Leading experts weigh in on current policy issues and challenges

Implementing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: How to Tackle the Challenge of Employer Engagement

For workforce development organizations, which are focused on the goal of helping people prepare for and find jobs, working with employers is essential. Yet effective employer engagement has long been a challenge for workforce development systems and programs, despite mounting evidence and the push to do so by policymakers and funders. As the federal government, states, and localities seek to implement the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), what is needed to support effective policy and practice? 

The Urban Institute is talking with...
Fred Dedrick Fred Dedrick
Sheila Maguire Sheila Maguire
Jason Tyszko Jason Tyszko
Abby Snay Abby Snay
Chauncy Lennon Chauncy Lennon
Ron Painter Ron Painter
Shayne Spaulding
Moderated by:
Shayne Spaulding
Senior Research Associate

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our policy debate on employer engagement in workforce development programs. When WIOA was passed last year, it was noted for its stronger focus on employers. This reflects growing evidence around engaging employers to better meet the needs of employers and jobseekers. However, workforce programs face challenges in meaningfully engaging employers: communication challenges, resource constraints, issues of scale – just to name a few.

As part of our collaboration with JPMorgan Chase, Urban is conducting research and developing tools to help local leaders and stakeholders overcome these challenges. Related to this work, we have released a brief that frames the challenges, goals, and strategies of employer engagement in workforce programs.

We are fortunate to have a wide range of experts, practitioners, and stakeholders contributing to this discussion. Let’s start with two questions:

  1. We’ve been talking about employer engagement for decades. What makes WIOA different; and
  2. What do states and localities need to do or think about as they are implementing this aspect of the new law?


Thanks to you and the Urban Institute for organizing this policy debate.  Because WIOA requires the development of sector-focused partnerships with industry this debate is critical and timely.  Let me start by making a strong recommendation based on my experience with Pennsylvania's Industry Partnership initiative and the work of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions:  Building substantial employer engagement takes patience and persistence.  Make sure that the "organizer" of the sector-focused effort understands enough about the industry to ask the right questions.  Drawing busy plant managers, HR staff or presidents of small companies into a conversation that yields important insight into a local industry is an art.   Creating a good industry partnership that will drive your WIOA strategy requires a lot of good ground work.

Shayne and Fred,

Let me also say thanks for kicking this conversation off.  The brief's clear articulation of the many challenges that get in the way of employer engagement, and Fred's friendly warning that employer engagement is harder than it seems make we want to take a step back from the question of the opportunities WIOA presents.  The question I kept asking myself as I read the brief was "we know we don't have enough employer engagement but what actually is the right amount of engagement?"  For good reasons, we are trying to crack the code on business involvement and there are both strong underlying rationales and helpful examples of how employers have become "crucial partners" in workforce collaborations.   But, to exaggerate the point some, it feels as if we all operate with the unstated objective of having every employer serving on every advisory board and participating in every quarterly meeting.  Even if we wanted to, that's not a goal we are going to reach. We need to develop a better sense of the specific conditions under which a business might prefer certain types of involvement or opt for a particular kind of partnership relationship.  To Fred's point, working with employers requires a lot of "ground work" and the more we can do to develop some rules of the road on when and how to engage -- or not engage -- the better.  This brief points the way towards understanding these rules in ways that hold promise of a more strategic approach towards workforce partnerships.


I want to begin by thanking the Urban Institute and both Shayne Spauling and Ananda Martin-Caughey for their recent publication and contribution to the field. Also, I would like to thank JPMorgan Chase and Chauncy Lennon for supporting this important work.

I would like to start by mentioning the challenge before us and what drives the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s interest in this space. The United States is facing a skills gap that threatens to reach over 6 million unfilled positions, and if America is going to compete in a global economy it requires that we develop and grow a demand-driven education and workforce system where employers lead the way.

In order to get the job done and bring about such a paradigm shift it will require a rethinking of the questions that have driven the debate in this country for so long. It is time to move beyond the question of what can the workforce system do to better engage employers. At the Chamber Foundation we believe the time is right to flip our thinking, and ask instead how we can create the space, incentives, and mechanisms by which the employer community can organize themselves to manage their talent pipelines. We believe WIOA can be part of the solution in seeding such an employer-led system.

The Chamber Foundation, and our partner USA Funds, are exploring this issue through our Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) initiative. Our work is focused on building the capacity of employers to play the role of end-customers in managing talent supply chain partnerships. We believe this role moves employers beyond a traditional advisory or beneficiary role and creates shared value for the students and workers navigating career pathways. In the words of USA Funds, the result is “completion with a purpose”. To learn more visit www.TheTalentSupplyChain.org.  

