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Recently I attended a Sector Strategies and Workforce Planning Statewide Meeting with the Workforce Development Boards from the State of Missouri. The meeting objectives included an opportunity for partners to come together to advance their sector-based panning activities, come to a consensus on initial regional target sectors, prioritize sector-based opportunities, needs and action items, begin to craft a regional team action plan and position the teams for ongoing collaborative work.

At the core of the planning session is the requirement under the new WIOA for workforce organizations to partner collaboratively across the regions. In other words, move forward with a regional approach. Economic Developers have been following this model successfully for years and with the addition of this new streamlined approach to regional, employer focused workforce development, the State of Missouri and each of the regions should be better able to create a talented and skilled workforce that will meet employer needs and spur economic growth.

The process began with a self-assessment designed to determine what assets may already exist in the regions and identify certain strengths and weaknesses that may exist regionally. In our team’s regional assessment we learned that there are a number of pockets of success that exist throughout the region but that these groups are often disconnected from each other and communication is limited. We also learned that our organizations are willing to partner together to move this initiative forward which is not always the case.

Another interesting fact that came to light was the shared economies and allied workforce initiatives throughout our region. While this may not seem unusual to some in rural areas, it is a big advantage when planning how to effectively use limited resources to support workforce initiatives region-wide. This advantage allows our group to focus these limited resources on a targeted classifications. In other regions, the workforce job classifications and the industry sectors are much more broad which will impact the budgeting process and the ability to focus funding and efforts.

The next step in the process was to perform an extensive data analysis of the regional assets that identified the growth industry sectors in each region. This data was then validated and in some cases adjusted with intelligence provided by the regional partners based on their knowledge of the region. However, in most cases, the data closely reflected the reality of industry sectors in the regions including identifying a near 20% decrease in the agriculture production in the northeast region. The data included information on growth sectors and the strongest sectors as well as the location quotient which reflected the intensity of certain sectors within the region compared to the national average.

While the data doesn’t always tell the story we want to hear, it is not necessarily wrong. I was recently a part of a meeting where a local elected official was arguing his position on a certain matter. Following the discussion, the City Manager reflected that while every person is entitled to his/her own opinion, they are not necessarily entitled to their own set of facts. Data = facts.

I shared with the group that much of my time is spent educating elected officials on the facts. Often times we want our communities to be what they were 20 plus years ago and it begins to blind our perception of the reality we face. It is not a bad thing to want to return to the glory days of our rural communities, but we are fooling ourselves if we think we can bury our heads in the sand and ride out the storm. We may not like what the data says, but we need to listen and react accordingly.

I shared with the group that I was once in a meeting with a local elected official that was adamant that a community no longer pursue “blue collar” jobs in their attraction efforts as they needed to focus on “white collar” “high tech” jobs that pay more money. I spent several meetings and many hours explaining to this elected official that while it is certainly possible to make a purposeful shift to other sectors in your attraction efforts over time, you can’t just wake up one day and become the silicon valley of the Midwest. If you want to pursue other sectors, you need to work collaboratively with your partners in K-12, secondary education and industry to clearly define the training needs, identify current strengths and weaknesses and develop a training program to advance these objectives. As I mentioned, certainly a shift is possible, but much planning and execution of training initiatives is needed over time to prepare the workforce.

Another vital consideration is not to leave the existing workforce behind as the shift is made. All too often we see communities make this shift to pursue the perceived greener pastures, however noble it may be, but forget about the significant segment of their workforce that has tremendous strengths and experience within industry etc. You can’t shift focus and leave this group behind. And yet, we see this in many communities. Industrial Parks that more closely represent ghost towns with a few buildings still in use but lucky to be at 30% capacity. Employees can spend some time underemployed and get by while waiting for new opportunities but at some point, families must make decisions and if the community has shifted away from the desire to support local industry, they are forced to move away. Populations continue to decrease and we wonder why.

I recently heard a K-12 administrator discussing the successes that his rural district has experienced with bringing significant new technology into the classroom. I was impressed; and not surprised to hear that the district hosts a number of visits from larger districts attempting to learn how to implement the program. One of the challenges the administrator shared was the concern the administration has about continuing this investment in technology long term with continually decreasing enrollments resulting in decreased funding.

I recently wrote a blog entitled, “What Can We Learn From Our Existing Workforce?” in which I shared the following: Successful communities seek a collaborative effort between local/regional development officials, educators, training providers, workers and employers to measure the labor availability in a given labor market as generally related to work style, knowledge, and occupation skills. Measuring the soft and hard skills of the current workforce, the importance of these various skills to employers and the availability of these skills in the labor market provides an indication of the stress and degree of the skill gap in the market.

One goal in each community should be to improve the communication process of skills needs for employers with educators and training providers in preparing students for careers that close the gap between the demand for skills by employers and the supply of talent at the local and regional level. Workers and students benefit by exploring career options and learning which skills employers seek for specific types of work. Employers identify necessary skills to increase the efficiency of recruitment and training. Educational planners may then design instructional programs to teach the skills demanded in the workplace.

While both work style and knowledge skills sets are required in most careers and occupations, they may differ in degree of importance for different occupations, employers, or industries. The particular occupation and work culture of a given industry can play a large role on the importance of work style skills in the work place. A quote often used is “knowledge or hard skills will get you the job and work style or soft skills will let you stay and excel on the job.”

Bridging the skills gap that comes with new technology and innovation is a key challenge of our time. By encouraging partnerships and greater collaboration between educators, training providers, workers and employers we can start closing the skills gap and workers can earn better pay and employers gain a competitive advantage in the national and global markets.

Following the Sector Strategies and Workforce Planning Statewide Meeting a new partnership has been established in Northeast Missouri to do the necessary work to align the existing resources in the area in support of local employers. The idea is to query employers regarding their needs and bring the necessary resources to the table to meet those needs and provide training that is relevant to the employers and that will provide the job seekers with the best opportunity to obtain a job that pays a good wage.

It is my understanding from area workforce providers that traditionally our local job centers would query job seekers on the types of training they were interested in. One example that was given involved a job seeker who entered a local job center requesting training to become a travel agent even though in this particular rural area of the state, no travel agencies existed.

This new regional partnership geared towards aligning all available resources in the area and armed with the knowledge of the true training needs of area employers has tremendous potential to align local educators, training providers, workers and employers to make lasting impacts for both employers and job seekers as well as spur economic growth. It just makes sense.

Corey J Mehaffy, CEO

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