How to use workforce development to close the skills gap

September 14, 2021 - 18 min read

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What is workforce development?

Why is workforce development crucial for today's workplace?

The benefits of having a workforce development program

Job training vs. workforce development

3 types of workforce development programs

Workforce development versus the skills gap

Whether your employees work on a manufacturing floor, at the behest of medical patients, in their home offices, or behind the counter of a coffee shop, incorporating workforce development programs can benefit your business.

Workforce development is a win-win: it supports the career development, productivity, and success of employees, and it helps organizations sustainably scale, profit, and prosper. 

But workforce development can be a vague concept. What does it mean, why is it important, and what does it look like in practice? 

Moreover, what kinds of programs can employers explore that benefit their teams without detracting from day-to-day tasks or, more importantly, layering on responsibilities?

We unpack all of this and more in this guide. Keep reading to learn more about workforce development and what it means for your organization.

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What is workforce development?

Workforce development is a people-first approach to upskilling workers for long-term success. The aim of workforce development is to foster prosperity for individuals, communities, and businesses.

In practice, workforce development means offering your employees training, development opportunities, and continuing education programs to maximize their job success and career pathway

The definition of workforce development can differ based on your perspective. At the macro level, it also refers to employment initiatives provided by government agencies to support national economic growth. 

Companies can support these initiatives by participating in programs and opening roles to include those with underdeveloped skills or nontraditional education. We’ll dive deeper into this below.

Why is workforce development crucial for today's workplace?

When organizations overlook the people building their business, they risk losing talent that can grow and mold with the company. Workforce development prioritizes human development and boosts morale, retention, and productivity. 

Organizations that enact workforce development programs view employees as assets, not just head count to perform a specific task or purpose. Offering a variety of training opportunities widens the scope of an individual’s contribution to an organization, even if their original job function dissolves or is no longer needed.

Recent years have seen a rapid rise in technology at work. Machines and automation have shaken up historically concrete roles and resulted in high turnover rates and a shift in necessary job skill sets.

Workforce development keeps your personnel prepared for the future, equipped to handle further technological changes or skill demands. It also expands the value they provide to your organization, encouraging multi-faceted roles that are less likely to phase out with new technology.

The benefits of having a workforce development program

There are a number of benefits of workforce development, for both you and your employees.

1. Job satisfaction

When employees feel a sense of belonging, ownership, and purpose, they’re likely to feel happier, work harder, and stay longer. 

Workforce development encourages employees to feel like assets to the business and bottom line, encouraging feelings of job security and satisfaction.

2. Lower turnover

Investing in your employees is investing in fundamental business needs. Founders and leaders who hire to grow tend to find more success than those who hire to simply outsource or check a box. 

Employees who feel neglected or taken for granted will probably look elsewhere. Although navigating the job market is always a tough task, skilled workers will do so to find a job that suits — and appreciates — them.

3. Better morale

Wise employers realize that work is just one part of their employees’ lives — and that’s OK.

By positively developing your workforce, you provide more value to your employees than a paycheck. You create room for creative, innovative thinking and provide the confidence needed to try new things and test new theories. Only then can your company grow and stand out among competitors.

4. Increased productivity

Unnecessary stress from work can significantly impact your employees’ focus and productivity, straining how much your team can get done and how much it impacts your bottom line. 

Workforce development helps your team work smarter without working harder — and eventually burning out.

5. A skilled workforce

Workforce development programs keep training and education at the forefront of your organization. By investing in training (and retraining), your company benefits from a highly skilled team, and your employees can feel confident in their job performance and career trajectory.

6. In-demand workplace

Workers, particularly Millennials, prioritize development opportunities when looking for a job. A 2016 Gallup survey found that “87% of millennials rate professional or career growth and development opportunities as important to them in a job—far more than the 69% of non-millennials who say the same.”

By offering workforce development programs at your business, you attract talented and motivated people who want to grow within your company—and help grow it in return.

Job training vs. workforce development

While workforce development can include job and skill training, the two are not synonymous. 

Job training refers to building up skills and competencies as they pertain to each employee’s day-to-day job function. An example of this is training new employees on the product or service your company sells. Job training is typically required and delivered within the first few weeks of employment, as well as routinely throughout the course of the job.

For businesses, workforce development includes more than training for a specific job function. 

For instance, job training teaches what employees need to know now, whereas workforce development teaches what employees need to know now and in the future—as well as if and when the company may change course. 