Attracting and sustaining employer engagement has long been a challenge for policymakers, providers, and philanthropy alike. Both Fred and Chauncy have made very important observations thus far. Fred pointed out that employer engagement is an art and takes finesse to do it well. Chauncy mentioned that employer engagement varies depending on the type of interaction and outcomes sought by the employer community. Building on my previous comments, I would like to add that who organize the business community matters, as does the employer objectives they seek to address, their membership, governance, critical functions, and how they are financed. In other words, some intermediaries are more demand-driven than others, but the goal is to move all of our diverse intermediaries to a place where they can expand the leadership role of employer partners.

Rather than having third party groups “bring employers to the table,” at the Chamber Foundation we believe it is now time to explore a new organizational model that is by business, for business. We call this new model “employer collaboratives” and we believe this approach with help employers—in particular small to mid-size firms—see the value proposition in managing the talent pipeline as a shared activity. Through shared practices employer collaboratives focus on building the capacity of the business community in way that builds trust, improves leverage, achieves scale, and enables results.

WIOA may or may not be transformational depending on the decisions of states and communities tasked with its implementation. The Chamber Foundation encourages and is open to working with any community that wishes to use the flexibility of WIOA to reboot sector-based partnerships and seed new, employer-led collaboratives that reimagine how the business community is organized and leads. We are confident such a system will deliver better results for students and workers as well as an improved ROI for public investment. We are encouraged by the early results we have witnessed with our national partners in states as diverse as Illinois, Arizona, and Virginia, just to name a few.

Wow! So many things to respond to. What I hear from Fred, Chauncy and Jason is the need for a more nuanced approach to employer engagement that is really tailored to the particular needs of the industry and business. Jason puts forth the idea of partnerships that are led by business as a way of creating this customization. In our brief, we talk about the challenges for employers to get involved with workforce programs and for workforce programs engaging employers. What do people see as the biggest barriers to meaningful engagement and strategic collaboration in both sides? What are effective strategies for overcoming these challenges?

Thanks Shayne and Ananda for a clear and compelling analysis of the issues and thanks to all for this timely debate.  

Jason makes a great point about how it is important for employers to move beyond a traditional role of advising and into one in which employers are organizing their own talent pipeline. Workforce organizations also need to move beyond a traditional role of training and placing people into employment to one in which they partner with employers around the many human resource/talent pipeline needs they might have—both before and after the hire. This is particularly important for small and medium businesses who have limited resources to address these issues themselves.  In working with workforce organizations on-the-ground, in some cases a demand for hiring a particular skill set can sometimes mask an issue with employee retention and on-the-job training.  Having professionals with in-depth knowledge of the industry is essential to respond to these needs.  A challenge to this is attracting talent into the workforce development field itself, building pipelines into critical employer-facing jobs, and developing talent once we have it on board through advancement strategies and our own career pathways.  The need for professionals to do this work is going grow as WIOA (and other federal, state and local initiatives) require a more demand-driven approach.  The workforce development field needs a talent development strategy too.     

I'll echo my colleagues' appreciation to Shayne and Ananda and the Urban Institute for casting a  spotlight on the one of the most critical and yet daunting aspects of workforce development!  I'll also thank JP Morgan Chase for supporting this work.  

From the  perspective of a community based organization that has worked closely with employers for over 40 years, I'd like to offer a few lessons from the field.  At Jewish Vocational Service in San Francisco, we have found that the strongest employer partnerships rely on multiple levels of involvement, deep mutual trust and a true dual customer approach.  Working within a sector framework, such as healthcare, allows us to develop focused expertise and provides a structure for organizing our work with employers.   For example, a well-functioning Health Care Advisory Board, composed of healthcare providers from acute care, primary care, long-term care and in-home settings, has been invaluable as an on-going focus group on hiring trends, training challenges and changes in staffing patterns that help us design and continuously upgrade training programs.  We've learned, though, as Fred warns, that keeping such a group engaged is not easy!  There are only so many times we can ask the group about workforce implications of the Affordable Care Act!  We've been surprised by the hunger of people from competing institutions for information-sharing and networking, and now focus most meetings around presentations from academic researchers and policy analysts on a specific issue, such as California trends in nursing hiring.  As HCAB members react to the information, they engage in lively debate; the value they derive pays off in their enthusiasm for deeper engagement.  The value of learning how peer institutions, often competitors, work with JVS in customized training inspires newer participants to consider how they can work with us.  Some lessons learned reflect basic volunteer management:  schedule meetings for early  morning, before busy schedules get in the way of attendance; build co-chairs into champions; follow-up quickly with meeting summaries and any to-dos that come up during the meeting.  If the clinic manager from a major provider wants to learn more about customer-service training for her current workforce, follow up immediately! Set up time to learn more about her needs and let her know how JVS has helped other similar institutions!  To build credibility, we have to emulate the pace, language and culture of the employers we want to build as partners and allies!   

