Best Practices in Workforce Development
The Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council (SAWDC) was established in 2008. Over time, SAWDC has evolved to "develop strategic partnerships which attract, educate and train students and workers to better meet employer needs and foster economic growth in a global marketplace."1 This profile describes how SAWDC sets out to meet its mission and what the organization's leadership has learned along the way.
To understand SAWDC's work, local demographics must be considered. The council covers eight counties in southwest Alabama, designated Region 9 in the state's regional workforce development structure (see the maps). In 2012, the eight-county region was home to 741,341 residents, and population growth is projected to be around 3 percent by 2017.2 The unemployment rate as of February 2014 in the eight-county region was nearly 8.2 percent (see the table).3
SAWDC's efforts are focused around two major groups: local employers and workers. On the employer side, SAWDC focuses primarily on four industry clusters, which were determined based on the demand and growth prospects of regional industries. Those industries are aerospace, maritime (focusing on shipbuilding and repair), industrial construction and manufacturing, and health care.
In order to support the industry clusters successfully, SAWDC's efforts must also be concentrated on local workers. SAWDC works with education and social service organizations in the region to address persistent challenges identified within the adult workforce, including low educational attainment, substance abuse, and a need for training in "soft" skills, such as timeliness, job attire, and interpersonal communications.
About the council
SAWDC is one of Alabama's 10 regional workforce development councils, which were established by the Governor's Office of Workforce Development. The councils are focused on developing partnerships and programs to address the workforce needs of local industry. They are charged with developing and implementing a strategic workforce plan for their respective regions.
The Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council is one of 10 such councils in the state. It targets the workforce needs of local employers, offering training programs to workers for positions in four industries.
The work of the councils feeds into the state agency-led work, where two entities are responsible for melding the efforts of the 10 councils into a statewide strategy. The State Workforce Planning Council is composed of leaders within industry, education, and state agencies, and it establishes priorities and direction for the state's workforce development system. The Governor's Office of Workforce Development oversees workforce programs and resource allocation as established by the state council.
To ensure the regional workforce planning is comprehensive and considers the various workforce needs in the counties represented, the council has broad and deep representation, both geographically and across professional sectors with workforce interest. The council is comprised of 45 leaders of industry, government, education, economic development, and philanthropy; 13 of those members make up an executive council.
SAWDC is also one of 32 U.S. communities designated by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions (the National Fund) as a regional funding collaborative. The collaboratives are designed to be a local industry-driven approach to providing training and education to job seekers, and the communities selected receive support from the National Fund. By focusing on the four industry clusters that are critical to the local economy, Executive Director Laura Chandler says that it has allowed SAWDC and the local workforce development entities to build strong partnerships with industry and work with its leaders to identify needs related to workers.
But if SAWDC's efforts ended there, they would not be as successful as they have been to date. Instead, SAWDC has also worked to develop new skill-building and job etiquette programs or enhance and elevate existing ones. These programs help improve and increase the pool of qualified local workers. For example, the Worlds of Opportunity program is a career expo for eighth-grade students in southwest Alabama. The event uses interactive activities to expose students to careers available locally. The 2013 event featured 12 different industries for an audience of 10,600 students from 78 schools.
Outcomes and lessons learned
SAWDC emphasizes the importance of measuring the impact of its work to assess program design and direction and recalibrate as needed. The council's work produces a number of metrics that can be assessed, so the decision about exactly what the council measures is considered as important as the results of those measurements. Both the employer and client metrics are regularly evaluated to ensure the right data points are being captured and the programs are adequately serving both groups. Employers are asked to complete a year-end survey to identify the projected number of skilled workers needed in the upcoming year as well as challenges related to the existing workforce. In 2013, a key finding from this survey was that employers face recruitment challenges.4 For its clients, SAWDC tracks information for job seekers as well as incumbent workers served. In 2013, the council served 658 job seekers; of those, 432 gained employment.5 For incumbent workers, a critical metric is wage increase. In 2013, SAWDC served 145 incumbent employees; 129 reported wage increases.6
SAWDC provides a strong model for regional collaboration and industry outreach. Though it is a local initiative, the SAWDC example highlights lessons on strategic planning and how to facilitate collaboration across sectors that have national applicability and relevance for stakeholders of the Federal Reserve System's community and economic development efforts.
Establish clear and different plans for the concept and implementation phases, given that each requires a unique approach and funding streams. As part of that mind-set, Chandler emphasized the importance of selecting organizational leadership and staff with the appropriate skill sets for both phases. While there are differences in the action plan and expected outcomes for the concept and implementation phases, Chandler noted that there may be central tenets woven through both phases. SAWDC decided to focus on a small subgroup of industry clusters to avoid overstretching resources.
Plan for policy change as a long-term goal. An ambitious policy agenda that seeks to align state and federal resources will take time, so SAWDC has developed an action plan that includes short-, medium-, and long-term goals. That ensures employer needs are the driving force for decision making within other aspects of the local workforce development ecosystem, such as education and public policy.
Focus on building deep partnerships across industry clusters, a core component of SAWDC's approach. As Chandler says, "Relationships are of utmost importance and are the key to our success." These relationships drive SAWDC's ability to structure a council with broad representation across the region and industry sectors, which in turn brings a diversity of perspectives in considering the needs of employers and workers in southwest Alabama.
Recognize that each worker has a unique situation and needs that must be addressed, and in turn, work with local leaders in the education and social services sectors to develop programs that respond to an individual's barriers to employment.
By Emily Mitchell, Atlanta Fed regional community development manager, Nashville Branch
4 Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council presentation, Chandler, Laura.
Additional Federal Reserve Resources
Aligning Regional Workforce Efforts: An Effective Industry-Informed Strategy, Economic Development podcast series, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, July 2013.
Federal Reserve Human Capital Compendium, Center for Human Capital Studies, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, March 2014.
The Future of Workforce Development conference proceedings, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, September 19-20, 2012.
Power in Partnerships: Addressing Workforce Development Challenges, Economic Development podcast series, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, June 2012.
Workforce Development and the Community Reinvestment Act: Strengthening Awareness and Use towards Common Goals, Connecting Communities session, Federal Reserve System, November 12, 2013.