Connecting with the Public Workforce System

Sep 1, 2016

Shayne Spaulding, Senior Research Associate, Income and Benefits Policy Center, Urban Institute

Shayne Spaulding is a senior research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where her work focuses on the evaluation of workforce development, postsecondary education programs and the design of programs that are responsive to employer needs. She has spent nearly 20 years in the workforce development field as an evaluator, technical assistance provider and program manager. Before joining Urban, she served as the university director of workforce development for the City University of New York (CUNY), overseeing continuing education and workforce programs for the university's 24 colleges. She holds a Master of Arts degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University.

The public workforce system is an underutilized resource for employers. Research shows that only about half of employers are even aware of their key local public workforce system partners (GAO, 2005). According to one study, only about 5% of employers recruiting less-skilled workers use a public agency for hiring (Acs and Loprest, 2008).

There are many reasons for employers to tap into the public system. Employers that engage with the public system do so to find qualified applicants for open positions, to reduce the cost of hiring or training, or to address particular training or service needs that cannot be addressed internally. For example, employers that have put in place new credentialing requirements may want to seek out external training providers to help incumbent staff earn necessary credentials or upgrade their skills. The public system may also be helpful for achieving diversity goals or assisting employers in meeting social responsibility objectives (Spaulding and Martin-Caughey, 2015).

The public workforce system is interested in engaging employers. Recent changes in federal policies put an even stronger emphasis on engaging employers. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) emphasizes the development of programs that are responsive to employer needs and designed in partnership with employers. Other federal and philanthropic initiatives have also placed a premium on the engagement of employers (Barnow and Spaulding, 2015).

Why don't employers engage with the public system more often? Despite the many reasons employers and workforce programs should rely on each other, their collaborations encounter persistent challenges. Employers often perceive the costs of participation in workforce programs as outweighing the benefits. They may also have a general wariness of working with the government or nonprofits, which may be driven by differences in organizational cultures or by concerns about the target populations served by some workforce programs. Firms may also be wary of working with competing firms in efforts that involve multiple employers (Barnow and Spaulding, 2015; Laufer Green Isaac, 2004).

Evidence is emerging for solutions that may address these challenges. Some promising or proven approaches for engaging employers in the public workforce system include the following:

  • Sector-based initiatives where groups of employers work together with the workforce system or workforce programs to address human resource issues. Strong examples have emerged in health care, manufacturing, technology and other industries. The passage of WIOA may further the development of these sector- or industry-based approaches. (To learn more about sector-based initiatives, see the Aspen Institute's Workforce Strategies Initiative, which includes numerous reports on these initiatives:
  • Efforts led by intermediaries who serve as bridges between training programs and employers, helping to translate employer needs, inform the development of training, and coordinate resources and services across multiple partners.
  • Registered apprenticeships where employers play a lead role in designing training and where trainees receive a combination of classroom training with paid, on-the-job training to ensure they have the skills employers need.
  • Customized training or on-the-job training using WIOA funding, where employers contribute only half (and sometimes less than half) of the cost of training (can be financial or in kind).
These are just a few of the potential ways employers can partner with the workforce system. Other ways of engaging with the system include contributing to workforce development program oversight via organizational boards, informing the design of training programs, playing a role in program delivery (for example, by participating in mock interviews or offering internship opportunities) and communicating with the workforce system or particular programs regarding recruitment activities and hiring needs (Spaulding and Martin-Caughey, 2015).

How can employers connect with the system? Part of the reason the public workforce system may be underutilized is its complexity. As Eyster and colleagues (2016) note in their primer on the workforce system, each local system looks different and involves different actors. Employers looking to connect with the workforce system for hiring or training needs can seek out their local Workforce Development Board, an oversight body for Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act services that is required to have a majority employer membership.

These boards oversee American Job Centers, which provide job-brokering services for local employers. Local community and technical colleges, along with community-based organizations, can play an important role by providing basic or technical skills training. In many cases, local philanthropic partners are contributing resources and driving change. By working with these local workforce system partners, employers have the potential to address their human resource needs, reduce hiring and training costs, and contribute to their local communities.


Acs, G., & Loprest, P. (2008). Understanding the Demand Side of the Low-Wage Labor Market. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Barnow, B. S., & Spaulding, S. (2015). Employer Involvement in Workforce Programs: What Do We Know? In C. Van Horn, T. Edwards, and T. Greene (Eds.), Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century, 231–64. Atlanta, GA: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and Rutgers University.

Eyster, L., Durham, C., Van Noy, M., & Damron, N. (2016). Understanding Local Workforce Systems. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

GAO (US Government Accountability Office). (2005). Workforce Investment Act: Employers Are Aware Of, Using, and Satisfied with One-Stop Services, but More Data Could Help Labor Better Address Employers' Needs. GAO-05-259. Washington, DC: GAO.

Laufer Green Isaac. (2004). Hidden Agendas: Stereotypes and Cultural Barriers to Corporate-Community Partnerships. Los Angeles: Laufer Green Isaac. Retrieved from

Spaulding, S., & Martin-Caughey, A. (2015). The Goals and Dimensions of Employer Engagement in Workforce Development Programs. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.


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