 percent of the 160 contracts negotiated since the program’s start in 1996 “effective” and nearly one-third “ineffective.”

Local or regional workforce development efforts have to deal with economic issues and trends that sometimes overwhelm local efforts and resources. For example, last month, despite its relatively low unemployment rate, Wisconsin was second in the nation in total job losses. In Michigan, as of last October, the state would have to bridge a gap of 384,000 jobs in order to reach the pre-Recession employment levels of December 2007, the difference partly attributable to unemployed persons leaving the labor force over time. Those are tough challenges for individual regional or state workforce development systems to imagine overcoming.

Politics, macroeconomics, and data can overwhelm even the best-intentioned workforce development efforts. In their ability to get all players to the table and serve as neutral intermediaries among all of the relevant interests, nonprofits should see themselves as necessary to building workforce development systems as government and employers.—Rick Cohen