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The Higher ED Blog: Building a framework for best practices in regional workforce development systems

Brian Weadick / May 25, 2015

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The Higher ED Blog: Building a framework for best practices in regional workforce development systems

Workforce development has arguably been an underutilized lens for regional economic development research and strategy. This persists despite the broad and obvious contribution workforce development makes to regional skill development through education and training. This gap had me wondering, how can workforce development be more explicitly linked to regional economic development? What are the best practices of regional workforce development systems?

My graduate Major Research Paper for the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development Program tackled these questions, as well as the possibility of creating a framework for best practices in regional workforce development systems.   I felt that a framework would help bring workforce development to the fore as an integral component of regional economic development. Since the tool would need to be tested in a real context, I applied it to the Northwest Territories, where I had been living and working in the workforce development sector.

What is workforce development?

Invariably, my response to my Grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner question ‘What are you studying?’ draws blank stares. The term ‘workforce development’ receives similar responses from academics and practitioners, perhaps due to its multi-field composition and dispersed responsibilities.

Here’s a synthesized definition: workforce development is systems, programs and policies used by the public, private and non-profit sectors to generate, sustain, and preserve a workforce to meet current and future economic needs. Tactics include education and training, measures to improve workplace performance, social programming to assist workers, community responses to sector changes, and much more.

De facto workforce development systems always exist, but increased coordination provides the benefits of increased regional human capital, tailored service to both workers and employers, and strengthened links between the supply and demand sides of the labour market.

Connecting workforce and regional economic development

Workforce development typically operates at the regional level, where labour market transactions occur and where individual and sector-based WD service can be delivered. When planned alongside regional economic development, the benefits of workforce development are multiplied. Talent is fostered that more accurately serves local demand; retention measures are more effective; training costs can be reduced through the creation of collective and sector-based programs; and co-planning regional-level economic and workforce development can maximize public expenditure.

That being said, the two have been like long-lost siblings. Cited reasons include differing funding and administrative streams, practitioners’ oppositional attitudes toward each other, and differing project timelines.

The best practices framework

Despite the traditional separation of workforce and regional economic development, academic case studies abound with best practices in workforce development that explicitly connect them. These case studies show that successful workforce development systems typically have the following characteristics:

  • Presence of labour market intermediaries: The presence of organizations that mediate between the supply and demand sides of the labour market are increasingly critical components of workforce development systems. Labour market intermediaries reduce transaction costs, disseminate information, and broker social networks, among other functions.
  • Employer Engagement: Stakeholder engagement, in the design of workforce development programs and policies, significantly improves system relevance. Engagement with employers and local sectors/clusters is often emphasized. Demand side involvement is vital for well-rounded workforce development.
  • Dual-Customer Approach: A regional workforce development system should have a dual-customer approach, providing service to employers and workers and facilitating the relationship between the two.
  • Sectoral Strategies: Workforce development improves outcomes when it targets economic sectors at the local level where labour demand is strong.

I used the characteristics above, along with others too numerous to list here, to build a framework for evaluating workforce development systems. The framework measures the presence or absence of the characteristics.

Case study: Workforce development in the Northwest Territories

I applied the framework to the existing workforce development system in the Northwest Territories and the results were mixed.

Despite thorough coordination and deep employer engagement, due in part to the centrality of the mining sector in the territorial economy, career pathways and skill obtainment processes are vague. Sectoral level strategies are employed, but the ability to deliver technical skills training for the mining sector is limited. Labour market intermediaries exist and perform a vital role in the workforce development system, but that role lacks employer and worker diversity, as it is centred on the mining sector alone.

Overall, the Northwest Territories is achieving some success. However, the territory needs to invest in underrepresented characteristics such as comprehensive skills training, improved data collection and accountability, and system flexibility.

Evaluating the framework

My paper’s goal to establish an applicable best practices framework tool also had mixed results. The best practice framework certainly paints a picture of the strengths and weaknesses of Northwest Territories’ workforce development system, but it does not provide a full account of the quality of the present and absent best practices characteristics. The workforce development best practices framework can guide an evaluation of a regional workforce development system, but evaluators should also delve deeper into the regional outcomes of the system to elaborate on each characteristic’s contribution to the region.

The benefits of aligning workforce and economic development on the regional scale are unmistakable, and efforts to more fully integrate the two are fully warranted. The framework is a useful start to measure whether existing workforce development systems follow proven, successful regional workforce development systems.

 

About the Author

Brian Weadick recently completed his Major Research Paper for the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development Program entitled: Workforce Development Characteristics in Comparison: Constructing a Regional Best Practices Framework, under the supervision of Dr. Tara Vinodrai. He formed the basis of the paper through his employment in the workforce and economic development field in the Northwest Territories. Currently based in Montréal, Québec, he is looking forward to his next adventure in community economic development.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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