Employers are a critical link in any workforce development effort. Successful workforce programs address individual barriers to employment while keeping an eye on the needs of local employers. That way they can optimize their participants’ preparation and qualifications for the jobs that are available in their community.
But, employer engagement can be challenging. Employment service providers and employers often approach workforce programming from different points of view. Perhaps more significantly, employers often have a limited view of what workforce programs and entail.
Understanding the employer perspective is key to any successful engagement effort. So, what is the employer perspective? Let me see if I can help you step in to the employer’s shoes for a moment and find out.
When it comes to the workforce system, employers often only think about American Job Centers or “One-Stops”. They might talk to their local One Stops, and if the center doesn’t send them the workers they’re looking to hire, they think, “The workforce system isn’t working for me.”
What employers don’t often realize is that the workforce system really involves a whole host of programs that work together to support workforce development, including:
- One-stops or American Job Centers
- Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Title I Programs for Adults
- Dislocated Workers, and Youth
- Employment Services
- Adult Basic Education
- Vocational Rehabilitation
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Employment and Training
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Employment and Training
- Community and Technical College Workforce Education and Training (Postsecondary Career and Technical Education)
- Corrections Employment and Training
- Customized Training for Employers
- Sector Partnerships
Even if employers do see beyond the tip of the iceberg, the typical state workforce system is often complex and confusing. Stepping into such a system can be overwhelming and frustrating for employers who are focused on their individual business needs.
On the positive side, employers are increasingly coming to understand that their business needs are best met when they are engaged in the workforce system. They know they need to be a part of the system in order for it to work for them. What they need from workforce programs is to feel like they are offering them a real partnership in addressing workforce needs for both members of the community and the businesses that employ them.
Business demands action. The problem employers have is a ‘today problem.’ They don’t want to wait to see how someone plans to solve it in the future. Unfortunately, the first instinct for workforce programs is often to invite employers to attend “thinking” sessions that are heavy on discussion, but often take a long time to evolve into actual implementation
Successful engagement with employers respects their need to do, not just talk. They want to see that the “potential energy” from meetings quickly turns into “kinetic energy” of action. They are looking for results and they want to see them quickly.
Employers are not worried that some of those results might be failures. That’s expected. In fact, most business leaders see failure as an opportunity to learn and adjust. Rather than spending tons of time working out the perfect solution, employers want to take action, get feedback, and adjust as they go along.
Scott Ellsworth, the Director of Business Leaders United, jokes that employers are really big fans of R & D. No, that’s not “Research and Development”, it’s “Rip off and Duplicate.” Employers don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel. When they find a strategy that works elsewhere, they want to duplicate it.
Employers want to take good ideas that other people have done successfully and give them a try in their own states and communities. Business Leaders United has several successful programs that employers in other communities can easily duplicate:
In Rochester, NY, one employer has gotten other employers in the community to commit to staffing 5% of their summer hires with HS students. The goal is to not only fill the needed positions, but to expose high school students to the kind of work each company does. This not only provides summer employment for all of the youth in the community, but exposes them to the different jobs and employers in their community.
An employer in Cincinnati, OH is taking the traditional notion of an apprenticeship and expanding it into the healthcare field. This will help to give the healthcare field a much-needed influx of skilled workers and give the training needed to qualify job seekers for jobs in the healthcare field.
In Grand Rapids, MI, a small employer sees skilled worker recruitment as a supply chain. By patterning with larger, higher-paying employers in the community, they can work together to recruit workers who get training with the smaller companies and have advancement opportunities into larger ones.
Workforce service providers often have access to learning about successful programs around the country. They are in a great position to share these success stories with local employers and invite them to duplicate the ones that best meet their needs.
Successful employer engagement requires workforce service providers to develop long-term relationships. Employers need to see the workforce system as a strategic partner.
The goal is to be able to provide services that support businesses through each stage of the business life cycle. That means building collaborative partnerships throughout the workforce system and beyond. When workforce services partner with education and economic development agencies and organizations, they can deliver comprehensive services to businesses.
Lucy Houchin, Director of Client Services at Thomas P. Miller and Associates outlines 5 steps for building these collaborative business services:
Proactively target businesses for outreach – As a workforce development organization, you should be reaching out to employers and letting them know what services you have that they should be aware of. Determine what criteria make employers a good fit so that you can narrow down your list.
Get an idea of what challenges businesses are facing– Perform interviews with employers to understand the challenges and opportunities facing each business. It helps to develop a standard interview tool that all staff utilize when outreaching to business. But, the most important part of interviewing is to listen!
Share information among staff and partner organizations – Distill the main challenges and opportunities from the interviews and share information among all staff. That might include informal communication methods (e.g. email), regular meetings among the team, and opportunities to leverage technology (e.g. CRM or database for workforce development).
Identify comprehensive solutions for employer needs – Work with staff and partner agencies to identify resources available to address the main challenges and opportunities. Remember to get creative in finding solutions! Then, develop a comprehensive, but tailored portfolio of services to address the company’s needs.
Work together to provide seamless solutions to businesses – Work with the business to prioritize services for implementation. Help navigate the process of accessing prioritized services and resources and introduce partners and new services in a seamless way.
For a more detailed discussion of this process, including a great Q&A session with both Business Leaders United and Thomas P. Miller and Associates, check out the Social Solutions webinar on Effective Employer Engagement.
In the meantime, we hope you find success engaging with employers and building workforces systems that truly benefit individuals, employers, and the broader community! Just remember, employers are juggling a lot of responsibilities and they don’t know what they don’t know. It is up to you and your fellow workforce development organizations to help employers understand and navigate the wealth of services that you provide. Together, you can change the lives of many job seekers as well as their families. Get to work!