What I am hearing is the need for workforce organizations and employers to take different roles. I worked for a number of years overseeing workforce programs and employer engagement efforts at the City University of New York. What we heard often from city officials is this desire to make the different players in the workforce system “stay in their lane” or do what they do well (training, education, job placement, run companies). But what I am reading here is something different—when thinking about building partnerships, it is actually about shifting roles and responsibilities, whether it is businesses playing a role in supply chain management vis a vis the workforce, workforce organizations trying to fill other HR needs for small and medium sized businesses, or training organizations being the source of information on the Affordable Care Act. But how to facilitate this shift in behavior and roles? What can be done to get employers to lead partnerships as Jason describes? How can government and philanthropy change the expectations for workforce programs to facilitate this shift?

Shayne, in response to an earlier question you posed as well as to your recent post, I think there are important barriers to employer leadership as well as opportunities to truly activate it. The barrier I am eluding to is how funding flows. In the vast majority of education and workforce systems the funding typically flows to providers who are tasked to recruit employers or to demonstrate their strong connections through letters of support or prior program interactions. Basically, we trust providers to select and recruit their employer partners. However, if we are to activate the full potential of employer partnerships we need to challenge our modus operandi.

For example, the Kansas Department of Commerce has pioneered an innovative program called Workforce AID. In this program the Department brings employers in to craft a talent development and procurement that is then submitted for bid to community colleges. The employers are brought in on the front end to design the program specifications and then they are key partners in the selection process. By flipping the system, the employers are empowered to be leaders and to hold those programs accountable that claim to be responsive and flexible in meeting their need. While the program is currently operating at a relatively small scale, the implications of such a program loom large for how we do business in a demand-driven era.

A commonly perceived barrier in most systems is the lack of data in decision making. Many reforms in the workforce space have championed the need for more and better data, including building longitudinal workforce data systems. Labor market information systems, for all practical purposes, are considered a given. What I would like to suggest is that not all data is equal. In fact, the long-term projections that we are accustomed to using are seldom accurate and rarely easy to use in a local context. Recently, many state and workforce systems have adopted real-time labor market information systems, which while better, still have their challenges in terms of accurately communicating what employers need and when.

At the Chamber we promote employer-led demand planning as a more accurate way of sharing workforce projections and managing risk with those forecasts. For example, Vermilion Advantage—a local economic development and business association in Danville, Illinois—has used surveys in four industry clusters, including manufacturing, to ascertain the collective workforce needs of groups of employers. This information is then shared with preferred education partners to make adjustments in program enrollments.

Recently in Virginia, the state workforce board has supported a pilot program in IT where they not only aggregated the level of need for a collaborative of companies in Northern Virginia, but they are also using a similar needs assessment to determine the competencies and credentials associated with critical positions. This process gets a more accurate determination of level of need while also communicating, through a common language, how those employer needs are similar and more importantly different.

These are examples of the type of employer-led, data-driven systems we hope to see more of as the business community expands its leadership role. 

When it is all said and done, what the Chamber Foundation has learned is that one of the biggest barriers to employer engagement is the level of preparedness of employers and their associations to participate in the system. In many cases we treat employers homogeneously, when in fact they are as diverse the populations that our workforce systems serve. To assume they are “plug and play” whether on an advisory board, in curriculum development, or in administering training, is a sure way to get sub optimal partnerships.

We believe that the future of demand driven workforce systems will require building the capacity of staff that administer talent solutions inside of companies, as well as in industry associations, chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, and other business associations. The more sophisticated employer partners are in managing the talent pipeline and engaging in shared talent supply chain practices—such as demand planning and communicating competency and credential requirements—the better we will be able to deliver quality, timely, and cost effective education and workforce training for students and workers. 

I’m looking forward to the continuation of this policy debate tomorrow, but in the meantime I want to make everyone aware that on March 23rd the Chamber Foundation will host our second national conference on managing the talent supply chain. More information is forthcoming, but for now we hope you can save the date and, more importantly, stay in touch. Thank you.

