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Rebranding Workforce Development for the Future of Work and Learning


Co-authored by Julian L. Alssid and Kaitlin LeMoine 



In the summer of 2023, we began a listening tour to discuss the most pressing needs and challenges faced by leaders in the fields of higher education, workforce development, and education technology. From those conversations emerged our Work Forces podcast, which is designed to disseminate the innovative efforts of leaders who are shaping the future of work and learning. Well into our second season, we are struck by the emerging themes and patterns that cut across our podcast interviews. A particularly prominent theme that stemmed from our conversations with Marlena Sessions and MJ Ryan (among others) is that workforce development has a branding problem. This article dives deeper into this challenge, its roots, and offers a future-facing path forward.


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For too long, the field of workforce development has been viewed as a lesser path – a means of providing basic job training to the unemployed and underemployed rather than a catalyst for lifelong career advancement. This perception is rooted in the origins of workforce development programs dating back to the New Deal era, when initiatives like the Civilian Conservation Corps focused on alleviating unemployment during the Great Depression. While well-intentioned, this narrow origin story has created a branding problem that persists to this day, undervaluing the transformative potential of workforce development and its alignment with education, career development, and ultimately, talent development more broadly.


The disconnect between workforce development and career growth remains across the education and training landscape. Career and technical education (CTE) programs and traditional academic institutions continue to operate with different curricular requirements, credentialing structures, and accrediting bodies and use different language to describe similar educational outcomes. In higher education, four-year universities have historically viewed their mission as developing students’ civic mindedness and self formation, treating workforce preparation as an afterthought. Even the nation’s 932 community colleges, arguably best positioned to integrate education and career pathways, often silo their workforce offerings.


However, the economic landscape is changing rapidly, making it critical that workforce development be reimagined as an integral aspect of career development and growth. The Pandemic accelerated the retirement of Baby Boomers, resulting in fewer new workers per retiree, and has created an urgent need to build robust pipelines for developing and upskilling talent across industries. Employers are hungry for solutions to close skills gaps and stay competitive and higher education institutions are seeking to keep pace with changing employer needs and economic conditions


The path forward requires a paradigm shift where talent development becomes the focus, and workforce development, corporate learning, and secondary and post-secondary education become complementary components of a holistic talent development system for lifelong learning and career mobility. We must move beyond just teaching skills for entry-level jobs, instead embracing a comprehensive approach to talent development that accounts for the full scope of an individual's interests, aspirations, and support needs. One example of movement in this direction is the State Opportunity Index, which was recently released by the Strada Education Foundation and is designed to help states build equitable pathways after high school, including degrees, certificates, and other credentials as part of pathway development. 


What steps can education, workforce, and policy leaders take to drive this paradigm shift to a talent development system that transcends outdated boundaries? At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex endeavor, below are actionable steps that will move us in the right direction:


  1. Develop a unified skills taxonomy that cuts across education and industry, allowing us to clearly define and validate the competencies gained through diverse experiences – be it in the classroom, workplace, or lived experience. There are a host of organizations vying to create the skills taxonomy that will serve as the industry standard, including Lightcast, the World Economic Forum, and U.S. Department of Labor (through O*NET) among others, but we need to arrive at a commonly accepted language that spans education and industry.

  2. Communicate the full range of options and opportunities available for entering and advancing in the job market and earning a family-sustaining wage (e.g., apprenticeship, certification, two-year degree, four-year degree, etc.) early on in a learner’s educational journey.

  3. Break down the silos that currently exist across colleges, universities, K-12 schools, workforce development entities, and businesses to facilitate more seamless coordination. As part of this effort, technical education and traditional academic programs can examine how to align and meaningfully link their current systems and educational offerings.

  4. Collaboratively craft dynamic programs that provide multiple on-ramps for career advancement while offering transparent pathways for continuous skill-stacking and credentialing.

  5. Build the core capabilities to support coordinated, cross-functional efforts across educational providers and employers. One promising approach in the apprenticeship space discussed by Ryan Craig in his book, Apprenticeship Nation, is the development of high-impact intermediary organizations that can relieve some of the pressure on individual organizations and help to make cross-sector connections. 


By positioning talent development as the core purpose – transcending artificial divides between higher education, workforce development, training, and career growth – we can unlock learner potential at scale and cultivate a vibrant economy. This is the time to reimagine and rebrand workforce development as the key to an equitable future of work and take collective action to transcend historical boundaries and broaden talent development opportunities for all learners.


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