My entire career has been about workforce development and the quest to develop demand-driven training programs. When I began this work in 1986, it was standard practice to convene a group of companies with similar interests, identify the key competencies needed for jobs in demand, and then create short-term accelerated training programs to address that specific need. Every year, we enrolled hundreds of dislocated workers into these types of short-term training programs and helped them get back to work in a broad range of occupations: corrections officers, machinists, heating and cooling, clerical, computer accounting, hospital ward clerks, and dental assistants, to name just a few.

But in the intervening years, much has changed and this model of engaging employers and workers is no longer so successful. What has changed? After a summer of engaging with the “demand side” of this equation, I have new insights. It’s no longer good enough to simply ask business and industry what they need. The dynamics of our “new normal” —the speed of change, driven by technology and increasing competition—have precipitated the need for a new model. Rather than just being demand driven, we must become integrated with the demand side of the employment equation.

The education and workforce development systems can no longer wait to be told what is needed by business and industry. They are constantly changing. They cannot slow down to bring us up to speed.  We must be in lock step with them…running along side, integrated into their ongoing existence….engaged in a more intimate relationship than ever before. This new “demand-integration model” will require a new set of tools, expertise and relationship with the employer community.

Addressing when and how we engage with business and industry is the first step.  When do we engage? Historically it has been when they are ready to tell us what they need or who they want to hire. Today, I propose that the time to engage is much earlier. One of the first relationships established when a company decides to locate or expand in our region should be with the workforce and training infrastructure. We should be one of the first resources present for entrepreneurs as they create their business plan, and move through the early stages of business development.

How do we do this? Through new tools and resources. One example is the Michigan New Jobs Training Program, which enables community colleges to provide training funds as an incentive to companies that are creating new jobs in Michigan. This new incentive tool engages the colleges with the companies before they hire – potentially, even before they even decide where they will locate. This early connection enables the colleges to help companies build job descriptions, identify job competencies, establish hiring procedures, and connect to the workforce development system. The Michigan New Jobs Training Program incentive is a catalyst changing the nature of the relationship between colleges and companies.

One of the first challenges identified in my summer of inquiry was not a new problem, but a familiar one that has taken on particular urgency: business and industry by and large are not aware of the resources that the training and workforce development sector has to offer, or how to access them. We must unite our efforts to spread the word about our system and make it clearly and easily accessible for employers on the entire spectrum – from entrepreneurs to major corporations.

A team of workforce development and college leaders has come together in recent days to propose the development of a new Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN) for Southeast Michigan. The goal of the WIN is to provide a comprehensive and cohesive system of workforce development that is easily accessible by business of all sizes.   Watch this space for more news about this exciting initiative in 2011.