5 Ways Mayors Can Build Their Communities’ Workforces

By making the most of their influence over postsecondary education, they can help narrow the skills gap.

There's a perception among many that mayors don't hold much sway over the higher-education system or the quality of the workforce it produces for their communities. I beg to differ. Not only do our cities' leaders have strong motivation for improving the talent pipeline through college and into the workplace, but they also have the authority to spur meaningful change.

Every mayor knows that ensuring that both existing employers and potential new ones have access to the talent they need to run their businesses is critical to a community's prosperity. Likewise, in my experience mayors are all about getting things done. In the early 1990s, for example, many mayors got involved in the reform of K-12 education after they decided they could no longer tolerate poor high-school graduation rates. Their involvement made a huge difference.

Today, communities face another education challenge: Too few students who enroll in postsecondary programs complete them, and too many who do graduate come out with skills that don't mesh with the needs of employers. The result is a high level of unemployment and underemployment among recent college graduates.

Here are five ways that mayors can work to improve the talent pipeline in their communities:

Engage with local employers. Municipal leaders need to understand their workforce needs; to do that, they need to find out from employers just what they're looking for. Then mayors should go to their local community colleges and regional college campuses and ask them how they are addressing those local workforce needs. Mayors should ask for specific information about who is graduating, what programs they are graduating from, and how they know that their graduates are actually ready to live and work successfully in their communities.

Work with college leaders and workforce boards on policies that align education programs and demand for talent. I once asked a mayor, "Do you know that you have about $30 million to spend on job training, and do you know how it's being used?" He said he had no idea and asked who controlled the money. I told him that it was controlled by a workforce board. He asked me who appointed the members of the board. I told him that he did. Mayors do have resources to address the skills gap. They need to ensure that they are appointing people who have the best interests of their communities at heart in bringing employers and educators together.

Assign City Hall staff to connect education and workforce issues.
Change is unlikely without the commitment of a mayor or someone on the mayor's staff. Mayors need to have people in their offices who wake up every day concerned about whether the community is developing the talent needed to keep its residents employed and ensuring that its employers are able to attract the talent that they need.

Encourage community-based organizations to adopt programs that support the connection between education and work. Nearly every community has a nonprofit organization that is working to help those who begin life with significant disadvantages benefit from education, or help those who have fallen off the path through education to career success get back on track. The most meaningful experience that at-risk youth or disconnected young adults can have is to be exposed to the world of work as part of an education or training program. At USA Funds, we support several organizations engaged in this work, such as Jobs for America's Graduates, LeadersUp and the National Urban League's Project Ready STEM.

Promote program-level analyses of students' return on investment from higher education. Many mayors may be aware of the federal College Scorecard, but they may not be aware of a national movement, focused at the state level, to provide better information to consumers, policymakers and educators for postsecondary education and workforce policies and program decisions. If communities are going to do a better job of lining up the skills and talents of their citizens with the jobs of today and the future, their citizens need to know which education and training programs are generating the greatest success for their graduates. Mayors can learn more about this national movement on USA Funds' College Value website.

Many communities already are pursuing one or more of the five action items I've suggested. To recognize excellence in mayor-led college- and career-readiness initiatives and to disseminate those best practices to other communities, USA Funds and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have teamed up to sponsor a competitive grants program. During USCM's recent annual meeting, I had the honor of recognizing three mayors -- Luke Bronin of Hartford, Conn., Buddy Dyer of Orlando, Fla., and Greg Fischer of Louisville, Ky. -- for exceptional programs they have developed.

These exemplary leaders are not alone. Many mayors are coming to recognize that they have a pivotal role in creating a key ingredient of economic vitality: a better-educated, better-trained citizenry.

Executive vice president for national engagement and philanthropy at USA Funds