Workforce development: Build it and they will come

Companies must rethink their workforce strategy to include borth short- & long-range objectives

John Vanderkin

In my professional life I enjoy the opportunity to meet with business leaders from numerous industries. Regardless of the size of the company, the conversation inevitably comes around to the struggle of finding the right employees. Many manufacturers and wholesale companies are struggling to find medium- to high-skilled employees as well as entry-level employees who have good communication skills and a committed work ethic. In addition, local and national labor data shows that many of the non-high tech industries are worried about an aging workforce which will compound labor challenges. Our organization receives calls every week from companies wanting help finding the employees that they used to be able to attract and retain with minimal effort.

To combat this significant challenge, companies must rethink their education and workforce strategy to include long-range as well as the typical short-range objectives.

For starters, your strategy must include educational tools to train and assess your workers, rather than wait for the education system to do it for you. We have a tremendous educational system in Southwest Washington, but our schools will struggle to keep pace with industry needs and to cater their learning to your company’s specific requirements. It’s time for you to implement some blend of internships, apprenticeships and on-the-job training. There is an investment in this approach, but coupled with the other strategies outlined below, it will pay off as a good long-term investment.

If you are not in the “high tech” industry, you probably have a challenge attracting young, up and coming, workers. This is a problem that needs to be attacked with a good marketing program. Become engaged in our education system and youth programs by sponsoring industry experience events, providing internships for youth and young adults, and externships for teachers so attendees can learn about your industry and become attracted to your specific organization. Bottom line, get in front of the youth and help them understand that going to college for a degree is not the only way to obtain a career that they can get excited about. Get them interested in an apprentice program and allow them to bring college-level schooling into their life as their career dictates, rather than the other way around. One local opportunity is the Business After School event during Manufacturing Week, October 5-7; search online to find this and other opportunities.

Implement a plan to pursue a more diverse workforce. If your industry struggles to attract female job seekers, take the time to develop a recruiting plan that will show them the benefits of a career with your organization. What about other demographics? If your company does not have a color pallet, does not cherish the value of a good antique, frowns on diverse lifestyles and ideas, and sees someone’s disability rather than ability, your workforce challenges may not be the biggest obstacle holding you back. There are job seekers in every one of these sectors that have great skills sets, strong commitment and a desire to find the right company to call home; will you make an investment in them?

Building and sustaining a strong workforce is not easy. It will not happen on its own and it will not happen without the investment of time, resources and mindshare. There are numerous resources in our community that can help a company that is genuinely interested in making this strategic long-term investment. Start seeking them out today, your business will be better for it.

John Vanderkin is the president of Vancouver-based Employers Overload. He also serves as board chair of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council. He can be reached at