Leading experts in workforce and human capital development say that changing economic realities will require new workforce development policies. That was a key theme at the October 2014 conference, Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century.

The Kansas City and Atlanta Feds and the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University hosted the national conference to explore issues such as changes in demographics and the evolving demands for worker skills and how those affect the policies and practices needed to build a responsive workforce development system. The conference websiteOff-site link houses information about the agenda, speakers, and conference sponsors.

Policymakers, practitioners, and researchers shared perspectives on transformative education and workforce development strategies and policies at the event. Conference findings include:

  • The current labor market is very fluid and dynamic partly because of changes in the economy, including rapid technology development and globalization. That creates a challenging environment for workers to ensure their skill sets do not become outdated or obsolete. Some participants raised questions about the implications for particular populations like the long-term unemployed, ex-offenders, people with disabilities, and others who face difficulties in the labor market.
  • A modern workforce development system must include stronger connections between employers (and the private sector, more broadly) and training providers to ensure a highly skilled, well-educated, competitive, and productive workforce.
  • Though collaboration is found among some workforce development players, fragmentation and disconnect are often cited as obstacles. Effective and efficient solutions will require federal, state, and local/regional governments as well as educational institutions, businesses, and nonprofit organizations to interact more frequently.
  • Innovation and creativity in designing and deploying new funding streams are needed, beyond the historic public sector workforce development system.

These issues were addressed over three days through interactive panel discussions with some 60 leading experts.

Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart (pictured, above right) provided keynote remarks; he said that soft skills, or prerequisite skills and aptitudes, need to receive greater attention in the field. These skills are often an impediment to employment, according to Lockhart’s anecdotal discussions with industry leaders.

Lockhart also described a future in which the job-specific requirements in most industries will evolve rapidly and become more demanding, with increased automation and digitization reducing routine job tasks. "To be and remain employable, workers will trade on what cannot be programmed, and work arrangements with employers may be structured to provide those employers the most tactical flexibility in their workforce management," Lockhart said.

To remain responsive and relevant, Lockhart said the workforce development system will need to operate with greater coherence, cohesion, and coordination.

These initial discussions set the stage for panel presentations on topics ranging from credentials, competencies, and curriculum reform to intelligent workforce development systems and workforce policies for the long-term unemployed and underserved populations. Emphasis was placed on policies and practice that show promise of scalability and replication.

Summaries of the conference sessions and video highlights will be released in the coming months. In addition, the Atlanta and Kansas City Feds and Heldrich Center will publish Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century this spring. The book will extend and deepen the discussions started during the conference.