Building a Stronger Workforce

Efforts to improve educational attainment and employability are of critical importance to the nation's future economic vitality. Although many programs focus on increasing college enrollment and degree attainment, just under one-third of the working-age population holds a four-year degree, leaving large swaths of the U.S. population without a clear path to career success.

During an August 10 forum at the Atlanta Fed, Developing Qualified Workers: Pathways to Employability for High School Students and Graduates, leaders from the business, government, nonprofit, and academic sectors explored some of the efforts currently under way to develop a stronger workforce. Attendees also heard from noted Harvard University professor Ronald Ferguson, who shared a framework for providing multiple school-to-career pathways—including college and noncollege options.

Changing economy demands adaptable, flexible skill sets
Atlanta Fed President and CEO Dennis Lockhart set the stage for the morning's discussion by sharing an economic policymaker's perspective on workforce development. As opposed to simply focusing on employment or a first job, workforce development efforts should instead aim to build "immediate and long-term employability," he noted.

Indeed, as technological advances such as automation continue to shape the economy and the skills demanded of employees, the workforce development community will be challenged to equip workers with "the ability to learn new, sometimes radically different, job essentials to keep up with change," Lockhart noted.

Practitioners share what works
A panel discussion featuring practitioners from business, nonprofit, and academic organizations discussed innovative programs that are helping prepare young workers for the 21st-century workforce by improving their hard skills, softs skills, and on-the-job skills.

Some key takeaways:

  • Mentoring and role-modeling programs, such as those offered by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta (BBBSMA), can help equip young people with the attitudes and soft skills needed in today's workplace, said BBBSMA President and CEO Janice McKenzie-Crayton.
  • The success of innovative workforce development initiatives such as Georgia's Move On When Ready dual-enrollment program requires close collaboration between multiple players, including businesses and local school systems. Another critical element is making parents, students, and counselors aware of how the manufacturing industry has changed, said Leigh Newman, executive director of campus operations at West Georgia Technical College.
  • Steve Hollis, chairman and executive vice president at Power Partners Inc., a Georgia-based manufacturer, shared his company's involvement with the Great Promise Partnership, a statewide nonprofit that brings together companies and at-risk youth to help them graduate and prepare to lead productive adult lives through further education, military service, or joining the workforce. Commitment is a key element of the program's sustainability, he said, adding that "this can't be a process that we go into without being committed."

Building pathways to prosperity
There is no single road to long-term employability; rather, the focus needs to be on building a system that is responsive to the needs of students and provides several pathways to prosperity, said Ronald Ferguson in his keynote remarks.

Ferguson described a framework of work- and career-related experiences that, beginning in late elementary school and continuing through high school, helps prepare young people to transition into the adult world of work. Such a collective effort requires participation and commitment from a broad cross-section of the population, including influential business leaders, behind-the-scenes "instigators," and "engines"—powerful organizations that support and hold accountable the front-line organizations that work directly with young people, he said.