Workforce training: Equipping employees for long-term success

March 17, 2022
In this episode of The Tool Belt, Tom Strong discusses the importance of investing in employees for the longer term.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many employers to reduce their staffs, but having workers who have the know-how and nurturing their growth is still important. In this podcast episode, Amanda Del Buono, Digital Engagement Manager for Control Global and Control Design, and Tom Strong, director of employer action for the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, discuss the importance of investing in and training employees for the long haul.

ADB: Can you first just start by telling our listeners a little bit about the National Fund for Workforce Solutions? What are some of your goals, and how do you work toward achieving them?

TS: Absolutely. So the National Fund is an organization that was created to foster innovation and workforce development. We envision a world that has an equitable future where workers, employers and the communities where they're based in are all thriving and prosperous. We think the workforce development has a lot of influence in helping us get to that vision. It's just essential to prioritize innovation and new ideas.

As our name suggests, we are all about solutions. We identify solutions to common workforce problems, and there's four solutions that we currently organize our work around. The first one is co-investing for impact in order to achieve local economies of scale. The second is equipping workers for success, that's not just in terms of skill development but also in terms of helping them access resources and build networks to strengthen their voice and their engagement. The third solution that we focus on is changing systems for improved outcomes, and that's all about how do we engage neighborhoods, municipalities and other regional institutions in co-creating lasting change. Finally, we work to activate employers to make jobs better, and that's the program that I lead at the National Fund and I see my job there as about building our entire network's capacity to work productively with employers and help them to create more good jobs for the people who need them. I'll add to that that throughout all these solutions, we see a thread. We look at them through a lens of racial equity and inclusion. Workforce development can't work if it doesn't work for everyone.

Speaking of that network, we couldn't do any of this without our local community partners who we refer to as our collaboratives. There's 28 of them across the country, [and] they're in every kind of community, big cities to the smallest rural areas, and they are usually embedded in community organizations, things like Local Workforce Investment Boards, United Ways, chambers of commerce and community foundations. They work that way because that way they are close to the community, but they're also close to educational institutions, they're close to funders and they're close to employers. Together they work to form industry partnerships to get those different actors working together. They're the laboratories where our work really takes place. We help them. We help them get funding and provide them with technical assistance, and we've built this national network for them to draw upon and learn from each other, but they're the ones who really do the innovation, and they do the work on the ground.

ADB: Great. Well, focusing more closely on that, I wanted to take a look at one of the projects that you've done in the recent past. I understand in 2020, Boeing provided a grant to implement an on-the-job training program in five communities in the United States. I was wondering, what other programs has the National Fund worked on in the manufacturing industry, and how do these programs benefit those that are involved outside of the National Fund itself?

TS: That's right. We've been working with Boeing for many years. They've been a terrific supporter of our work. Let's talk about benefits first. The benefit of a program like that one we did with Boeing is really straightforward. It was an investment in on-the-job training, where employers are able to hire people for a limited time with subsidized wages, and during that training period, they are preparing them for the specific needs of the firm. So the employers have this great opportunity to, over kind of an extended orientation, develop and assess that worker's technical skills and understand their ability to work on the team. The workers also benefit from this opportunity because they're earning as they're learning, right? So, they are able to develop a new skill while making a living wage, and most of them get a permanent job out of the arrangement. But even those who don't end up staying with that company, they've developed a new skill set, an experience that is only going to help them on the job market going forward.

Now, on-the-job training has been around for a while. It's a well-understood approach. A big part of what we and our collaboratives brought to this project was more of an equity lens, and we were particularly thinking about manufacturing when we did this. There's a lot of good jobs in manufacturing, but the workforce in that field is still disproportionately white and disproportionately male, as I'm sure you know. We wanted to support more workers of color and more women getting into this industry because there are so many good jobs there. We set a target in the project of helping 200 workers, and we ultimately assisted over 260 of them, beating our original goal by 32%. Across the five collaboratives, over 50% of the workers involved were people of color [and] over 20% were women, which significantly exceeded our goals there as well.

