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The Future of Work: Encouraging Employers to Train Workers

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr)

Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr)

Workforce training is essential for future job growth in America. And employers must play a larger role.

Nichola J. Lowe conducts research on economic and workforce development and is associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.


In support of that, vocational educators, including many community colleges, have modified courses and increased industry representation on their boards. The federal government provides resources for state agencies to better serve industry needs for skilled workers.

But what about businesses themselves?

Employers increasingly face a “make or buy’’ calculation when it comes to skill. With increased training opportunities outside the firm, the balance tips in favor of buying (and also evaluating) skill on the open marketplace. This fits well with our current economic narrative, where lifetime employment with a single firm is viewed as a relic and more workers need portable credentials.

But by failing to train workers themselves, firms lose sight of the productive value of their existing and newly hired workforce. Firms also undermine advancement opportunities for less educated workers. This can polarize the workplace, with entry into higher level jobs restricted to individuals who have secured outside, often costly academic credentials. Furthermore, when employers invest so little in worker training, they are less inclined to try to retain that workforce. This can result in a vicious cycle, whereby jobs become less meaningful for workers and there is less incentive for them to stay engaged or stay put.

It is unlikely the pendulum will return fully to an older era in which grow-your-own talent was the norm. Many firms in the United States today—particularly those that are small and medium-sized—face considerable financial constraints that make it harder to build and sustain workforce development. More frequent changes in technology add further complication. As does a growing desire for formal education by more workers (and especially parents of the Millennial generation).

So a louder call for employers to train their workers is not enough. What is needed is a kind of training support that places firms at its center, but relies, too, on outside help.

A few examples from U.S. manufacturing suggest a way forward. The Jane Addams Resource Corporation in Chicago draws on 30 years of experience as a non-profit training provider to help manufacturers create in-house apprenticeships. It launched this effort in 2012 with a small firm that struggled to recruit enough skilled machinists to run updated computer-controlled equipment. Jane Addams helped this firm and six others realize the benefits of apprenticeship. It places its own trainers at the worksite. They make use of company time and equipment and prepare more experienced workers to mentor others. They instill a “culture of learning” across the entire organization—such that workers seek out additional education and training opportunities, which supervisors equally encourage and support. Jane Addams has persuaded two manufacturers to certify their apprentices through the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, thus giving workers an industry-recognized credential. While some companies might fear this would encourage them to leave, in this case it is further proof these companies value their workers and thus increases employee loyalty.

Community colleges are also helping manufacturers create apprenticeship programs—in some cases, through multi-firm cooperatives. The Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, has rolled out a new initiative modeled on its 20-year involvement with Apprenticeship 2000, a public-private training consortium started by two foreign-owned manufacturers based on training systems common to Europe. Central Piedmont is now expanding the model to support other firms, including American-owned manufacturers. The college helps firms recruit from a wide applicant pool, including military veterans and current college and high school students. Apprenticeship coordinators and counselors help coordinate schedules, ensuring apprentices efficiently use their time at the college so they can spend the bulk of their workweek at the company, earning wages as they learn.

A community college in Pickens, South Carolina, has taken this one step further—working with the county school district to create a STEM curriculum that feeds Apprenticeship Carolina, and begins in kindergarten. The goal is to give firms confidence they will have access to a student body that will thrive in an innovative manufacturing environment.

In biomanufacturing, a network of community colleges in North Carolina have played a slightly different role. They work with manufacturers to strengthen company training systems, somewhat paradoxically by externalizing more standard training protocols. Colleges do this by working with multiple firms to identify shared skill requirements—initially partnering with larger firms to prototype and test training materials. This results in mix-and-match training modules—along with portable training credentials—that the colleges make available to the general public and also to workers at multiple companies, both large and small. Colleges also offer customized versions that incorporate firm-specific knowledge at companies that increase employment or add equipment.

As these examples illustrate, workforce solutions should not simply serve businesses with the skills they claim to need but rather help employers re-build training capacity from within.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.