Workforce: The elephant in the room
By Joe B. Kent

PROBLEM: WORKfORCE READINESS DISCONNECT

Following years of Memphis Corporate Community Leadership (MCCL) led fledgling and disconnected workforce development efforts, The County Workforce Ad Hoc Committee is intervening to address the local need and the MCCL elephant in the room. Disconnected MCCL efforts have helped to stifle local business and economic growth for a community in need. MCCL consists of Memphis Tomorrow, Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) and The Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. This disconnect occurs as workforce is the #1 priority in local economic development reform efforts.

MCCL has for example, strangely chose to work with a provider that lacks a track record of domestic United States experience in addressing workforce development. As these efforts fail to get results, MCCL has chosen not to course correct disconnected efforts. City Council legislative efforts over a year ago, seem to have been oddly stonewalled as well, while mysteriously ending without results. In the above video link, in the last agenda item, local educators, saddled with deficient and disconnected MCCL efforts, can be seen professionally begging for a centralized connected approach to workforce development. The lack of response to educators raising their hands for help with 2year college tuition paid for by the state is beyond baffling. 

Disconnected workforce development efforts seem to be preferred  by MCCL with the EDGE / Greater Memphis Alliance for Competitive Workforce (GMACW) Board choosing not to hold regular GMACW Board meetings. This occurs while the EDGE/GMACW Board, through inaction, leave 60,000 learners underserved while stifling workforce local solution availability and business growth needs dependent on a career ready workforce. In short, the EDGE/GMACW Board had 1 board meeting all last year, packed up and went straight to the house. 

Meanwhile, the Greater Memphis Chamber clamors for “alignment, alignment, alignment” to support workforce development efforts without articulating an alignment protocol.  And in County EDGE Ad Hoc committee, again continuing from previous City Council Committee unfinished work, calls for “soft skills” development and a connected approach to workforce readiness programming ring out.  

A connected workforce development approach to support economic development is not going to happen without – a Chamber articulated alignment protocol – projected employer demand data to define “soft skills” and knowledge requirements – and a common communication platform, at a minimum, to connect local workforce development efforts.  

So, what is the solution? A connected, data driven talent pipeline development system is consistently attempting to answer these questions: 1) What are employers demanding ? (Demand) 2) How ready is the workforce to meet employer demand ? (Supply) and 3) What are the career pathways to build workforce readiness to meet employer demand ? (Curriculum)

solution: connectivity

The solution for workforce readiness connectivity consists of fundamental non-negotiables while consistently addressing customer employer demand. Those non-negotiables include measured data  driven requirements, career pathways curriculum, professional development and marketing. These fundamental components support common language development for connecting communication across the professional community landscape which helps to facilitate implementation of countywide career readiness programming. A reputable common technology platform is desirable to increase efficiency, improve connected communication and to aggregate employment opportunities

But although a common technology platform is desirable having been locally requested in committee work by educators, presumably to decrease costs and improve communication, minimally, only a common “communication” platform is required for connecting workforce development efforts through career pathways. Effective communication is the critical element in connecting workforce development efforts. Technology increases the efficiency of mission critical communication while reducing implementation costs. 

While there are many ways to address the abovementioned non-negotiables, one way to accomplish this work is shown in the subsections below:

Data and Alignment Protocol   The Greater Memphis Chamber is the best organization to advocate on behalf of employers, specific workforce readiness requirements. Employers in a career pathways talent pipeline development system are the chief customers of the workforce development system. Employers buy the product of the system in the form of skilled labor through the payment of wages which support tax revenue and tuition to fund public and private education and workforce development initiatives.  

Given the former, a data informed return on investment (ROI) approach is needed to serve employers, learners and taxpayers based on the skills and knowledge purchased through the payment of wages by employers. While leveraging the adoption by the Strickland administration of the ACT Work Ready program, a Chamber advocated articulation of a connecting alignment protocol to the education and workforce development system could look something like the below: 

We at the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, offer employers a connected, aligned, data driven and nation leading career readiness platform. On behalf of employers, the Chamber requests the local education and workforce development system to consider employer demand and provide the following: 

The above is just one of several examples of what a Greater Memphis Chamber authored workforce development alignment protocol might look like. Such a protocol, fundamentally helps the education and workforce development system align its efforts to the needs of customer employers while considering the individual futures of learners. 

Curriculum A career pathways curriculum, which can be delivered across the K-Adult spectrum, consists of a sequence of connected learning experiences to achieve career readiness for a desired vocation(s). A career destination for this audience may include work after high school, an apprenticeship, internship, postsecondary vocational credential, associates, bachelors, masters or doctorate degree. This article considers career development strategies mostly for grades 8-Adult.

Given this and to achieve implementation, data informed career content must be infused into the standards aligned academic curriculum for all learners to serve talent pipeline development and retention needs. In this way, instructors are not asked to facilitate career readiness instruction in addition to the heavy academic curriculum delivery requirement. Career readiness programming is just part of the academic experience while helping to address the career counselor caseload.   

Career/ post-secondary exploration and planning along with in-demand skill development are seamlessly integrated into the standards based academic curriculum with connections to employment opportunities. Career content is informed by defined in-demand skills and knowledge data along with a variety of interest, observational, formative, summative and standardized assessments to evaluate the career readiness of learners.  

