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Workforce Development Redefined

Thom Ruhe

Workforce Development RedefinedWhen I say the phrase “workforce development” chances are a certain image is conjured in your mind. Maybe you think of tradesmen positions, like carpenters, electricians, plumbers and masons. Maybe you think of vocational training programs offered by community colleges. Regardless of what your mind has been trained to conclude based on that phrase, workforce development has never been more important than it is today. But it’s not enough—on its own or simply as it is.

Community colleges are emerging as leaders in workforce development. And rightly so, given their intimate connection to the community, their partnerships with local industry, and their ability to quickly respond to changing needs. It’s this widespread connection to community colleges that serves as a significant motivation for the Kauffman Foundation’s interest in community college activities around workforce and economic development.

It’s why I found myself in San Diego a couple months ago, offering a keynote address at this year’s Workforce Development Institute Conference. In my remarks, I offered my thoughts on the deficiencies in higher education today—how we’re paying too much for the wrong kind of education and getting too little in return. (I ponder this very topic in a previous e360 blog post).

While change is going to have to come to higher education, these insufficiencies of today are being amplified by a vastly underprepared talent pool, lacking critical thinking and problem solving skills. That’s where workforce development should be picking up. But given its existence since 1998, something’s amiss.

Workforce development needs to be redefined. And it needs to be used in conjunction with many other economic development objectives. Alone and as it is, traditional community college-led workforce development will not meet the needs of industry today and as a main economic development objective at a community college, it is enabling only a small piece of a community’s economic potential.

So I proposed a challenge to the leaders of these community colleges. I challenged them to enthusiastically embrace their hefty role in workforce development—but as part of a larger academic reform activity. To really achieve sustained, home-grown prosperity that is strong enough to weather the next downturn, you have got to be obsessed with creating a workforce of entrepreneurial thinkers and doers.

This is what large employers want—skill coupled with the ability to think like and be an innovator. And even within the self-employed skilled trades, an entrepreneurial mindset will propel people to consider a trajectory to their craft, allowing them to leverage the labor and output of others, to a scale that will generate greater wealth for themselves and employment opportunities for others.

We know that skilled trades are in demand today, but we owe it to our students to give them more than technical training. We need to give them an entrepreneurial mindset. To do this, we are challenging communities and workforce development activities to start by doing one thing: bringing entrepreneurship resources to the students and community members where they already are; or better yet—make entrepreneurship curriculum a general education requirement for everyone.

This is about making sure that everyone, regardless of background, education level or interest, at the very least perceives the opportunity to be entrepreneurial. It’s about democratizing access to entrepreneurship. And by doing so, we’ll unlock the key to our nation’s economic prosperity.

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