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Economic development leadership is the new thinking needed

Community economic development organizations (EDOs) are laser-focused on expanding, retaining and attracting new businesses with an emphasis on traded clusters – those that are the wealth generators. Some examples of traded clusters are aerospace, biotech, defense, logistics, and manufacturing. To be successful in attracting, expanding and retaining businesses, EDOs need to have irrefutable proof of a skilled workforce and local employers satisfied with the current talent pool.

This is not an easy task for many EDOs, as they sit on the periphery of the organizations responsible for producing this workforce – the K12 system, community colleges, and workforce organizations. Often, they engage consultants to help them know which workforce development policies to try to influence. More recently, they are turning to costly talent attraction strategies in hopes of having a quicker impact on community education attainment.

Many of the community workforce development efforts take place at the community college and workforce organization level. This is good – but that alone will not solve the community talent pipeline issue. And as for community talent attraction strategies, without an abundance of skilled jobs and excellent quality of life, it is hard to make this approach replace the importance of having a talent development plan. National data from a 2016 survey on the perception of U.S. economic elements conducted by Harvard Business School of their graduates who are currently filling many senior business leadership positions showed that their view of the K12 system is weak and deteriorating [Figure 1]. What is further concerning is that this same survey rates the U.S. skilled labor as a strength but also as deteriorating.

Recent survey data from GPS Education Partners asked Midwest EDOs if their community is challenged to graduate high school students prepared for work. A clear majority of the participating EDOs (73 percent) do not believe their current K12 system is graduating students prepared for work, with the remaining EDOs noncommittal.

These results, along with other common data showing there is a clear skills gap, demonstrate that new thinking is needed to improve the competitiveness of the education system, especially in producing a skilled workforce to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow. Communities should have a talent development strategy that ensures all students graduate from high school prepared for work. This strategy needs the engagement of employers – especially those who represent these key industry traded clusters.

So what is the new thinking? EDOs need to take a leadership role in workforce development as the voice of business in strategic planning.

Source: “Problems Unsolved and a Nation Divided, The State of US Competitiveness 2016,” Harvard Business Review, Michael Porter et al.

Most K12 systems have a “career readiness” program – but the question is, does this program truly prepare students for work? Recently, GPS Education Partners, a leader in work-based learning solutions, developed a Career Navigation Framework (CNF) based on its employer-driven work-based learning acumen and national best practices. The CNF contains standards and benchmarks along the career continuum, known as the GPSEd Work-based Learning JourneyTM, to evaluate current career-readiness programs and practices with a focus on how they are providing work-based learning opportunities. GPSEd uses the Framework and its consultative approach to identify the strengths and weaknesses of current programs and provides solutions to close these gaps.

So how can EDOs help their community build a successful workforce development strategy that ensures they have irrefutable proof of a skilled workforce? The first step is engaging GPSEd in a community K12 career readiness assessment using its Career Navigation Framework. Once strengths and gaps are identified and a plan developed, the EDO can facilitate the community to engage GPSEd to serve as an intermediary to work with educators and community partners to finalize and implement the plan. Once established, GPSEd will help transition the program to local leaders to sustain.

During the GPSEd process, the EDO serves as the voice of the business community in helping to build a career readiness program that includes a sustainable work-based learning ecosystem to produce the talent pipeline for large and small companies. As the voice of the business community, EDOs can help shape metrics to monitor success and help model continuous process improvement. The outcome benchmarks will provide the workforce development data for EDOs to promote their community and ensure current employers have the talent pipeline they need.

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