Workforce Development - Then and Now

Ed Quintavalle ·

It never fails that when I’m at a social function someone asks “So, what do you do for a living?” I always pause, trying to decide how to explain what a workforce development consultant does, particularly in 30 words or less.

After a rather elongated explanation, they’re usually amazed by how much I must know about so many critical occupations. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Personally, I don’t know very much about anything. My secret is talking to people who do know everything about the occupation I’m about to analyze.

So, is this what workforce development is all about?

What does Wikipedia say about workforce development? “It is an American economic development approach that attempts to enhance a region's economic stability and prosperity by focusing on people rather than businesses.”

Another definition would be that: “Workforce development has come to describe a relatively wide range of activities, policies and programs employed by geographies to create, sustain and retain a viable workforce that can support current and future business and industry.”

Try rolling those answers out in a social setting.

What works for me is a definition that is both simple and possibly a bit more complex. The really simple version is: “Workforce development is the system that helps put people to work.”

But here is where it starts to get a little crazy and complex … that “system” touches on so many interrelated programs at the local, state and federal levels, that workforce development also includes a sundry of other elements such as a need for intensive communication between business and education providers, skills training, access to career pathways, connections to social services support, workforce commuting initiatives (transportation), connections for job creation initiatives, tax credits and other financial incentives for employers to hire and more. Is it a wonder that workforce development seems hard to wrap our hands and heads around?

So where did all this workforce development begin?

Workforce development has always been tied to education. Going back as far as the Civil War, higher education was viewed as learning important philosophical or humanistic reasoning rather than mechanics or vocational techniques; more of a ‘develop the person’ mentality.

In the late 1800s when land-grant colleges came about, the focus was to teach practical skills like: agriculture, science, military science and engineering, much of this in response to the Industrial Revolution and changing social class. The government had defined the marketable skills that needed to be taught to support business interests. The door to workforce development had been opened.

The Industrial Revolution created the need for worker protection, so the Department of Labor was created in response to pressure from organized labor. Eventually, there were six pieces of legislation responsible for advancing the workforce development theme.

To combat the Great Depression, the FDR presidency brought about the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration. Programs were enacted to create job programs in both urban and rural areas, and at the same time, build the nation’s infrastructure. At the same time, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act were also passed to protect workers.

The next major initiative, the Manpower Development and Training Act, came in 1962 under the guidance of JFK’s presidency. It was designed to provide training to unemployed adults and a small percentage of youth workers whose skills needed to be upgraded to enter, or re-enter the workforce. Simultaneously, there were economic and community action training programs established as a result of President Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative.

The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) arrived in 1973. It was the result of revisions made to the Manpower Development and Training Act. The primary focus of CETA was apprenticeship for unemployed or underemployed individuals to help them gain experience and on-the-job training. It created jobs for unemployed adults and provided summer job opportunities for high school students. CETA also, for the first time, included programs for specific targeted groups and for public service employment. However, because it was largely a locally controlled program with little state or federal oversight, there were many charges of corruption and mismanagement of funds. As the program became snarled with complicated regulations, it became clear that it would need to be revised.

The Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 replaced CETA and focused on low-income people, created a new local governance structure called Private Industry Councils or PICs, and eliminated public sector employment (CETA). More emphasis now was being placed on analysis of programs and the impact they were having on society. Training was being provided for unemployed adults and youth through a variety of programs, and the PICs provided input into workforce development programs.

The concept of workforce skill gap analysis was now in play and the need for professional workforce development consultants was on the rise.

In 1998, the idea of ‘One-Stop’ for delivery of services came as a result of the Workforce Investment Act. WIA focused on the delivery of workforce development programs and related services through a nationwide network of community-based One-Stop career centers. These centers were set up to assist individuals and establish mandatory partners to participate in these centers so that they could access a variety of related workforce programs and services from a single location. WIA created business-led Workforce Investment Boards to develop local strategies based on labor market data and oversee programs in their communities.

Workforce development is essential to any society, whether in a period of growth or recession. Education is essential to bridge the skill gap that occurs through generations of new technological advances. Workforce Development Consultants will provide a library of data used to meet the needs of the employer and the employee, as well as increase the economic health of communities.

Somewhere in all of this there must be a two-or three-sentence response that I can use in social settings when asked, “So, what do you do for a living”?