Equipped with the data, classroom instructors deliver daily classroom instruction through the lens of projected employer skill and knowledge demand. For example, through data use and based on its importance, “customer service” is thematically integrated throughout the career pathways curriculum for all learners which fills a gap in the Common Core standards aligned academic curriculum.  

In concert with the above proposed Chamber alignment protocol, a summative assessment could result in progress against or completion of a career planning portfolio. A career portfolio consists of standards aligned academic work to include but not limited to a career plan, resume, cover letter, selected career aligned budget summary, career exploration journaling, post-secondary exploration journaling, earned certificates, presentations and assessment inventories for learner interests and workplace preferences with aligned occupations.  

An example of a standardized assessment would be the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) which includes measured assessment in reading workplace documents, graphic literacy (charts/graphs/diagram interpretation) and applied math. With certificate award levels of bronze, silver, gold and platinum, the NCRC can be used to determine career readiness and foundational skill proficiency for a range of occupations based on award level. This process helps to connect workforce development efforts using common language between educators, workforce development practitioners and employers. The NCRC consists of 3 of the 8 available assessments from the ACT WorkKeys  battery 

The other five assessments which can also be used to determine career readiness for various occupations include applied technology, business writing, workplace observation, fit and talent. For example, in addition to the NCRC, often used for manufacturing occupations, “workplace observation” measures observing, following, understanding and evaluating processes. Of course, all earned assessment certificates, to include the NCRC, would be a component in a learner’s career portfolio 

To learn more about the ACT NCRC / WorkKeys and common language development, please see the following Gwen Ifill video 

Marketing Plan and Professional Development  –  The previously discussed sections would inform the development of a connected workforce development marketing plan. A plan would then inform roll out and professional development which could occur in the form of “Career Content Academies” as well as other promotional activities. 

Career Content Academies are a minimum 3-day session that involves connecting participants with the student / career seeker work of career development in self-exploration, career exploration and career pathways planning. Executives/administrators participate in a ½ kickoff that precedes the in-depth career content academy. During the ½ day session participants are acquainted with regional labor market information (LMI). Regional LMI supports the common language backbone for connecting communication across professionally diverse stakeholder audiences involving academia, business and government while informing the local career pathways curriculum. Regional LMI gets everyone in the community on the same page while using a common workforce development language.  

Addressing common language development is important because language gaps naturally develop across the professional spectrum. Most educator career paths result in going to school, going to college and going to school to work. This path prevents educators from acquiring the language of careers and the traditional workplace as they develop the language of academia.  Career content academies help educators fill the workplace language and knowledge gap by helping them connect the language of careers with classroom implementation strategies. Participants outside of education develop an understanding of the education workplace while making connections with academic language.  

This collaborative approach strengthens connections, communication, common language and partnership development. Typically, career content academy participants include human resource professionals, workforce and education career counselors and instructors. The former helps to support a deep implementation of career pathways into daily instructional practice while connecting community partnerships in support of regional career pathways and economic growth.  

Measurement

Measurement would ideally occur using a common technology platform to reduce implementation costs while improving connected communication using web-based dashboard technology. A common technology platform would result in a wealth of informative centralized data to include but not limited to 1) centralized job board 2) projected occupational, skill and knowledge demand 3) career portfolio progress 4) ACT NCRCs awarded 5) employer partnerships, 6) occupations and career pathways explored 7) aggregated population interest inventory 8) individual school usage data and etc.  

This measurement along with a formal Chamber alignment protocol and marketing plan can be used as a sales tool in economic recruitment efforts to insure corporate prospects of a coherent, measured and quantifiable approach to meeting their workforce needs. In this way, during a sales presentation  to a corporate prospect, the Chamber might say:  

We in Memphis are the National leaders in career education with more education/business partnerships of record of any County in the Country. Aligned to employers  needs, our workforce development system is annually awarding 10,000 career pathways credentials and 2,000 Bronze 5,000 Silver, 2500 Gold and 500 Platinum ACT NCRC’s. And finally, customer service”  is integrated into the curriculum for all learners.  

Nationally accessible, external measurement for standardized assessment could be accomplished using the  ACT WorkKeys dashboard. While there are other reputable career readiness assessments, the ACT NCRC WorkKeys system has been locally adopted and is the most widely used career readiness system in the country while providing a portable credential to ACT NCRC holders.

conclusion

Inaction on the workforce front by Memphis Corporate Community Leadership has been scary confusing. But with a youthful population as an economic advantage –  connected workforce development solutions available and  both Memphis and Shelby County Mayors trumpeting workforce development in support of economic development – hopefully, needed change is finally on the horizon for the benefit of taxpayer justice and all concerned.  

Research based references can be provided upon request for the instructional design contained in this article.

joe b. kent
Guest Blogger
Mr. Joe B. Kent has worked throughout the country on workforce and economic development projects and is a reform activist in Memphis. Joe B. has a BBA in Finance, Masters in Instructional Technology and is a certified Global Career Development Facilitator with an emphasis on labor market information.

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