How to Build a Strong Workforce Development Network: Lessons from Southeastern Workforce Networks

A regional workforce development collaborative, also referred to as a regional workforce development network, serves as a "backbone" organization that exists to provide greater regional coordination among workforce development service providers and programs with the business community.

For more information on these organizations and their role in workforce development, see the discussion paper "Fragmentation in Workforce Development and Efforts to Coordinate Regional Workforce Development Systems," by Stuart Andreason and Ann Carpenter.

Increasingly vital players in the workforce development field, regional workforce development collaboratives are working hard to fill the gap caused by a system that has experienced a rising number of localized, individual service providers and programs but has struggled with providing the necessary coordination to match. Although these types of organizations have existed as early as the 1980s, the Southeast has more recently embraced them as significant structural changes, fragmentation, funding instability, and other factors have made system coordination all the more difficult.

In June, workforce collaboratives from the Southeast convened virtually to share their experiences and progression as organizations as well as to discuss the obstacles they confront in their role as regional bases for workforce development. The meeting was organized and facilitated by Stuart Andreason, senior community and economic development adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, and attended by key players in workforce collaborative efforts from Atlanta, Nashville, and Birmingham.

The three regional networks present at the virtual conference included the Metro Atlanta Exchange for Workforce Solutions (MAX), the Nashville Workforce Network (NWN), and the Central Six Workforce Development Council (which serves a six-county region in and around Birmingham), each created within the past decade to address the aforementioned needs. The discussion allowed the regional workforce development collaboratives and their key partners in attendance to find that they confronted similar problems in trying to advance their organizations. Some of the main issues discussed included:

  • Lack of funding. Collaborative leaders found that philanthropic and grant funding for workforce development is rare, and the funders that do exist typically prefer to fund direct efforts, as opposed to the system-level change efforts of a regional workforce development network. Collaborative efforts are also concerned with ensuring that they are not "crowding the field" by creating inadvertent competition with direct job-training providers they serve if they pursue the same funding source.
  • Permanent, dedicated program leadership. Closely tied to the issue of funding is the need for permanent, dedicated leadership to manage these growing regional workforce development networks. Although the attendees agreed that establishing a single person to lead the network is critical, tight funding streams have made it difficult to hire and staff these initiatives. Several of the collaboratives discussed the potential for using "loaned" staffing time as a potential model for staffing, but they noted that full-time staff would be preferable. Some of the groups have considered assigning full-time, loaned staff to their respective collaboratives. Andreason and Carpenter's paper describes several collaboratives that have been able to develop devoted budgets and staffing, often as an initiative or spinoff of another group.
  • Network quality control. Though the regional workforce development networks would like to ensure a high quality of service providers included in the networks, they voiced several concerns regarding their selectivity of network members. One issue was how to determine and develop a standard indicator of service quality for the range of providers served by the network. Other issues with implementing quality control included straying from the mission of these organizations and potentially creating competition among service providers. Collaboratives have identified a few basic measures of provider capacity, including the number of people served and their placement rate into jobs as a foundation for measuring program capacity. All noted that when working with job-training providers ranging from very small nonprofits to larger technical colleges, making an apples-to-oranges comparison is very difficult.
  • Metrics for success. Although networks can track certain internal metrics of effectiveness (such as the number of events they hold or the number of providers they serve), they have found it difficult to measure their progress toward the broad missions of systems change. The collaboratives also noted that it is even more difficult to ascribe responsibility for positive changes in the local workforce development system to their efforts. Most of the collaboratives continue to measure their effectiveness through feedback from members.
  • Perception and general understanding of role. Operating as a neutral collaborative that serves workforce development service providers and not as a direct service provider or a broker has required extra clarity in developing these organizations. The collaboratives from different regions, as well as the ones profiled in the recent discussion paper, identified different local gaps that collaborative efforts could fill. These efforts ranged from developing better connections to the business community to providing professional development to organizations that may be allied to the workforce development system, but not directly engaged in job training.

Though these organizations have had to use their best judgment in navigating these new issues as they arise, this virtual convening allowed them to share solutions that have worked with one another, as well as lessons learned from things that did not work. As Andreason and Carpenter suggest, these groups have the potential to create more effective workforce development offerings for job seekers and businesses. As they continue to advance and work through these issues, the Atlanta Fed's Community and Economic Development department looks forward to facilitating further collaboration and sharing lessons among workforce development entities.

Are you working regionally on workforce development issues and would like to share your experiences? If so, email Stuart Andreason.

By community and economic development intern Mindy Kao