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Four ways to engage with employers in workforce development

June 23, 2017

Employers often complain that they have difficulty finding qualified candidates for open positions, particularly when they turn to the public workforce system to address their need. Yet while the public workforce system is intended to be a resource for employers to list their vacancies and to provide a potential candidate pool, DOES and the American Job Centers were not originally intended to be placement agencies, which would mean a more active role in the matchmaking process. Given these constraints, how can D.C.’s public workforce system better serve the needs of employers, how can employers engage more fully in workforce development?

In a perfect world, where labor market demand and supply are in equilibrium, employers are able to find job seekers who meet the requirements of their respective firm or industry, while job seekers are able to learn about and be successful for job opportunities of which they are well suited by nature of skills and knowledge. But labor markets are inefficient, and there are gaps between supply and demand.

These gaps—and the need to narrow them—are often used as the justification for public workforce policies. The evolution of workforce development in the past 40 years (moving from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act to today’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA) has been a journey from focusing solely on the job seekers needs to employment and has evolved to a demand-driven system where businesses also are represented in workforce development. But many jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, have had challenges—and faced active resistance—to moving toward the employer as the be-all and end-all of workforce system. In part, this reflects that it is often unclear what roles the employers can and should play and how to engage them in the workforce system.

Principally, there are four ways that employers can and should engage in the workforce system. These are:

  1. Sharing information with AJCs about job postings and leads;
  2. Providing guidance to help job seekers understand application requirements and processes;
  3. Working with DOES to identify needed skill competencies and qualifications; and
  4. Placing and retaining job seekers in employment.

I’ll explain each of these approaches in more detail below.

1. Employers can share more information with AJCs about job postings and leads

Lower-income communities are often economically segregated, and the residents in these communities may have limited access to the internet and the types of informal networks that can identify job leads and help navigating the application process. The District government and employers have already attempted to address the disparities in informational resources by locating the District’s American Job Centers (AJCs) in Wards 1, 5, 7 and 8.* Job seekers who register with the agency are able to access the internet and create email accounts, and also access job postings shared by employers. Job seekers can apply on their own for job opportunities, and workshops support job seekers in resume-writing and interviewing.

However, the AJCs can have an impersonal, often cookie-cutter feel, giving the job seeker a less-than-individualized customer service experience; to address, this, AJCs should lead job seekers on a pathway to employability. Employers can also provide job seekers at AJCs more up-to-date information on job vacancies, and what a job seeker needs to prepare for a job. Institutionally, also, the American Job Center should “feel” like a business with a customer-orientation rather than as a bureaucratic office that is designed merely for service delivery.

* It is important to note that there are some concerns that the AJC in Ward 8 is not easily accessible to Metro rail, and the booming area near the Waterfront in SW does not have an AJC presence.

2. Employers can provide more guidance to help job seekers understand application requirements and processes

Once a job applicant has identified a vacancy to apply to, employers can play an active role in making the application process easier for job-seekers to navigate, using a few different approaches.

One approach is for employers to provide job specialists at the AJCs with a more explicit job description that mentions any tests, examinations, certifications, or other pre-requisites for the position. For example, a construction contractor may need to evaluate a candidate’s manual ability, or even conduct a math test to identify if a candidate knows how to efficiently order and utilize building supplies for a project (e.g., how many gallons of paint are needed to paint a room of 300 square feet?). Too often, the job seeker enters the application ill-prepared to enter this first hurdle because he or she is unaware of the application process from the employer; in this case, the employer should work with DOES to write and vet a job description that indicates in advance that a portfolio of work is required, or that an examination will be conducted.

Another approach is for employers to clearly indicate timelines and processes in job listings (e.g., “if an applicant does not hear back from the employer within two weeks, you will not be contacted for an interview”), including whether a listing has a specific deadline or whether applications are reviewed on a rolling basis. More transparency helps applicants set expectations and avoid common mistakes—too often candidates feel their application went into the black hole of “HR space.” Ideally, employers could also give individual applicants receive feedback on why they did not receive an offer (e.g., applicant lacked a specific qualification, application was incomplete, applicant missed a deadline, etc.), or give DOES general updates on the most common reasons they turn applicants away.

3. Employers can work with DOES to identify needed skill competencies and qualifications

A third role for employers to become engaged in the workforce development process is to identify skill competencies and qualifications that are specific to the industry and occupation, and also rank these qualifications as “must haves”, “strongly desired”, “desirable”, or merely “optional.” There has been some momentum at DOES to convene “skill summits” for employer partners representing an industry sector to come together and discuss their needs with community partners, and these efforts should be continued and expanded. These conversations cover both what the labor supply currently offers (e.g., does the District have sufficient talent available who are IT proficient for cybersecurity?) and where the labor supply can be enhanced (e.g., should the University of District of Columbia or other training providers develop a curriculum for these cybersecurity jobs?) True engagement with employers therefore gives the labor market a real-time signal on how to interpret and address the employer needs and to identify training opportunities for District residents.

4. Employers can articulate what ‘success’ looks like at their respective companies and how a job seeker might fit their organizational culture.

Finally, it should be obvious that employers are a key player in job placement, as they are the ones creating the jobs. To suggest that DOES is exclusively a “placement agency”—and the only actor in the process—belies its function in workforce development. That said, employers are often leery of relying on DOES as their source for talent, as there is the perception that candidates are ill-prepared or inappropriately referred to openings that they have or that job-seekers registered with the agency can’t meet the full spectrum of labor market demands, particularly for higher-paying, more technical jobs. As previously outlined, the first step towards more successful job placement by DOES is better communication with employers so that job seekers can understand a position’s requirements and application process before they even apply. But beyond the employers sharing this information, a true public-private partnership would provide career-planning workshops that bring job seekers and DOES job specialists in to the company shop floor, so they themselves are prepared for a smoother transition into the labor market.

Again, the goal of workforce development policy is to narrow – not close – the gap between the availability of workers (labor supply) and the jobs that are out there (labor demand). Employers can play a more proactive role in this narrowing process with constructive engagement and partnership.