Workforce development includes:

  • Diversity, inclusion, and belonging training
  • Conflict resolution training
  • Team-building exercises
  • Culture training
  • Leadership and management training

While these skills may not directly contribute to your team’s job performance, they do help your team collaborate better, manage their day-to-day tasks, and work more effectively — thus developing your workforce as a whole.

Job training is about competency; workforce development is about elasticity.

3 types of workforce development programs

Another difference between job training and workforce development is longevity. 

Whereas job training may happen a set number of times throughout the course of a job, workforce development is ongoing education and upskilling. The type of workforce development programs you provide may also change over time as certain competencies or company initiatives become more important.

Here are three examples of workforce development programs. Note that this list is far from comprehensive.

1. Conflict resolution

Conflict in the workplace is not uncommon, nor is it always a negative thing. Conflict may indicate that your team is standing up for their beliefs and sharing unique opinions. However, mismanaged and unresolved conflict can lead to cracks in the foundation of your team, leading to lowered morale and uninspired work.

Conflict resolution training empowers your team members to deal with conflict in a way that strengthens the bonds between your employees as well as the fibers of your company. It also helps your employees become better communicators and collaborators.

2. Leadership and management training

Rarely do employees receive dedicated leadership training outside of the workplace or specific higher education programs, yet all workers—even those who aren’t managers—can greatly benefit. Being a leader is hard, whether you’re in charge of an entire company, the day shift, or a short-term team project.

Leadership and management training educates workers on how to be inclusive leaders, how to communicate with empathy, and how to provide constructive feedback. By providing this training to your entire workforce, you upskill your future leaders and managers, building a strong foundation for your future company.

3. Diversity and inclusion training

Every organization should provide diversity and inclusion (D&I) training, regardless of industry, size, or location. 

D&I training leads to an open and safe workplace environment. This empowers each and every employee to do their best work and share perspectives and ideas. In turn, your team can enjoy a more productive, creative workplace, helping your organization highlight its competitive advantages and distinctive value.

Workforce development versus the skills gap

As we defined above, workforce development at the macro level refers to governmental programs that develop the national workforce and support job seekers

A lack of workforce development not only impacts widespread economic development but also the growth of individual organizations. According to McKinsey, almost 40% of US employers struggle to find people with the necessary skills, even for entry-level job opportunities

This “skills gap” represents a massive pool of untapped talent in the labor market and has dire consequences on economic growth, skilled employees, healthcare and mental health, community development, and more.

Why does this skills gap exist? Well, many students lack the guidance needed to finish high school, much less transition into a community college or apprenticeship program needed for a viable career. Other times, employees lose jobs due to advancing technology or are phased out of the workforce, leading to a gap between what they know and what they need to know to adapt.

Workforce development at the national level is a priority for state and local governments as they develop training programs and higher education opportunities with funding and policy. But private and public employers and organizations can help, too.

First, take a look at your entry-level roles and consider expanding them to include some skills training. This widens the candidate pool to include those who may not have collegiate and/or hands-on experience in the role and ensures those who join your organization receive education and training immediately.

Secondly, consider offering internship or apprenticeship opportunities in your company. Track metrics throughout the lifespan of the role that show ROI for both you and your employees. 

According to McKinsey, “Hard evidence of return on investment (ROI) for workforce-development programs is scarce … That lack of proof is why many employers are reluctant to participate in workforce programs, much less pay for them.” 

What metrics should you track? Look at:

  • The cost of recruitment and training services
  • Outcomes of the program (like completed projects, revenue or traffic growth, etc.)
  • The income of your employees before and after completing the program
  • Employee retention and how many continue on to work at your company or another
  • Speed to promotion

Lastly, review your job descriptions for diverse and inclusive language. Don’t use jargon or industry terms that may confuse candidates, especially those new to your industry. Avoid unnecessary job requirements, like a minimum length of experience or specific degree (unless directly relevant to the job function). You can always dig deeper into a candidate’s relevant experience in the screening process.

Just as organizations invest in internal workforce development strategies, so too can they participate in nationwide programs. To learn more, read about the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

Over to you

Workforce development leads to prosperous employees, businesses, and local communities. By training and upskilling our workforce, companies can enjoy happier staff, lower turnover, and exciting growth opportunities — not to mention support growth for the economy as a whole. 

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Published September 14, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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