Jason makes the point that "plug and play" approaches don't work, and we know that work with employers has to be customized.  In fact, one of the core principles of effective employer engagement is a "dual-customer" approach.  However, this concept holds inherent tensions for community-based training providers who have a mission-driven commitment to our clients and students, and yet know that the success of our clients often relies on our close partnership with employers.   What happens when the needs of both customers diverge?  At JVS, we ask employer partners to help assess and select students, knowing that hiring managers can spot the strengths and attributes of applicants that will lead to hiring success.  Sometimes the applicants we want most to succeed don't win the confidence of employers in the early selection process.  We also plan training to meet hiring needs, both short-term and long-term.  Even the most sophisticated pipeline planning is not perfect, and we have had students in training based on real-time employer projections, which can change quickly and result in fewer openings for graduates.  How do we manage this conflicting customer needs? Our experience shows that taking a long view in building and cultivating employer partnerships pays off, in developing advocates at multiple levels in a company or institution, in building mutual trust and communication that  can work through immediate bumps and challenges and to keep articulating and working on our common goals.  

In our brief, Ananda and I focus on the customization that can come from aligning workforce program goals and specific ways to involve employers. Obviously understanding the employer goals and particular situation is key too and part of taking the “dual customer approach.” A question I have is whether the goal is always full-scale partnership. It seems to me that involving employers in a variety of ways and at varying levels of intensity has value and makes it possible to meet employers where they are rather than expecting extensive investments of time in all cases.

I agree with Jason that it makes sense to give more responsibility to employers to make their own decisions regarding what training is provided, who is the best organization to provide it, and how to measure success.  Both in my work in Pennsylvania and at the National Fund we are clear that the goal is not employer engagement, but rather, employer leadership.   They need to take ownership of their talent supply chain just as they "own" their material and parts supply chain.  This is especially true of SME's who don't have the market heft to command attention.  But as others have pointed out this doesn't require that every employer be involved in the same way or to the same extent.   


We urge employers to take on a "unifying" task as the first step, i.e. a training project or a speaker or an event that brings their industry together while recognizing that not all employers will be interested in every initiative of the partnership.  In a food services partnerships they started with a focus on food safety, then moved on to supervisory training, then to packaging equipment and eventually to packaging software.  Along the way the group of interested employers shifted and evolved.  Like I wrote before it's a real art to generating employer leadership and then stepping back and being as helpful as possible as they choose their own priorities. 

This is a great debate.  Thanks!

 I agree employers are often thought about as a single amorphous mass and certainly the focus on industry sectors has contributed to workforce organizations developing an in-depth and nuanced understanding of the talent issues faced in hiring, retaining, training and advancing workers in different occupations within and across industry.  As Abby so clearly illustrates, bringing value to employers in terms of resources and knowledge and offering a wide range of services (supervisory training, incumbent worker training) is also important.  I often think it is no coincidence that the organizations that had such excellent results through the random control trial (Maguire et, al 2010) that Shayne and Amanda reference in their brief offered a range of services to employers and were not just seeking jobs for their candidates.  Jason, I appreciated hearing about the flip that the Chamber is experimenting with and I look forward to hear about its progress.  Its interesting that you also highlight the need to build the capacity of staff to administer talent solutions inside companies and business associations.  That resonates in terms of my experience working with a range of employers—particularly (but not exclusively) small and medium sized.  I think there is need on both the part of workforce organizations and employers to build this capacity. Depending on local circumstances employers and workforce organizations may play different roles.


In terms of using labor market data, yes it is really difficult to make accurate projections.  In NYC the CUNY Labor Market Information Service has been working with organizations to help them bring together traditional labor market, real-time data as well as qualitative information gained from relationships with employers and trade publications to develop a good understanding of what is happening in their target sector or occupational clusters.  Phase 2 of the project has been training labor market information “superusers” within organizations who not only stay on top of the data but help drive the changes needed at the organizational level to ensure that programs and strategies are in line with what is happening on the industry side. 



As we close this policy debate, I want to take a moment to summarize some of the points made here. There is not a one-size fits all approach to employer engagement. To overcome the many challenges, the approaches workforce organizations and systems take need to be customized to the needs of individual employers. Making this work takes persistence and hard work and may involve working in new ways. On the employer side, there may be new ways of thinking about employers leading workforce partnerships and activities. We will be excited to learn more as the US Chamber takes on this issue. For workforce organizations, this can mean building internal capacity and professional development around employer-engagement competencies and industry knowledge, but also serving functions for employers that go beyond just training and placement. Workforce organizations will continue to have to navigate the challenge of employer engagement, including the fact that there are sometimes tensions between serving the employer customer and the job seeker customer. We hope that this conversation and our brief are useful for continuing to push for more meaningful involvement of employers to create better outcomes for both customers. Thanks to our policy debate participants for their thoughtful contributions and work on this important issue.