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Road Trip: Hearing from Pennsylvania’s Workforce Developers

This past summer, the Community Development teams from the Federal Reserve Banks of Cleveland and Philadelphia collaborated on a series of listening sessions in Pennsylvania to better understand the issues and challenges in workforce development. The impetus for our conducting these sessions was to develop a broader understanding of the lower labor force participation rate and skills mismatch of young people between the ages of 16 and 24, particularly in post-industrial cities and their surrounding regions. Additionally, we wanted to identify local strategies that encourage the alignment of education and employment initiatives to improve job opportunities for this demographic, as well as ways to facilitate engagement and collaboration among a broad group of stakeholders.

In all, we traveled to five cities (Erie, Harrisburg, Scranton, Pittsburgh and Johnstown) and met with more than 100 workforce practitioners to gather information.We will share what we learned from the sessions this fall in a joint Cleveland/Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank publication; however, here are a couple of general observations I’ll share now.

For most complex issues, there are many diverse stakeholders taking different approaches to address problems… and workforce development is no different. Stakeholder focus (including type of client served), background, funding and expertise vary widely within and across regions. For the sake of manageability, we convened only a segment of each region’s stakeholder groups (on average 25 experts in each location). However, total staff focused on workforce development easily number in the hundreds within each of our selected geographies.

Along with the diversity in representatives, we were amazed at the variation in their viewpoints. To give you a sense of the variety of players involved (there will be a comprehensive list in the upcoming publication) and the breadth of their perspectives, consider that we invited K-12 school districts, community colleges, chambers of commerce, social service agencies with workforce development programs, and community foundations to participate, because they are all actively working in the field. These organizations, along with local Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) and Pennsylvania’s CareerLink systems, represent only a subset of the total workforce development infrastructure. Not surprisingly, each of these organizations faces different challenges and has opportunities to excel where others cannot.

Given the wide scope of worker training needs, it seems natural for such an array of stakeholders to be involved. The variation in worker age, education, skills and employment opportunity lends itself to a broader network of service providers to address the different and complex needs of worker training. However, having so many providers in the delivery system does add a layer of complexity. Because worker training needs vary so much, efficiency and scalability may be harder to incorporate into the workforce development infrastructure; however, based on the information we gathered, it appears that additional effectiveness and efficiency can be realized. To that end, we learned about a number of effective and efficient practices currently in place to connect workers to employment opportunities. Additionally, we identified several organizations that were partnering with one another to realize efficiency on specific programs and initiatives. Nevertheless, it is not clear that partnering is systematic across the Commonwealth. Furthermore, we noted that regions generally are not actively collaborating with other similarly situated regions. The good news is that we identified practices that can be shared, incorporated, and replicated into the delivery system to increase effectiveness and efficiency while still being responsive to particular locales and constituents.

As I note above, the intent of this post is simply to provide some high-level, general observations gleaned from our joint initiative. Currently, we are working on our joint publication with the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank; this publication is scheduled for release later this Fall. In the meantime, here are a couple of resources you may find useful in thinking about workforce development:

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