Updating the Workforce Development Model

I have a quote that I keep handy and read several times a year – it helps ground me in the importance of the work we’re doing and the magnitude of the change we all need to create. It reads as follows:

“The environment surrounding our workforce and education system is changing faster than institutions, policy makers, government, employers, and citizens can adapt. America’s slow population growth, its increasing diversity, and the increasing retirement eligibility of the current workforce is confronted with major escalations in the academic, technical, and applied skill expectations of today’s workplace.

For the first time in our history, the American economy is creating more skilled job opportunities than there are well educated and prepared job applicants available.

However, employers, educators, and job applicants are attempting to navigate this new world through workforce, education, and labor market information systems that were designed for the ‘social policy’ era of the 1960s. These programs were designed when we had far more applicants than jobs available and it was important to ensure that everyone had equal opportunity and access.”

– Robert T. Jones, former Assistant Secretary of Labor (source)

Let me expand on that incredibly important observation.

The workforce development model that we use today was designed in the 1960s. What were things like in the 1960s? Well, we had a huge population of young people thanks to the Baby Boom, and the workforce had an excellent foundation in science, math, and technical abilities thanks to investments made in education as a result of the Space Race, as well as free education (often from two-year schools) provided to veterans coming back from our various wars. At the same time, the economy was booming and there were a limited number of middle-skill positions available, at least compared with today. (Think about how much technical skill an auto mechanic or a machinist had to have in the 60s versus today.)

Because they had such a large, capable, and young workforce, and comparatively few numbers of technically skilled roles, they came up with the “leaky pipeline” model. In this model, we lost a percentage of young people at every phase of development – from middle to high school, high school completion, secondary to postsecondary, and postsecondary completion. But it was all fine: We still ended up with a huge population of prepared students, and thanks to the booming economy and growth in living standards, the people we lost between each stage were still able to find a place.

Almost none of those things are true in 2021. Those Baby Boomers are leaving the workforce, and the generations that follow are much smaller in comparison. Our young people are being directed away from developing hard skills and instead put on an almost entirely academic path. And the available jobs? The vast majority require some level of technical capabilities, a condition that will only grow in the future.

In that light, the leaky pipeline model is a spectacularly inappropriate strategy. But large established systems are notoriously difficult to change. So, it’s going to remain the status quo until we come up with a new model and make the effort to replace the old.

The model I would recommend?

Gardening. We no longer have the luxury of wasting the potential of so many young people: Everyone is like a scarce seed that needs to be planted and nurtured, and we truly need to think of workforce development as a “no child left behind” mindset. We need every single one we can get; we can’t afford to let anyone slip through the cracks.

The concept is simple, but the implications are enormous. Moving from a mass-processing model to an individual model requires change to every aspect of the current system. But if we want employers, the economy, and our country to thrive in the future, it’s a change we have to make.


Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of the National Center for College and Career (NC3T) (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance, and tools. These strategies help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.