Place-Based vs. Sector-Based Workforce Development

Social Solutions Blog

Place-Based vs. Sector-Based Workforce Development

Workforce development folks know that economic growth is ultimately about people. Companies grow when they can attract and retain strong employees at every level. Communities thrive when employment is high. Good jobs give folks enough income and opportunity to meet their needs and fully engage in the community.

However, creating a strong workforce can be tricky. Companies face an ever-evolving future. The type of talent and skills they need today are vastly different than what was needed in the past and they can only make educated guesses about what will be needed in the future. At the same time, individual workers are not “one-size-fits-all” puzzle pieces. Workers who are most vulnerable to unemployment often face barriers to employment that go beyond just acquiring training and skills.

Successful and sustainable workforce development goes beyond simple job training. As Dr. Robert Giloth, the Director of the Family Economic Success area of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, explains,

"The phrase workforce development . . . means substantial employer engagement, deep community connections, career advancement, integrative human service supports, contextual and industry-driven education and training, and the connective tissue of networks. This definition represents the common core of the new paradigm of workforce development.

Within this new paradigm, workforce development programs generally approach these issues from one of two different perspectives: place-based workforce development or sector-based workforce development. So, what’s the difference between these two approaches? Keep reading to find out!

Place-Based Workforce Development

Place-based workforce development approaches are often thought of as focusing on the “supply side” of businesses. As the name implies, they focus on the people in a specific region or community, identifying employment needs and barriers to employment and then building programs to help address those needs and barriers.

For example, the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board (MAWIB) coordinates career services for specific populations and provides employment training to the broader Milwaukee Area through One Stop Career Centers. They have a broad network of partners that includes companies in everything from manufacturing to healthcare to construction. They collaborate with partners on a variety of programs that include summer jobs for students, reentry initiatives for formerly incarcerated individuals, and a range of training and education programs.

Because they are focused on improving employment for individuals in a specific geographic area, place-based workforce development programs can also help address other central concerns in the region. They can provide a strong foundation to address community-wide problems like access to or the availability of affordable housing. Place-based workforce development programs also provide a framework for individuals to access holistic social services like substance abuse treatment, financial education, mental health services, or legal support.

Challenges of the Place-Based Workforce Development Approach

Placing individuals in long-term, sustainable jobs can be a challenge for place-based workforce development programs. Their strength in providing access to holistic services (especially to address basic social service needs) is great for getting folks into jobs quickly. But, without conscious efforts to look beyond immediate employment, place-based workforce development programs can struggle to connect workers with jobs that provide long-term stability, opportunity, and growth.

One of the most challenging aspects of place-based work is measuring impact and demonstrating outcomes. During a 2010 conference on "Improving the Outcomes of Place-Based Initiatives," expert panelists discussed the complexities of evaluating place-based initiatives. The conference report notes, “A central theme of this discussion was that because place-based initiatives involve moving parts and multiple stakeholders with information interests that shift over time, simple outcome metrics will not do.” Thus, place-based workforce development programs need to design evaluations that include a variety of tools and gather complex and interconnected data. The implementation of a system that can capture and analyze that information efficiently across a myriad of partnering agencies and organizations is crucial as well.

Sector-Based Workforce Development

Where place-based workforce development focuses on the “supply” side, sector-based workforce development focuses on the “demand” side. In other words, sector-based workforce development focuses on industries where new employees are most likely to be hired now and in the future.

The ultimate goal of sector-based workforce development is to create a strong talent pool for a specific industry. There is less focus on increasing the general hireability of the most disadvantaged residents of a community. Instead, sector-based workforce development programs target specific subgroups of workers who are prepared for additional industry-specific training or are good candidates for transitioning to a new industry.

“Coder boot camps” are one example of a sector-based workforce development approach that might be part of a larger initiative. These relatively short programs range from a few weeks to a few months. People from all different backgrounds sign up for these boot camps to learn basic computer programming and development skills. A typical class might include a stay-at-home-parent getting ready to re-enter the workforce, a retired manager looking for a second career, and a recent college graduate trying to round out his or her resume. Often, camps partner with local tech firms to help boot camp graduates land an entry-level developer job at the end of the program. Those partners might also provide mentoring, sponsor real-world class projects, and even offer scholarships or grants for promising potential employees.

While some sector-based programs might draw participants from across the country or even around the world, many are still based in a specific community or region. Like place-based programs, successful sector-based workforce development programs are built on networks, partnerships, and community involvement.

Challenges of the Sector-Based Workforce Development Approach

In many areas, there is a large skill gap between what workers know and what employers need. This is especially true when the area in undergoing economic transitions. For example, a city with a lot of manufacturing in the past might find itself the center of a growing medical industry. But, training former factory workers to become healthcare providers is unrealistic in most cases.

In communities where potential workers demonstrate low literacy or educational levels, sector-based workforce development approaches may not be prepared to address those foundational needs and provide specialized training.

Rapid industry changes can also make sector-based workforce development difficult. As technology changes at an ever-increasing rate, training programs may become obsolete after only a few years. Keeping up with cutting-edge workforce development needs can be challenging for even the best-run programs.


In practice, programs may center their efforts in a given approach, but integrate elements and best practices from both perspectives to meet the unique needs of their stakeholders. At the end of the day, whichever approach is taken, both employers and workers benefit when government, industry, and community organizations work together to build and support a strong workforce.

If you are a program manager for a workforce development organization, Social Solutions ETO and Apricot software can help you track program outcomes, report efficiently, and achieve your mission. Contact a Solutions Specialist today, or take our interactive online quiz to see which of our products might be a good fit for your organization.

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