Ten years ago, I resigned from my position as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I was working toward a PhD in English. For the previous eight years, I had been teaching college students how to craft thesis statements, analyze texts, and write poems. At first, my life as an academic had been exciting, challenging…not quite chock full of the “Oh Captain, My Captain” moments I’d dreamed of, but close.


While I was committed to completing my degree (and did in 2015), being in the classroom had lost its luster. I got tired of talking about comma splices and in-text citations. I resented grading the endless stacks of essays. Most of all, I dreaded watching my students struggle to keep up with their coursework while waiting tables at their family’s restaurant or working nights at a nearby factory.

Enter workforce development, an industry that allowed me to translate my academic skills into an expertise in career pathways, work-based learning, and industry-recognized credentials. From student loan afficionado to earn-and-learn advocate, my transition was speedy and complete.

As I celebrate 10 years in workforce development, I noticed another (perhaps more significant?) 10-year anniversary: the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) also made its debut in the summer of 2014. As the U.S. House and Senate wrestle toward an update of this historic legislation, let’s take a look at some of the changes and trends we’ve seen in the intervening years.

Demographic Shifts


One of the first times I sat down with a manufacturing executive to talk about workforce challenges, he said the same thing I’ve heard thousands of times since: “Kids these days don’t want to work.” I asked him when he first noticed this, and after a moment’s thought, he said it was probably the early 90s. Friends, that’s at least 30 years of “kids these days.” I think it’s time we admitted that the generation newest to the workforce is always going to face an adjustment period as they transition from full-time school to full-time work.

Yet, the demographic composition of the workforce has changed significantly. An aging population has resulted in a wave of retirements, prompting concerns about the loss of institutional knowledge and the need for effective succession planning. At the same time, many families are grappling with the cost-benefit realization that an expensive four-year degree may not deliver the payoff we hope for, while young adults find themselves in a job market that doesn’t care what they studied or how high their GPA is. Better, more accessible work-based learning can ease the transition from school to work, reduce the need for student loans, and create opportunities for intentional mentorship as we prepare for more of our experienced workers to retire.

Work-based learning alone won’t solve these problems, though. We need to think about how to effectively leverage technology and automation to address the shrinking working-age population.


Technology’s Impact

Whether we’re talking about robots, cobots or ChatGPT, automation is forcing businesses, educational institutions, and workforce development professionals to rethink job descriptions, tasks, tools, and processes. The imperative to reskill/upskill the current workforce comes with costly investments in not only curriculum but also equipment, downtime, and on-the-job training. At the same time, the proliferation of remote working tools, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has permanently altered where and how employees work. This doesn’t just impact training and upskilling—it has a huge effect on talent attraction, too. Job seekers expect flexibility, cutting-edge technology, and tools to make their work easier. Businesses that can’t offer these things will have to make up for it with ever-more competitive wages, additional paid time off, and a positive company culture, all of which may lead to lower profitability and durability as a business.


Federal Investments

There’s not enough space here to cover the plethora of workforce-related grants and initiatives coming from the White House, Department of Labor, Department of Defense, and Department of Commerce since 2014. Community Colleges across the country revamped their workforce development efforts to align with Industry Recognized Credentials because of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program, while everyone I know dipped their toes in the apprenticeship waters because of various grant initiatives to expand access to Registered Apprenticeship Programs beyond traditional, skilled trades. More recently, the CHIPS and Science Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act have fueled workforce development initiatives to make the US more competitive on a global stage. We’re going to keep seeing opportunities like these as the public workforce system attempts to keep up with the technology and demographic shifts noted above.

Industry Recognized Credentials

Many of the grants and initiatives of the last decade have placed an emphasis on Industry Recognized Credentials (IRC). At their best, IRCs create a common language between what skills and abilities employers are looking for and the curriculum that’s available through the workforce system (including K-12 and higher education providers). They give students and job seekers opportunities to learn and demonstrate skills without having to earn a degree or gain several years of work experience. Because a lot of funding has been tied to credentials, nearly every education provider in the country has adopted or aligned to credentials related to in-demand jobs in their area.

The problem is we haven’t seen the same level of investment and adoption on the employer side. In many industries, credentials are a nice-to-have—just one of several on-ramps to a job or career pathway. And in industries where this is the case, there’s not enough standardization or quality control to make it easy for businesses to assess a candidate’s proficiency (as an example, The Ohio Manufacturers’ Association’s Automation and Robotics Task Force identified more than 3,500 relevant credentials on the market in 2020).

We’re trending toward even less standardization as more training providers tie badges, microcredentials, and certificates to their offerings. The opportunity this creates for workforce professionals—especially those of us with a business services focus—is to help our clients and constituents understand what these credentials signify and how to evaluate their rigor. Approaching credentials with an eye toward competencies (the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to do a job) better aligns with skills-based hiring, which is likely to gain prominence in the public workforce system if “A Stronger Workforce for America Act” (H.R. 6655) passes (more on that in a minute).

The Intersection of Workforce and Economic Development

Workforce Development and Economic Development have always worked side-by-side, but in the last few years, we’ve seen an even greater integration of the two fields. Talent attraction and retention are not only the key drivers to organizational growth but also defining factors in businesses’ site selection process, so regions must have a well-aligned, high performing workforce ecosystem to stay competitive.

The Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Good Jobs Challenge is a great example of this. A branch of the Department of Commerce, the EDA hasn’t historically invested in workforce programs. But this American Rescue Plan-funded initiative charges regions to identify backbone organizations and develop sector partnerships to help prepare the labor force for good jobs—that is, high-wage jobs in growing industries. Inherent in this is the imperative to ensure outreach and recruitment activities are inclusive and equitable, and that employers provide the kind of positive company culture that embraces difference and creates a safe and accessible workplace for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; formerly incarcerated people; veterans; women; people with disabilities; and LGBTQ people to come to work every day.

By extension, this means addressing barriers to employment like access to childcare, housing, and transportation—key concerns for economic development professionals focused on planning and community development. Whether through sector partnerships or other collaborative/public-private partnerships, workforce and economic development professionals need to be using the same playbook.


Looking Toward the Next Ten Years

Back in April, the U.S. House passed “A Stronger Workforce for America Act” (H.R. 6655), which would replace the current WIOA legislation. It’s up to the Senate now, and a few key issues are still up for debate—how much funding should be allocated to training adults and dislocated workers, how much discretion governors should have over workforce funding (under WIOA, it’s 15%; the new bill proposes 25%), which employer-led initiatives should be funded. However these issues are resolved, it’s safe to say we’re going to see continued emphasis on work-based learning and apprenticeships, equity and inclusion across marginalized communities, and upskilling to meet the demands of technology and automation.

At TPMA, we help clients solve today’s talent shortage while preparing communities for the talent needs of tomorrow. Through in-depth engagement with businesses, educators, workers, and the people who provide services to them, we create data-informed, well-researched recommendations, programs, and solutions.

We would love to be a part of your workforce development solution. To learn more, feel free to schedule time with me here.

Author: Sara Tracey, Vice President of Workforce and Education, TPMA