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Workforce Development Overhaul Will Need Cooperation from All Stakeholders

Business Roundtable CEO Workforce Forum, March 6, Washington, D.C.
Business Roundtable CEO Workforce Forum, March 6, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Business Roundtable)

Ensuring that the incoming generation of workers has the skills needed to thrive will require an updated workforce development system, stronger partnerships between industry and higher education, and the advancement of a skills-first continuous learning mindset.

Lawmakers, CEOs and higher education executives offered these solutions and shared some workforce development strategies that have been working with attendees March 6 at the CEO Workforce Forum in Washington, D.C. The event was held by the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of leading U.S. companies.

“The workforce development issue is too important for us as a country not to get something done,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “Every member of Congress from both sides of the aisle is hearing from businesses saying, ‘We need a skilled workforce in this country.’ ”

Brendan Bechtel, chairman and CEO of global construction giant Bechtel, laid out the problem succinctly. “Where are all the people going to come from to build all the stuff that companies like ours build?” he asked. “The construction industry is going to have a shortage of hundreds of thousands of workers in the next couple of years. We forecast that we will need to hire 20,000 more workers just for work on the Gulf Coast over the next two years.”

Shared Aims

One key to success will require that lawmakers work together to modernize the country’s workforce development system.

“We need public policy support to make workforce development a reality,” said Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines. He advocated expanding short-term Pell funding for workforce training and reauthorizing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to be able to scale up the successful workforce development programs that individual employers typically host.

SHRM supports both of those legislative pushes in the form of the A Stronger Workforce for America Act and the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act.

Political polarization will surely be on full display this election year, but both Democrats and Republicans support a shared goal in workforce development.

“Employers tell me they can’t find skilled workers,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “At the same time, there are a lot of people looking for jobs. Short-term training programs can be transformational. But they can be expensive, so the people that need them the most can’t use them. Applying a Pell Grant to short-term programs would transform their lives.”

In addition, the WIOA reauthorization has individual training accounts built in, to help people pay for workforce training, Scott said. “That’s an improvement in the latest WIOA reauthorization,” he explained. “A lot of the money that went into it previously didn’t go to actual training. A much higher proportion of the money will go into actual training this time.”

Scott added that the reauthorization will place more emphasis on helping youth and people involved with the criminal justice system with job training, as well as working with employers to understand what kind of training is really needed.

“We want industry to have more of a say in these programs,” Foxx said. “We also want more upskilling in these programs, so it’s not just new entrants to the workforce who benefit but people already working whose jobs may be going away and will have the chance to learn new skills.”

Democrats and Republicans agree that any federally funded training programs should be high-quality. “One thing that is really important is that these programs are performance-based,” Foxx said. “We have come to a good agreement in that area. We want these programs to produce results.”

The School-to-Work Pipeline

A stronger relationship between employers and schools is another key solution to ongoing labor shortages and the skills gap. Working with schools—high schools, community colleges, vocational schools and universities—is already a critical tactic for employers cultivating talent and equipping students with the in-demand skills they’re looking to hire for.

“Companies are looking at community colleges as a talent solution,” said Juan Salgado, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. “Companies are telling each other about our schools and about the value of our students. There is a business case there.”

Bechtel said his company has partnered with local colleges to create apprenticeship programs and has also visited high schools to begin attracting students to construction work.

“We can’t just focus on the last mile of someone’s educational journey,” he said. “That’s why we are going upstream and developing project-based engineering curriculum for high school students.”

Chris Kastner is president and CEO of HII, the largest military shipbuilding company in the U.S. He said his company, based in Newport News, Va., has run an apprenticeship program for over 100 years.

“Students that are accepted gain work experience for four years, without paying for anything, and accrue no debt,” Kastner said. “Eighty percent of apprentices are still working for us after 10 years and make up 50 percent of production leadership. For a large industrial employer, it’s a great place to find the leadership you need to be successful.”

A major obstacle Kastner sees is students’ lack of fundamental skills at the high school level. “There’s been a decline in math skills over the years,” he said. “That’s why relationships with community colleges are so important. You can modify the curriculum to ensure that the fundamentals are included.” 

But Kastner agreed that having a presence in high schools is also necessary. HII runs pre-apprenticeship programs in high schools. “We are doing the training, giving them the equipment, developing the next generation,” he said.

Schools appreciate the help, he said. “The reaction from schools has been very positive. They don’t have a lot of budget, and we understand that, so we contribute the machines and the training. They just need to support the program and give us access to students.” 

Quinton Ross Jr., president of Alabama State University in Montgomery, said that ideally, there would be a seamless pipeline between community colleges, universities and employers in the same region.

“Our career services department invites companies to come meet the students and prepares students to go and have in-person interactions with companies,” he said. “Career services is phenomenal with matching students with opportunities.”

The City Colleges of Chicago have found success within an apprenticeship network created for the Chicago area.

“We’re on our sixth apprenticeship cohort with Aon,” Salgado said. “Eighty-five percent of students have been hired full-time after completion of that program. That kind of opportunity is available at any company.”

When asked what the biggest change was that occurred to facilitate metrics like that, Salgado said it was employers looking at their job descriptions and determining which jobs didn’t need a bachelor’s degree.  

Career-Connected Lifelong Learning

U.S. first lady Jill Biden closed out the forum with an exhortation to employers to build a career-connected curriculum with high schools and community colleges that prepares students to work in specific fields.

Employers should play more of a part in building career pathways earlier, while students are in high school, she said.

“I see firsthand how students graduating high school sometimes have no idea what to do next. And they don’t know how to go from earning a diploma to earning a living. They may not even know what roles are out there,” Biden said. “That’s why we need to transform education, so it does a better job of preparing students for careers. Creating and investing in work-based learning programs will ultimately help you find workers and grow your businesses.”

She gave the example of Bellin Health System in Green Bay, Wis., which spends time in local high schools helping to train the next generation of health care workers. 

“One thing that has changed in society is that learning is now lifelong,” Foxx said. “A bachelor’s degree is not the only key to success in this country. Going forward, people will change jobs more and more, and they will need to be able to continuously learn. You can get an education with a short-term program, get a new job, and continue your education while you’re working to move up or laterally in the business.”


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