ALL MEETINGS & NO ACTION
It’s probably the biggest frustration and most widespread complaint that employers have about the workforce development/ community college system. I spent 10 years of my career working in the professional recruiting and staffing industry, and through this experience got to understand the psyche of employers, HR professionals and CEO’s. None of them want to go to unnecessary meetings, especially if they’re unproductive.
The problem is that workforce development agencies and community colleges (a critical part of developing talent) are in love with convening advisory meetings. Even worse, many of the grants that fund sector strategies place the emphasis on “convening employers” or “employer roundtables”, rather than an emphasis on net placements or increased wages for incumbent workers.
Having participated in a few of these, I can empathize with employers who find them boring, ineffective and generally not the best use time. Here are the reasons why:
- They’re setup to “Check A Box”. – As I mentioned earlier, many sector strategies have advisory meetings as a deliverable outcome. As a result, the goal of the meetings tend to be more on demonstrating to the funder that you “engaged employers”, rather than actually soliciting input and advice. Also, sometimes workforce organizers go into the meetings with the attitude that they know more about employment and training then the employer, and as a result they monopolize the meetings with presentations and power point decks.
- Employers not asked to contribute – It is a mistake to think that sector strategy can work without the employer being the central stakeholder. Advisory meetings tend to focus more on information delivery, as opposed to information extraction.
- Lack of tangible results – Probably the most frustrating feedback I hear, either directly from employers, or from sector intermediaries is that after employers spend all of their time attending these meetings, there is no follow up, and no delivery on promise, i.e., no qualified candidates are trained and referred. Employers are results oriented. It turns them off if there are a lot of promises and no outcomes (trained workers).
So What Is The Best Way To Engage Employers?
Face-to-face or phone-to-phone outreach and engagement 1:1 with an employer at a time is the best way, at least starting out. And before even reaching out to an employer, you have to do your research. Here are strategies that work in engaging employers:
- Research – Before you reach out to an employer, you need to get up-skilled and knowledgeable on their sector. For example, if you want to target the IT sector, (which by the way is extremely broad. You’d be foolish to go that wide. A better approach would be to break it down into smaller sub-vertical such as security, cloud, IT consulting, etc.) first identify a sub-vertical, then go deep, and learn about that sector, the types of positions, the skills required, etc. All of this can be found on their website hiring/ open jobs page, job postings, and industry articles. Certain labor market tools such as EMSI can also help, but you need to drill down to specific companies.
- Start 1:1 outreach – Start setting up meetings with key decision makers, VITO’s (Very Important Top Officers) within a set of target companies. If you can get a meeting with an “industry leader” that’s even better, because you can use them as a reference and testimonial later. During these meetings, you want to do customer discovery, which consists of a 10-20 questions such as:
- What are you biggest challenges in hiring?
- Why do you think they exist?
- How are you currently coping with these challenges?
- If you could, how would you solve the problem?
- How do you think training and education play a role?
- What would you be willing to invest (time and resources) in order to solve this problem?
- Under-promise, but OVER deliver (with placements) – As you start to conduct these meetings you’ll begin to figure out what employers are looking for and determine if a sector strategy will work. You just have to make sure you don’t over promise, or overstate your capabilities. Employers are struggling to find workers, so the only result you are being measured by is how many qualified workers you can refer to them. I suggest starting out small, and asking to fill a handful of positions. Then create your program around that. The goal is to prove the model, and then scale up in the future, but for right now, just try to get a small cohort trained and placed with your sector employers.
- Bring It To Scale – Once you get it working with 2-5 employers, then invite them to participate in advisory meetings. If you do advisory meetings, the employers should be doing the presenting and you should be doing the listening. I’ve met with employers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Wisconsin who have all told me that the workforce system is only making a dent in the problem, and that there is lack of scale. What this means is if you are placing 80-90% of your cohort for a class, which equals 20 participants placed, the sector as a whole in your region could probably hire 10x that or 200 workers. How are you going to bring it to scale? How are you going to bring efficiency to the model.
Because workforce development is in the position of shouldering the burden of training America’s workforce, you have to be much more private-sector focused. If you think you are “demand-driven” you probably are only operating at 10-25% efficiency. From an economic standpoint, now is a critical time to modernize your approach to sector strategies, as according to Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) President and CEO Henry G. “Hank” Jackson, “The skills shortage in the U.S. is a growing problem and will take innovative efforts of government, educational institutions and employers.”
In order to really have an impact in your region, you must start engaging employers differently, treating them as a customer, respecting their expertise, and valuing their time. With the US economy continuing to grow and as the availability of talent shrinks due to an aging population, and educational system not aligned for today’s workforce needs, getting better at sector strategies should be your #1 priority.