Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 12, 2013

Workforce development at the speed of business

BY ELAINE WOOD
Chief Executive Officer of Northwest Michigan Council of Governments

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Thankfully, there’s a lot of good news in the world of talent development.

As usual, most of the great ideas and innovative approaches are being generated at the local level, not just in Northwest Michigan but all over the country. Many governors, including Governor Snyder, are using effective state policies to enable and enhance the work of locally-led private sector boards that know what businesses need for economic growth.

Much of what businesses need now is good talent, ready to work, with a great base of knowledge, curiosity, creativity, and willingness to keep learning throughout their lives. Here are some of the key ways in which the education and workforce development sectors are working in tandem to help business and communities become stronger and more resilient.

Finding the appropriate roles

Assessing and reaching agreement on the appropriate roles for publicly-funded programs is difficult at best. We are motivated to find the highest and best use of every public dollar. So in primary and secondary education, we concentrate on foundational knowledge and skills, work ethic, learning how to learn and how to be individually responsible while still working well in teams like we need to in the workplace.

The best community colleges, including Northwestern Michigan College, have become experts in knowing how to continue meeting students’ general educational needs while also addressing specific regional, national and even global markets. Examples are NMC’s robotics, water studies, aviation and healthcare programs. New techniques like breaking curriculum into marketable modules and transforming two-year programs into optional short term, intensive models are fulfilling new and necessary roles.

At Northwest Michigan Works, we are focusing on helping education understand employers’ workforce needs so they can build an appropriate pipeline of future employees for our region. For people who are already in the workforce, we’re concentrating our limited training funds on filling current market needs for employers, thereby producing more stable incomes for families. This training is for many types of workers: a laid off production worker who has no hope of going back to the same kind of work but who has untapped talent for more advanced occupations; a disadvantaged young adult who is just discovering that he or she does, indeed, have a lot to offer; a single parent who is juggling part-time work with parenting while also preparing for higher-skilled work that will support the family. We still serve everyone who wants help. But training is the most expensive service we provide and we’re now concentrating our training resources on more immediate results.

Focusing on the ultimate customer. The talent development system in Michigan – with other states following suit – is finally recognizing that the employer is the primary customer. We serve job seekers far better when we directly address the demands of employers. Businesses are now seeing the benefits of taking time to get specific with us about the skill sets and other qualifications they need. And the more information they give us, the better we can respond. Our just-in-time training models are resulting in nearly 100 percent success rates. It’s an approach that brings together companies with similar human resource needs to identify the specific skills they need now and those they can project into the next several years. Correspondingly, we’re seeing a resurgence of willingness and ability of employers to commit resources to training and upgrading the skills their employees need so the companies can remain competitive.

Operating like business. If there’s one thing many of us dislike, it’s the traditionally slow pace and slow response rate of the public sector. Bogged down in processes, minutia and regulations, the public sector is often its own worst enemy. A business can’t work that way. If it does, it is soon left in the dust by its competitors.

There’s a growing trend for publicly-funded organizations to operate more like business. That does not translate to lack of accountability; quite the opposite. It means measuring the right elements of our operations, along with the results. Results speak for themselves, they can be measured, and the public sector is learning how to rely on the evidence of outcomes, just like businesses do.

Perhaps the best recent example of how Northwest Michigan Works is operating at the speed of business is exemplified by that just-in-time approach to job training. But it’s also evidenced by numerous other advances in our lean processes and efficiency, all of which end up positively affecting the end results, just like in business. And that brings us full circle to the importance of business people being integrally involved in publicly-funded workforce programs.

That has always been, and remains, the best news.