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Elected Leaders and the Mismatch Between What Employers and Workers Need

We’re too focused on job creation and too little on skilling. Mayors and county executives need to take on a new role in workforce development, coordinating regional efforts built around better use of data.

A person training two people in front of a computer.
Across the country, we see a troubling misalignment in the demand for and perceived supply of labor: Employers search desperately for employees while millions of aspiring workers are in desperate need of better jobs and better wages. These parallel challenges in every mid-sized and large metropolitan area cascade across employers, including government, and affect regional wealth and productivity. Although most residents, regardless of their political views, agree on the importance of finding an effective solution, finding one that works at scale remains elusive.

Turning these interlocking challenges into opportunity requires local leadership willing to convert today’s fragmented work-skilling apparatus into a collaboratively provided, regionally delivered workforce development system. To do so, mayors and elected county executives must take on a new role, one for which they have little actual authority and few resources. This new role requires them to act as convener of stakeholders, advocate for strategic approaches and authorizer of a nonprofit network manager that coordinates responses.

City hall generally controls economic development initiatives either directly or in coordination with a nonprofit or quasi-governmental agency. However, these agencies focus largely on job creation, not the upskilling of the existing and potential workforce. Workforce development funding and functions usually reside in federally created, state-convened workforce investment boards (WIBs). WIBs play a critical role but only infrequently have the mandate to coordinate the key entities in the region.

If training doesn’t adequately match needed skill profiles and if too little or too much of a type of support service exists, then an intermediary with the backing of local elected officials must be able to coordinate the components to work better as a whole. Mayors and county leaders also need to advocate for basic, related services, such as the transit required to get from a neighborhood to work or ensuring access to child care, the responsibilities for which lie respectively in a regional transportation agency or an educational entity.

Meanwhile, many regions rely too heavily on traditional Bureau of Labor Statistics information, which provides an incomplete picture of current labor conditions. Breakthroughs in analytics allow access to real-time data that reflects current and projected in-demand skills by industry, resources available in the current labor market, and the skills that are and should be produced by training and education providers. Some cities, such as Birmingham, Ala., already have altered their approach to workforce development based on additional regional data. Leadership therefore includes modernizing processes and developing user-friendly access to information that helps employer and employee alike make good decisions.

The location and availability of necessary services needs to be presented in well visualized maps, and service holes should be plugged. Residents must be able to access the right set of services, in the right amounts, in the right places. Only in a few locations, such as Houston and San Diego, does coordination reach the needed levels for success at scale.

As we suggest in our just-published book, Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development, elected leaders need to use their voices both to bring the community together and to insure the availability of critical services. It takes nothing away from the hard work of nonprofits and workforce boards to say we can do more. During two years of research for Growing Fairly, we found exemplary organizations providing critical support services such as career and executive-skills coaching, in addition to critical wraparound services and skill-based education and apprentice programs.

And of course, performance matters. Leaders must insist on transparency in terms of outcomes so that consumers of training and education can determine the return on their investment of time and money. Local nonprofits with governmental contracts need to be held accountable for results. Elected leaders, even without actual authority, should demand that their representatives on various nonprofit boards and foundations insist on performance.

To enable greater workforce participation, elected officials need to lead their cities and regions, building on innovative approaches that overcome fragmentation, inadequate information and outdated practices. Collaboration, coordination, more effective use of data platforms and strategic identification of in-demand skills and local gaps will help rebuild the missing rungs on the ladder of mobility.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School Bloomberg Center for Cities and director of the Data Smart City Solutions Program and the Innovations in American Government Program. He can be reached at
Kate Markin Coleman is principal of ias advising, LLC, and was an Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University. She can be reached at
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