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National Workforce Development

June 1st, 2010 by Erinn Andrews Leave a reply »

We are beginning new research again! As I have said before, the purpose of sharing this additional information is to explain why we think these are interesting or relevant areas to research, what we learned about the nuances of the cause, and the difficulties we faced in narrowing the scope of the research, so you, the reader, can understand what we considered as we refined our thinking about the research.

If you are an expert on any of these topics, you should be receiving an email from us soon and we hope you will be compelled to participate! If for some reason we have missed you and you think you have a valuable perspective to offer, please contact me at

Additionally, I’m sure I haven’t been able to capture every nuance in these sectors, so I invite your feedback and thoughts about how you might think about this work. For those readers less familiar with this topic, I hope you will learn something new and tune in again when we have the results of this research. Thank you all for your participation!


The workforce development field is focused on helping people get the skills and the jobs they need to sustain themselves and their family. It’s about connecting employers who need skilled workers and ideally building a system of successful organizations because no one organization can do it all. Workforce development organizations must collectively understand the labor supply issues in a region and develop strategies for people to get jobs and businesses to get skilled workers.

I found that the workforce and economic development fields are often talked about in terms of supply and demand. All experts with whom I spoke saw these two fields as separate, though most felt that in the future, the two will have to work together much more closely (unsuccessful attempts have been made in the past). For the purposes of this post, I’ll only go into detail about workforce development because that will be the scope of our research for this topic.

Definition in terms of supply and demand:

Workforce Development:

Supply (the worker): This part of workforce development is about building the skills of workers, training workers, giving workers access to the resources they need to connect them with jobs or training, providing education or continuing education through university, community college, or alternative education routes, providing technical training and credentialing programs, moving people to work, helping people with job retention and stability, and helping people advance to better jobs.

Demand (the business): This part of workforce development is about creating new jobs, helping businesses develop positions that have potential career ladders within for workers, encouraging businesses to train and develop their employees or provide businesses with services to train their employees.

Only in the last 10-15 years has “workforce development” become the main term for this field. In the past, this sector was primarily focused on job placement for the disadvantaged. Workforce development was seen as a “second chance” system, a social service trying to help people in poverty find work. Because the results of these efforts were disappointing, the field evolved and expanded.

Now, the scope of workforce development includes skill building and credential building (as well as everything outlined above under “Workforce Development Supply”). For the first time, there’s a real effort to bring together the supply and the demand side. In a sector that was traditionally driven by the supply side (the worker), there has been a shift. Now, the demand side (businesses and employers) are seen as a primary “customer.” Additionally, there’s been an effort to tie the needs of businesses with the supply of labor available in each local community. However, a result of this expansion is that workforce development has become a very fragmented field. This is a problem because many people will specialize in one of these areas of the field, but not be familiar with all—making it difficult to push the field forward.

One negative trend some experts noted was that over the last few years, the government has shifted to a “universal service” model where they don’t want to run and fund programs just for the disadvantaged, but they want universal access to these resources for all. So the criticism is that there’s now even less money to serve this very large audience of disadvantaged people. Those with the greatest need get the lowest level of services.

What are some of the problems nonprofits in the workforce development field are facing and solving?

  • There’s a gap between the labor market and the community’s needs. Workers often have remedial skills, need social skills development, soft skills development, etc.
  • It is hard to get all people the skills they need to develop in the workforce.
  • Industries and sectors are changing all the time. So, workforce development organizations must involve the businesses to strategize about how many workers they will need, what skills they will need to be competitive, and how to grow their own workers from within.
  • Of those people who are unemployed right now, only 5% of those with a college education are without a job, while 20% of low-skilled workers are unemployed.

There are a number of different kinds of organizations at work in this field:

  1. Funders: National foundations, local foundations, corporate foundations, community foundations, the federal government (Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Commerce, Department of Education, Federal Workforce Development Act), and state and local governments.
  2. Education Institutions: Community colleges (traditional education, technical training, credentialing programs, continuing education, etc.).
  3. Community Based Organizations and Service Providers: Nonprofits providing services to connect individuals with resources (education, training, networks, employers, career centers, etc.)
  4. Labor Unions
  5. Business and Industry Associations, Chambers of Commerce
  6. Technical Assistance Providers
  7. Alternative Staffing Agencies
  8. Research and Policy Organizations

Scope of the Research

Therefore, the scope of this research will be focused on workforce development nonprofits that are working at the national or multi-state level, or that are developing a model that has the potential to scale and make an impact at that level.  These organizations could be focused on job retention/stability, advancement to better jobs, capacity and skill building, helping the formerly homeless, imprisoned, and hospitalized to move to work, helping employers to invest in their own workforce, etc. These nonprofits might work with various populations: adults with low literacy skills, adults or youth with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, youth (around after school employment), welfare recipients, businesses, or the community at large. And these nonprofits might focus on different kinds of activities: policy, research, advocacy, direct services, education, technical assistance, etc. Specifically excluded from consideration will be for-profit organizations such as head hunting and for-profit staff placement companies.

These are just a summary of my notes after having talked to about 10 experts in the workforce development field. What do you think? What have I missed? What might you add? Please feel free to leave a comment and help build on these notes.


  1. You are correct that the supply and demand sides must be integrated. However, you omitted the key organizations that are responsible for doing exactly that–the workforce investment boards. There are boards across the country–16 in Massachusetts–that are responsible for identifying labor force needs and developing strategies of addressing them. This goes far beyond oversight of federal legislation. Note: the title of the federal workforce development act is the Workforce Investment Act that is up for reauthorization this year.

    One example is HealthcareWorks–an initiative sponsored by the Metro South/West Regional Employment Board, Inc. to address staffing shortages in health care. Our response, in concert with hospitals and nursing homes, was to remove a significant barrier to success in post-secondary education and certification and licensing for front-line health care workers. With World Education, Inc. in Boston, we created an instructor facilitated, web-based college preparatory program that is completely contextualized to health care–the Health Care Learning Network. In the past year and one-half over 100 workers have enrolled; 14 have enrolled in community college programs to become nurses or technical workers,, and seven have graduated. To experience HLCN as a student would, go to, the log in and password are both “guest.”

    Many of the boards are non-profit organizations and need additional support to expand their capacity as effective intermediaries in the labor market.

    • Sylvia, thanks for this great addition to the post and for pointing us to additional resources and information about the workforce development field! I appreciate your contribution! –Erinn

  2. Thanks for the great post. In helping to fill positions for a number of many workforce development programs, Commongood Careers has found that these programs have been most successful at developing people for corporate and private sector jobs. What about developing talent for the nonprofit sector, particularly from the communities which many of these organizations serve? While organizations such as Year Up, Mamagement Leadership for Tomorrow, and Center for Employment Opportunities are doing amazing work in getting underserved individuals the skills and training they need to get ahead, what about developing talent for nonprofit and philanthropic work?

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