Addressing Unemployment & Economic Prosperity Through Workforce Development

Despite the nation’s low unemployment rate of 4.4 percent, many U.S. employers still report struggles with finding qualified workers to fill vacancies. This phenomenon is often generalized as the “skills gap” or a gap between the skills workers possess and the ones demanded by employers. But the issue could be more nuanced:

  • do American workers lack job-related skills associated with particular occupations (i.e., a “skills shortage”) or[1]
  • is the supply of skilled workers out of sync with the skills demanded by employers, creating oversupply or undersupply in specific labor markets (i.e., a “skills mismatch”) or[2]
  • are there indeed widespread shortfalls in the basic skills of current and future American workers (i.e., a “skills gap”)?[3]

No matter the position you take, it is evident there is mismatch between the supply of and demand for qualified skilled workers in many occupations. Each day, countless news stories document the widespread number of job vacancies across many industries. In fact, a recent search of “employers cannot find workers” returned nearly 70,000 articles on the issue. While many factors such as wage growth or work environment influence the attractiveness of job opportunities, one key trend has emerged – American workers are not being equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to attain employment, let alone middle-skills, family-sustaining careers.
So how do we address this issue? Through workforce development initiatives or federal, state, non-profit and grassroots efforts aimed at solving these “skills issues.”[4] Typically, workforce development initiatives focus on aligning education, training and employment providers to ensure workers (i.e., current students, current workers and individuals who are unemployed) are properly prepared at each step along the way, exiting the education-workforce “pipeline” ready to step into in-demand careers.
With the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in 1998, states established workforce development/investment boards (WIBs) to catalyze workforce development efforts in local communities. WIBs are charged with setting states’ strategic workforce priorities, determining high-growth industries, developing a spending plan for federal workforce dollars and designating workforce investment regions within states. Local or “regional WIBs” are then established in each workforce investment region to work in coordination with the state WIB. By law, more than 50 percent of all WIBs must be comprised of employers from the community. WIBs also include education and training partners as well as critical community-based organizations in their efforts.
That’s where you come in – there are multiple ways to get involved with local workforce development efforts, whether it’s to provide your expertise or to keep abreast of the work. You can take advantage of the U.S Department of Labor’s WorkforceGPS website, which includes a directory of workforce system contacts and partners for each state, communities of practice or networks of workforce development professionals and other key resources. Further, local Chambers of Commerce can be key contacts for workforce development efforts as they often convene local partners and/or represent local workforce development efforts to regional WIBs.
This issue is one of the main barriers hampering our nation’s economic prosperity. To truly enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families, we must get involved with local workforce development efforts to cultivate qualified workers and connect them to meaningful, well-paying career opportunities.
[1-4] National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2014 (accessed 05.19.17)