Three years ago, I had an opportunity to help a group of Akron (OH) civic leaders design a talent development system that could serve a much broader swath of residents and businesses than the public workforce system, which at the time was meeting less than 3 percent of local labor market demand. They envisioned a system driven by reliable and actionable information about the skill needs of area employers, capable of getting the right workers with the right skills to the right place at the right time, and fed by education and training providers, creating pipelines of talent at various stages of development aligned with the needs of the end customer. In short, they envisioned a talent supply chain.
In March 2016, that group launched a new workforce intermediary, ConxusNEO, to make their vision a reality. ConxusNEO decided to focus initially on the manufacturing sector and commissioned Team NEO (a regional economic development organization) to do a high-level analysis of the skill needs of local manufacturers. That analysis highlighted the urgent need to get more people into the pipeline for manufacturing jobs to replace retiring baby boomers.
ConxusNEO used that data to convene local manufacturers and to organize them into a Manufacturing Network, which engaged with the Akron Public Schools (APS) to get more students interested in and prepared for careers in manufacturing. Then, building on its work with APS, the Manufacturing Network reached out to manufacturers, educators, economic developers, and other stakeholders in other parts of the county to engage them in similar partnerships with their school districts. And they have built partnerships with regional career tech and higher education institutions.
That work is going well and is spurring a more comprehensive transformation of the public schools and greater alignment between higher education programs and business needs. But the payoff is long term. Meanwhile, manufacturers have more immediate skill needs that are not being met. So, ConxusNEO is now focusing on those needs as well.
The starting point for meeting those immediate skill needs is reliable and actionable information about which jobs are most difficult to fill and what skills those jobs require. But that information turns out to be in short supply, creating a missing link at a crucial point in the talent supply chain.
Traditionally, the most common way to get that information has been to analyze public data sets, but BLS data can be several years out of date and can miss trends within industries and occupations that don’t fit into the standard BLS categories. Also, the results from that kind of macro analysis are often too broad brush to pinpoint the specific needs of area employers.
To make up for those shortcomings, ConxusNEO commissioned studies to determine whether there are shortages of skilled workers in particular occupations, rather than for the sector as a whole, and they have relied on job posting data, which is much more up to date. That’s been a big improvement. The specific occupational findings are much more actionable, and the job posting data are much more reliable.
However, studies have found that job posting data can sometimes be misleading, particularly for manufacturing jobs, which are much less likely to get posted on line than technical and professional services occupations. In addition, many jobs get posted on line multiple times in multiple places, so not all of the jobs that get posted ever get filled. Moreover, job posting data capture only a small slice of what’s actually happening in the labor market, since most job openings are never advertised because they are filled by hiring from within or through networking and employee referrals.
There are efforts under way to correct for these shortcomings. But in the meantime, it appears that the best information about immediate skill needs comes directly from local businesses.
One way to gather that information is through surveys. ConxusNEO is working with MAGNET (the Manufacturing Extension Partnership center in NE Ohio) to add several workforce questions to their annual survey of manufacturers. Past survey results yielded valuable information about which jobs are hardest to fill. However, since the survey results are anonymous, it is difficult to identify or engage with the companies that are most in need of assistance.
To make up for that shortcoming, ConxusNEO helped the Greater Akron Chamber design a set of workforce questions to ask when they made their retention and expansion calls on local businesses in 2017. Once that information becomes available, it can be mined to identify which jobs are most difficult to fill, how companies source the talent they need, and which companies are most in need of assistance. Over time, that information can also be analyzed for trends and patterns to identify what kind of workforce interventions would make the biggest difference for the sector as a whole. And if retention and expansion efforts focus on companies with strategic importance to the local economy, those workforce interventions can help put job growth on a whole new trajectory.
In the meantime, the members of the Manufacturing Network remain ConxusNEO’s most valuable source of information about which jobs are most difficult to fill and what skills those jobs require. Having gathered that information from Network members, ConxusNEO is now working with Network members to “backmap” their hiring processes to identify where they are currently finding the workers with the skills they need, and to identify the biggest bottlenecks in the pipeline.
That approach comes out a playbook developed by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation as part of their Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) initiative. The TPM process is composed of six strategies that build on one another to create a talent supply chain in which employers are the end customers and drivers of sector partnerships with education and training providers, rather than “merely advisors to or beneficiaries of those partnerships.”
Over 65 metros and states have adopted the TPM approach, which is proving to be very popular with employers and a natural fit for chambers of commerce and economic development organizations looking for ways to address the workforce needs of their members and investors. In large part, that’s because the TPM model for sector partnerships is truly demand driven — organized by employers for employers to address their workforce needs.
ConxusNEO has been on a parallel path with the TPM initiative for the past three years, but they are now part of the growing national TPM network and can benefit directly from the lessons, tools and curricula that are coming out of that work. In addition, they are now applying that same model to the IT sector through their TechHire Network, and exploring doing something similar in health care.
It appears that ConxusNEO may have found the missing link in the talent supply chain, and may have also found a way to take sector partnerships to a whole new level of performance in Northeast Ohio.
Pete Carlson is president of Regional Growth Strategies