Meeting the Challenges of Tomorrow's Workforce: A Panel Discussion

September 19–20, 2012

Presented by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City

Moderator: Todd Greene, vice president for community and economic development, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

  • Panelist: Barbara Dyer, president and CEO, The Hitachi Foundation
  • Panelist: Karen Elzey, director, Skills for America's Future, Economic Opportunities Program, The Aspen Institute
  • Panelist: Dowell Myers, professor and director of Population Dynamics Research Group, University of Southern California

Barbara Dyer: The more important thing is alignment has to come from vision. We heard Glen [Hiemstra] yesterday talk about the postcard that inspired his grandparents or great-grandparents (I can't remember which generation) to come to America, "the land of milk and honey," "the land of good," you know, and we don't have an aligning vision. We hear about our workers being our greatest assets; that we want to build full employment; that we want to have a resilient workforce, but I think that's a throwaway because in reality this is what we have become.

Karen Elzey: And so when you look at that type of alignment and what has to occur at the local level, it's also understanding what are the assets of your community. It may be the community college, as in the case of Walla Walla, which has done a great job focusing on bringing together workforce and economic development. It may be a community-based organization. It may be the United Way. And you have to work to identify that at the local level and I think the important thing about alignment and when we talk about policy is this can't be a "one-size fits all" approach. That we really have to look at what are the skills and assets that exist in our local communities and understand how we can help to raise those examples so that we can develop an effective system. I agree with Barbara, we are not going to have...consolidation sounds nice, but all these flowers blooming and the different ways of working, that's what happens at the local level, and we need to figure out ways to support that flexibility.

Dowell Myers: So the interesting challenge is this—we're in a recession and everybody is thinking about, "How do we get out of this?"; "When do we get out of it?"; "When do we go back to normal?" The problem is normal isn't really going back anymore; normal is going forward. And when we come out of the recession, it's really a new game. It's a challenge here where we have all these retirements we're facing and we have all these new people we have to bring in and we have to bring them up to speed to replace the baby boomers.

Now the baby boomers are the most educated generation in history. Not out of any great morality, perhaps, but really because of the Vietnam War, and there were some draft deferments that were offered and that really spurred the highest rate of college going ever. But nonetheless, the workforce benefited from having a highly educated population. The newer generation is not as highly trained and so they really have to bring them up to match the boomers.

I see all of this as a great opportunity, though. There are many things changing. Right now the BLS is revising the data. There is a new report coming out in October and we'll see in the monthly labor review what is the latest call. But retirements are slowing down. The boomers are leaving [the workforce] more slowly than we thought and that alters the picture somewhat here. That backs everything up for the younger people. The openings aren't there for them that we expected. It's all going to lurch forward in the next five years, and it is going to be very abrupt, and I don't know how fast the workforce community can respond to that, but it creates a great opportunity for us to pull some things together....

Dyer: So part of the challenge for employers is to get a really refined ability to operate in these highly complex and diverse work environments where they may see people from all sorts of starting points, and where communications are not as automatic and simple as you once thought. So managing in this era of diversity, particularly as you're talking about the more homogenous baby boomers retiring and this inflow of a very different kind of workforce. So it requires some upgrading on the side of management as well.

Elzey: It would be nice if we had some really honest conversations about who is supposed to fund workforce development and what is the role of the different stakeholders. What is the role of government? What is the role of the individual? What is the role of the employer? And to really establish some very strategic conversations of working out what do the different partners [do], what's the role and vision, and how do we get there? Because we do know that, as you said, funding is decreasing. I have a lot of experience working with employers. It's sometimes very difficult to get employers to actually invest financial resources that are going to support training—that's not true across the board, but it is somewhat of a difficult conversation with certain employers that you can't just receive these....

Public/private partnerships do not mean that you from the private sector don't pay. It means that we have to have funding on both sides of that equation and what does that look like? So I think there is a role to have a conversation there, and those conversations need to not only be national, but need to be local conversations because a lot of the funding is local, and how does that really work?

And I think that there has also got to be the "proof points." And I think it was really in the sectoral strategy session yesterday that highlighted there are things that are working, that are utilizing existing funding very well, that are having positive outcomes on individuals for employers, and we need to be able to better explain that narrative in a way that gets people engaged in this conversation and says, instead of "Nothing works in this country" (and for those of us that live in Washington we kind of live in that echo chamber of "Nothing works, everything is a failure"), that there are actually things that do work and this is how they work, and this is where the funds are coming that are supporting this so that we don't have a conversation that says, "WIA [Workforce Investment Act] doesn't work."

Myers: What's lacking is any sense of urgency. Any sense of urgency that is on behalf of the voters themselves, not on the behalf of some other poor people, but on behalf of the voters themselves. And here's what I would hold out to you, the great opportunity that exists from this baby boomer retirement—these retirements are going to kill us all. This is what's driving the deficit projections. This is what's driving everything in America right now, and it is all about older people who are voters, have their own interests that really, really need this workforce development to support their tax payments so they can support their entitlements. We need this. It's a collective need and this is why you can organize around it. If that urgency, if that message can be conveyed to all the public, then you can begin to say, "Well, how are we going to solve this problem?" Well, one way we are going to solve it is through workforce development. We have a great system in place. Here are some great examples. Here is how it works. And this is a crisis. Put your money on the table because it will come back to you. You will get your money back three or four times over.