In the last post, we wrote about the threat of a coming crisis in workforce development, and as the Greater Memphis Chamber plans a “summit” on the issue, we are hopeful that Richard Smith, chairman of the board of the Greater Memphis Chamber, can make sure it’s the kind of disruptive innovation that our community needs.

We all know stories about companies here that cannot find workers, and it is a problem that is not just limited to Memphis and Shelby County. After all, 40% of American employers say they cannot find people with the skills they need, even for entry-level jobs, and almost 60% of the employers complain about workers’ lack of preparation.

As a McKinsey & Company report said: “This ‘skills gap’ represents a massive pool of untapped talent, and it has dire consequences, including economic underperformance, social unrest, and individual despair.

“The skills gap takes different forms. In some cases, it is a matter of youth struggling to enter the workforce; in others, it is midcareer learners who have lost their jobs because of factory closings or layoffs, and who now must adapt. Whatever the circumstance, when people are disconnected from the workplace, they often disconnect from other social institutions as well. This is not healthy – neither for those left out nor for the societies in which they live.”

50,000 Disengaged People

In Shelby County, there are about 250,000 people who are older than 16 years old and not in the labor force, according to the definitive reports issued by Professor Elena Delavega at University of Memphis, because they are retired, in school, or not working or in school.

But the most disturbing statistic of all is that more than 50,000 people are completely disengaged.

These 50,000 people are not counted in the calculation of the unemployment rate, and as a result, the county rate is misleadingly low. But, more to the point, these 50,000 people are adrift in our community without anchors to jobs and without hope that things will get better.

In other words, if the U.S. is challenged by skills gaps, Memphis and Shelby County are in crisis.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, so we have a rich opportunity to do something different:

1) Do more than ask the usual suspects for their ideas, which too often results in the repackaging of old strategies;

2) Convene the meeting only after there has been mapping and benchmarking of the workforce development ecosystem; and

3) Reach beyond our community to engage with cities where workforce programs are working well and expand the intellectual capital in the discussion with innovators in the field.

In other words, this moment in time challenges us to do something different on a pivotal issue in order to shake up the current system, to develop metrics for measuring results, and to channel the money to programs with the best results.

In other words, the meeting should begin with a shared promise: everyone involved will abandon all preconceived opinions and consider what a workforce development process would be if they began with a blank sheet of paper.

Too often in the past, the report has been the outcome. Once it is issued, we move on. This cannot happen this time.

Now What?

So, what exactly does research suggest as next steps:

* Map the workforce development ecosystem in the Memphis region, including organizations, services provided, number of people served, per capita cost, results (how many people trained and hired, how many still in their jobs one year after training, etc.), and a gaps analysis.

* Actively engage local business, trade associations, academic experts, neighborhood associations, government, education, training programs, workers, etc., in crafting a plan of action.

* Use labor market data to drive decisions but in addition to emphasizing high-growth occupations which might deepen the reliance on low-wage jobs, chart a way to build on smaller, promising sectors that can become the cornerstone for competing in a high-skills economy.

* Consider hands-on educational opportunity as a job and treat schools as being in the talent development business.

* Connect people to careers, not just jobs, so workers have skills to get a promotion to change jobs.

* Develop a plan for wrap-around services supporting people in training, recognizing that students in workforce programs are not monolithic and require individualized, flexible support.

* Establish metrics to measure results as part of an evaluation process that injects accountability into every step of the process.

Proving Them Wrong

These seem straight forward cornerstones for an effective workforce development program in our community; however, there are people in state government who believe that the major programs here – WIN and GMAC – are so fundamentally flawed and politicized that they cannot self-correct.

We need to prove them wrong, but it will require a level of commitment to a problem-solving process that sets aside preconceived notions, vested interests, and political agendas. It calls for a process that builds a workforce development program from the ground up in a way rarely seen here.


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