Access to a skilled workforce is now the most critical factor in business relocation and expansion decisions. More and more, government leaders who want to create and retain jobs are learning that they need to be leaders on workforce development. But rarely do they have the kind of useful intelligence they need for truly effective efforts.
Typically, communities pay plenty of attention to solutions whose impact is strategic and long-range. Efforts to reform and improve K-12 education -- if effective -- are critical, but by definition will solve workforce challenges more than a decade from now, at best. Few companies can afford to tread water while today's elementary schoolers develop.
The pendulum can and does swing too far in the other direction as well. Public-sector workforce-training systems and commercial providers offer programs to respond to spikes in job openings or requests from specific employers. Lots of postings for welders? Create a welding program. Nursing shortage? Add evening options to existing programs. Tactically, this makes sense and directly responds to needs articulated by current and prospective employers.
While both of these investments are important, most employer needs are more enduring than this week's job postings and more imminent than those revealed in 2026's employment projections. That's why public leaders need to re-think how they gather and analyze the information they need to make the best decisions about where to focus resources.
Today most public-sector workforce-development efforts are responsive to employer needs. Too often, however, program decisions are influenced by the loudest voice, the most politically connected or simply those available to attend the requisite meetings.
As online job-posting aggregators, economic modeling and analytical tools have become more sophisticated and accessible, skills-development systems and partners can now gather and view larger data sets. That's a positive development, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that we no longer need human intelligence from companies, hiring managers and workers. Training providers do gather this critical information, but seldom is it aggregated and used to understand needs at a municipal or regional level. And no single training provider can reflect a region's broad industry needs.
However, if all of the providers serving an industry could aggregate and synthesize what they learn from their myriad of employer connections and conversations, all of the players could gain access to far more complete and useful intelligence than any of them can put together on their own. The most effective systems are adept at braiding these data sources and turning fractured pieces of information into actionable intelligence.
There is much to gain from this approach. An uncoordinated and misaligned system will at best offer redundant and duplicative programs while ignoring more esoteric but nonetheless critical skills. Instead of offering dozens of basic computer-science programs where graduates learn a little about many things, for example, why not spread capability across programming, security, networking, compliance and other areas, with each provider developing more specialized training while avoiding duplication? Efficient distribution of educational resources can only occur when the entire community of providers, working together, considers the range of skills needs and applies their individual capabilities accordingly.
There was a time when communities could feed the talent pipeline with young people straight out of high school or college, but not any longer. Today there are more jobs that need to be filled than there are young people moving through the traditional school-to-work sequence. As post-recession labor markets tighten, communities cannot afford to let talent lay idle, and very few communities can afford to take advantage of only a small segment of their talent pool.
Communities need to pull together and move beyond reactive programming and competition for a narrow band of students while thinking more strategically about how to apply a wide range of resources to address a wide range of needs. That's the best way to create a broader-based, better-trained workforce, one that is skilled and responsive to evolving and ever-changing needs.