Now, as for the first part of your question about where else we're doing this? There's a couple pieces to that. One is that we engage the manufacturers through our collaboratives through their industry partnerships, and over half of our collaboratives, the 15 in total, do have a long-standing industry partnerships in manufacturing. So, it is a really critical sector for us that's actually the second most of any industry after healthcare. We also lead a number of programs that involve our collaboratives, which are intended to drive innovation across different industries, and usually, those include manufacturers. Most of those programs involve what I described earlier as activating employers to make jobs better, i.e., they are all about job quality and helping employers think more proactively about how can they make a greater, better place to work.

ADB: Great. That's great to hear how successful the program was, and I presume having those companies involved with you for so long really helps strengthen your fund and what you're able to do in the long term.

TS: Yeah. Absolutely. We can't do the work we do without strong engagement from employers, and that means we also have to think about our own approach towards employers and making sure that we are providing value to them, and we're helping them think through problems that are real and affect them right now.

ADB: Right. Well, going beyond that initial training, we at Putman Media have done some surveys through various magazines about job satisfaction, and we often see that employees tend to be more satisfied in their jobs when their employer is offering growth opportunities through training programs and the like. What are some other benefits that manufacturers could see from implementing such programs, if they're still apprehensive about making that investment for some reason?

TS: So, I'm glad you asked about that. In one of the programs I was just discussing, which is a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we've been examining this question. We have an evaluator we're working with on the project, Ellen Frank-Miller, with the Workforce & Organizational Research Center. And she has been diving into the evidence base about what kinds of workforce practices and characteristics of jobs are associated with different employer outcomes. And she's looking at management studies over decades to figure this out. And what she has seen is that there are five outcomes that are really common for employers who invest in their own frontline workers, and those are improving the intention for turnover. So, not just turnover, which can be measured in different ways, but are people planning? Are they thinking about leaving the company? A second outcome is their commitment to the organization. That's kind of the flip side of that. How much do they kind of feel that the organization cares about them, and therefore they commit to it for the long haul? A third outcome is individual performance. Well, obviously, but if you train people in the technical certification, if you're investing in their skills and development, they will likely perform better on the job. Fourth one is employee engagement. This is one, of course, the Gallup company and many other companies are out there studying. It's been associated with a wide range of positive financial metrics, but it really is a measure of how much are workers kind of thinking about the work. Are they interested and involved in the work that they are doing when they're on the job rather than feeling alienated? And fifth is burnout, a really relevant one this past year because of COVID and how it's affected so many different industries, but investing in your workers, again, not surprisingly, is correlated with reduced burnout levels.

Now, what's interesting about this study, this approach that we're looking at is that each of these outcomes is associated as, I mentioned before, with a range of different job characteristics. So, for instance, if you think about kind of what you mentioned, training and development happening on the job, that is associated with four of those five business outcomes. It's associated with turnover intent, with performance, with engagement and with reduced burnout. That's pretty good. It's excellent, in fact. There's lots of good outcomes to look for there. But there are also some practices that are actually associated with all five of those outcomes. So, for instance, the support that you see yourself as a worker receiving from your supervisor is associated with all of the business outcomes. And, you know, we know about that, right, the adage, like nobody quits their job, they quit their boss. Well, there is a lot of evidence for that in management science. For us, what that tells us is that the workforce development field needs to pay close attention to how these supervisors, kind of what their role is like, how they are interacting with the frontline workers that are on their team, how they are trained and supported. That is a growth area for the field. It is something to the workforce development field's credit that we have been engaging with more deeply in the last decade or so, but the evidence suggests there needs to be a bigger and bigger focus. The takeaway though for your manufacturer listeners for this podcast, if you are thinking about how you can benefit from investing in your employees, don't limit yourself to thinking about job satisfaction. Don't limit yourself to thinking about turnover. Those are obviously great, they matter a lot, but there are actually many other ways that employers can benefit from investing in people.

Listen to the entire interview

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