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5 Targets for Action: Employer Perspectives on Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System recently hosted a panel discussion in Washington, DC focused on important topics addressed in the publication, Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century. The panelists included: John Engler, President of the Business Roundtable and former Governor of Michigan; Jay C. Moon, President and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and head of the Mississippi State Workforce Board; and Terrie P. Sterling, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. This discussion highlighted five key targets for moving ideas into action for the nation’s workforce development system

1. Develop solutions tailored to the unique challenges facing rural and urban communities to support broader economic growth and bring effective programs to scale. Rural and urban communities face many disparate labor market challenges, with employers struggling to find a skilled workforce and jobseekers struggling to find jobs with family-supporting wages. While successful and promising strategies are underway in communities across the nation, they must be brought to scale to truly transform the U.S. workforce development system to support 21st-century economic growth.

2. Increase credential recognition and portability. The fragmented credentialing structure that exists for most occupations across the country is a challenge for employers and jobseekers. Too often, occupational certificates and licenses are developed in specific geographic contexts that are not recognized or valued in other areas. In one example, Ms. Sterling noted that fewer than half of all states allow nurse practitioners to perform to the full range of their license, filling a critical role in rural and other communities typically underserved by doctors. Efforts to create a national certification registry are underway; this will be an important step forward in understanding the value of credentials in the labor market.

3. Market careers more broadly, and integrate career exploration in the K-12 curricula to better prepare students for postsecondary opportunities and increase interest in high-demand occupations. Mr. Moon identified the ongoing misperception of manufacturing as a dirty, low-skilled industry as one barrier to addressing the workforce challenges of advanced manufacturing firms creating well-paid, middle-skill job opportunities. Integrating career exploration and exposure as early as elementary school could help to improve student awareness of their own career interests, ensure that students are enrolled in needed and challenging pre-training coursework, and strengthen the workforce pipeline needed for economic growth.

4. Improving K-12 performance. Governor Engler noted that the National Assessment of Educational Process results released this week show that only 36 percent of fourth graders nationwide are considered proficient in reading. (In fact, this is progress; since 1992 the share of students who are proficient readers by fourth grade has been slowly increasing from 29 percent.) The employer panel identified 3rd grade reading as a critical target for intervention, recognizing that strong reading skills are the foundation needed to succeed in the education and training programs that prepare individuals for the middle-skill, high-demand occupations that will drive our economy. 

5. Improve labor market and systems data to support analysis and strategy refinement. Current data systems are incomplete, disconnected, delayed, and inadequate to the needs of employers and other stakeholders in the labor market. Longitudinal, integrated data systems are needed to truly understand system performance, including identifying areas for improvement and promising strategies to take to scale. The panel highlighted the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act's (WIOA) emphasis on performance measures as an opportunity to drive improvements in this area. 

The panelists’ recommendations came during an event to celebrate the launch of the book Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century. The book, a collaborative effort by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and Kansas City, is a compendium of chapters and case studies from more than 60 authors. It is intended to spur action to improve and modernize the workforce system by transforming policies, redesigning strategies, building an evidence base, and creating targeted approaches. Panel moderator Todd Greene, coeditor of the book and Vice President of community and economic development research with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, asked the panelists to identify the changes they would most like to see in the workforce system. 

The priorities identified by the panelists are reflected throughout the book, including in the three chapters contributed by JFF staff. The case study “Wired65: Driving a Cross-State Regional Manufacturing Strategy”, by JFF Senior Vice President Maria Flynn, demonstrates the value of working with broader regional partners to promote credential alignment in advanced manufacturing. The case study “Pink to Green: Promising Workforce Development Practices for Women in Nontraditional Occupations,” cowritten by JFF’s Geri Scott, Deborah Kobes, and Alexandra Waugh with colleagues from Wider Opportunities for Women, highlights efforts to attract women to careers in green manufacturing and construction. The final chapter of the book, “Two-Generation Strategies for Expanding the Middle Class,” co-authored by Tara Smith, current senior program manager at Jobs for the Future, examines the connection between educational attainment and family economic security, and identifies programs working to improve education and other outcomes for children and parents. As states and communities across the country begin to implement the WIOA, JFF is excited to be a part of this critical conversation on how to turn ideas into action.