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Partners or pipelines? Post-pandemic workforce development calls for an employer focus

There is a lot of talk in the employment services sector right now about workforce development, especially during this post-pandemic economic recovery period. Governments and funders are embracing a workforce development approach in their policies and funding priorities. While this approach is not new, it’s becoming increasingly relevant in light of the employment inequities raised by COVID-19, as well as the transformation happening to employment service delivery in Ontario.

What is workforce development and why should career professionals care?

Broadly speaking, workforce development can be summarized as the collaborative effort by a network of human-service organizations, governments, employers, educators and workers to enhance the economic stability of a community through employment.

But it’s more than just preparing workers for jobs and filling the pipeline. As Robert P. Giloth wrote in a 2011 article for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “[Workforce Development] means substantial employer engagement, deep community connections, career advancement, human service supports, industry-driven education and training, and the connective tissue of networks.”

An informal poll of Times Change Women’s Employment Service staff, asking how they would explain workforce development, supports this. Most mentioned the need for employment service providers to focus more right now on partnerships with employers: the demand side of the supply-demand equation of the labour market. “Workforce development is about creating direct pathways to employment [for workers] through engagement and collaboration between employers and employment service providers,” says Kary McIntosh, co-ordinator for the Digital Training Centre.

Workforce development for today’s recovering labour market calls for more employer engagement, but since so much of what service providers do is supply-side driven, we must also remember the human in human resources. Clients do not need to be ‘fixed’ in order to become job-ready. Shiva Maleki, Employment Counsellor, says workforce development should be holistic and focus on “[an individual’s] needs, barriers and expectations.”

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An unbalanced model?

Industry consultants Angela Hoyt and Sarah Delicate’s new book, Smoke and Mirrors: The Illusion of the Employment Services Sector, echoes this notion that workforce development is not about “fixing the client” for the sake of the labour market. The authors suggest, in fact, that traditional job readiness programs offered by employment service providers may be “hitting the targets but missing the point.”

Hoyt and Delicate explain that services such as resume reviews and interview skills development may help some clients market themselves, but ultimately, the employment services model in which so many of us operate doesn’t do enough to address the employer side. This is especially true for marginalized clients whose problem is not self-marketing, but ‘employer-perception barriers’ (the –isms that became particularly highlighted during the pandemic). “There are no employment skills workshops that will make a job seeker less disabled, less female, younger and white” and “the solution is not to build a better job seeker … it is to build better, and more, employer relationships,” the authors write (p. 96).

Can workforce development work?

Workforce development that meets the needs of both employer and client is ideally inclusive, customized and collaborative.

Collaboration can start internally: employment service providers can bring their counsellors and job developers together to collaborate within their organization. “I think counsellors mostly have the client side in mind, while job developers focus more on the employer side. It would be more effective if both sides are considered together,” says Employment Counsellor Shiva. For example, counsellors working with clients seeking skills development programs could tell clients about initiatives that job developers know are in demand by their employer partners.

Workforce development is also about bringing workers and employers together, creating opportunities for meaningful interaction on both sides. This may include allowing clients to shadow employees, inviting employers to panel events that highlight career pathways at their companies and supporting employers to provide sponsorship to their employees, particularly those that would benefit from workplace advocacy in order to advance. Not only do opportunities like these help workers, they also support employers’ recruitment, retention and advancement needs.

“I think counsellors mostly have the client side in mind, while job developers focus more on the employer side. It would be more effective if both sides are considered together.” – Shiva Maleki, Employment Counsellor

Meaningful employer engagement will be particularly important during an employment services transformation (in place already in some parts of the province) that remunerates service providers at the time of an employment outcome and for job retention. Achieving these goals will require a deeper understanding of employer needs (and an ability to influence employers to consider, and then support, candidates from non-traditional talent pools), as well as the ability to match individuals to labour market needs. Service providers will need inclusive, open-minded employer-partners, as well as skilled worker pipelines.

What are some of the best practices employment agencies can embrace for a successful workforce development approach?

Ideas include:

  • leveraging existing partnerships (employers, training providers, community services and others) to create a holistic employment pathway for clients;
  • learning from other organizations that are successfully engaging employers to support client needs;
  • considering a micro labour market focus to fill the needs of both local businesses and client populations;
  • identifying in-demand, short-term skills development and training opportunities for clients; and, perhaps most importantly,
  • supporting employers in becoming more diverse and inclusive in their recruitment, retention and advancement practices (including how they interview and hire, whether they train and who they promote).

Preparing clients for employment (filling pipelines) is important but employer engagement (creating partnerships) is critical. By focusing on developing employer partnerships and encouraging companies to give candidates with non-traditional backgrounds and needs an opportunity, employment service providers can play a part in addressing issues of inequity exacerbated by the pandemic.

Diana Bahr Author
Diana Bahr, BA, MEd, is the Educational Counsellor at Times Change Women’s Employment Service. She has 10 years of experience in education and student services, including programming and facilitation, counselling, career development, academic success, tutoring, and financial assistance and literacy. She is also a fine artist with an active studio practice and provides workshops on financial planning to Toronto-area organizations and artists.
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Diana Bahr Author
Diana Bahr, BA, MEd, is the Educational Counsellor at Times Change Women’s Employment Service. She has 10 years of experience in education and student services, including programming and facilitation, counselling, career development, academic success, tutoring, and financial assistance and literacy. She is also a fine artist with an active studio practice and provides workshops on financial planning to Toronto-area organizations and artists.
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