Access to talent is the number-one concern for employers today, making it a top concern as well for economic development organizations (EDOs) that seek to attract, retain, and expand businesses in their communities. As they aim to create a competitive advantage for their regions, many EDOs are forming partnerships to help meet employers’ talent pipeline and training needs.
What do those partnerships look like? Effective Economic Development Roles in Workforce Partnerships, a new report from the International Economic Development Council, explores five case studies of talent initiatives in which an EDO had a central or convening role. The report identifies common drivers, roles, and recommendations based on initiatives at the Greater Memphis Chamber; JAXUSA Partnership in Jacksonville, Fla.; Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation in Pa.; Norfolk Works in Norfolk, Va.; and Firelands Forward in northern Ohio.
We found that EDOs are particularly active in creating talent pipeline programs, but also are facilitating training programs, creating networks, and securing funding, among multiple other roles. Many now have a staff leadership position dedicated to workforce development, something virtually unheard of at an EDO a decade or two ago.
Access to talent is the number-one concern for employers today, making it a top concern as well for EDOs that seek to attract, retain, and expand businesses in their communities. The community programs share many similar drivers. Each aims to have systemic impact on local workforce issues, plans actions based on data, and includes explicit equity goals. In addition, they are part of networks of local or regional stakeholders in workforce and economic development and may also serve as lead champion and external communicator.
The cases had other characteristics in common. One was strong EDO staff leading the workforce partnership — individuals who are highly skilled at communicating and building and maintaining relationships. In each case, staff were familiar with the community, with education and workforce systems, and with the target populations, in some combination. In four of the five cases, the person leading workforce development efforts for the EDO had worked in or closely with local education systems. Their knowledge of how those systems work — plus existing relationships with the people and organizations in them — eased the formation of partnerships.
Six Ways That EDOs Can Help
The initiatives feature responses that are aligned with each community’s needs and with the EDO’s mission and strengths. Using observations from the cases, we identified six roles for EDOs that seek to boost talent development in their communities. Those roles include:
- Providing data and insights: This is a common role for EDOs in their community workforce ecosystems. They initiate and often help pay for studies and may also generate significant data in-house. They publicize and interpret the results and use them to lead talent conversations in the community. Beyond data, EDOs provide insights from business and industry to workforce development systems, bringing a depth of knowledge about locally in-demand industries, and jobs that no other group has.
- Tracking collective impact: Most communities have multiple pots of state, federal, and private workforce dollars coming in that are distributed among multiple organizations. Collecting the data and analyzing the collective outcome is a powerful tool for driving investment and change, something the Greater Memphis Chamber has taken on with its “People Powered Prosperity” collective impact initiative.
- Catalyzing change: In seeking assistance with talent pipeline and training challenges, employers have been forcing questions and new approaches to workforce development in many communities. And because of their cross-sector nature and business relationships, EDOs often have the trust and clout to push for change that other organizations do not. They are facilitating frank conversations and helping create new programs and frameworks where change is stymied. Firelands Forward was formed expressly to address the region’s population decline, as no other group was strategically thinking about how to ensure the region’s employers would have the workers they needed in the future.
- Facilitating funding: EDOs are collaborating with community partners to seek grants for talent initiatives. JAXUSA Partnership, for example, has secured grants from private foundations to support its career pathways campaign, and collaborated successfully to win $3.7 million in grants for fintech training at two local community colleges. The Greater Memphis Chamber also collaborated with its local workforce development board and others to win a $21.5 million Good Jobs Challenge grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to create rapid credentialling opportunities in the region.
- Convening and communicating: Three of the EDOs profiled serve as the communication hub of their local workforce networks. They are the managers, and often initiators, of both community-level networks (e.g., comprising K-12, career and technical education, community-based organizations such as Goodwill, the workforce board, and others) and leader-level networks (CEOs, public officials, heads of colleges and universities). They keep groups connected and communication open with regular meetings.
For example, Norfolk Works’ Workforce Investment Network (WIN) brought together 14 local, state, and federally funded agencies to collaborate on workforce projects that mutually support job-seekers and businesses. Collectively, they now better coordinate efforts to create access to employment for city residents and communicate a common brand to the business community.
- Building capacity and filling gaps: EDOs used data, studies, knowledge of local workforce systems, conversations, and partner insights to determine where they could have the most impact with programmatic roles (in addition to their strategic or evaluative roles).
Lehigh Valley created its programs in response to recommendations from workforce studies. Its career pipeline program, Hot Career Guides, gives middle school and high school students, teachers, and guidance counselors clear, data-driven information on in-demand careers locally, their educational requirements, and earnings expectations. Its Internship Summit, Toolkit, and Directory were created to provide employers with “how-to” guides for creating, building, and maintaining robust internship programs that tap into the talent available at the region’s 11 colleges and universities.
In seeking assistance with talent pipeline and training challenges, employers have been forcing questions and new approaches to workforce development in many communities.
EDOs are collaborating with community partners to seek grants for talent initiatives.
Given today’s workforce and demographic challenges, it’s likely that we are just in the early days in these types of collaborations. For the most forward-thinking EDOs, involvement in talent access and development will be a key factor in community competitiveness in the years to come.
Louise Anderson, Director of Research, International Economic Development Council
Louise Anderson is senior director of Research at the International Economic Development Council. She has consulted on dozens of projects for local governments and economic development organizations across the United States and authored numerous articles and publications on subjects that range from inclusive economic development and economic transformation to workforce development, climate change, broadband access, and more. She holds master’s degrees in regional planning and public administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and bachelor of arts degrees from Indiana University at Bloomington.