Innovating Workforce Development

When Apple’s “Think Different” campaign launched in 1997, the company had no new product to announce, no promotions to offer, only hemorrhaging sales. It featured images of time-honored visionaries like Einstein, Edison and Ghandi, referred to as the “The crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels.” They were the ones to shirk the status quo and move the human race forward. The folks crazy enough to think they could change the world … and did.

The subtext here is that innovation is risky, radical, and also essential. Without it we’d have no lights to turn on, cars to drive, antidotes that cure. Advanced manufacturing industries know this all too well, whose sole raison d’etre is to propel the human race forward, innovating not just how we do things, but how we can do them better.

Which is why it’s profoundly counterintuitive how, year after year, our industry innovators haven’t been able to successfully extend that same production and manufacturing approach to their workforce development practices in order to fill their talent pipeline. American manufacturing is still reported to suffer from 2.4 million jobs unfilled through 2028, causing a potential economic loss of $2.5 trillion, despite the fact they have innovated their operations to include AI and robotics, state-of-the-art systems to maximize the safety and wellbeing of their workforce, and the average yearly salary is $76,258.

Is this next generation simply a lost cause? No. Traditional workforce development tactics are. 

Traditional workforce development methods graphic

(Sources: Job fairs: 600 attendees, pre-pandemic; Website: Conversion under 3%.)


Digital Transformation

While it’s been said before, it’s worth repeating. We don’t have a people problem when it comes to filling our talent pipeline, we have an awareness problem. Therefore, scaling our outreach efforts requires the same kind of digital transformation manufacturers have already operationalized, having proven that converting manual and analog processes into digitized processes creates better outcomes by connecting people, places, and things.

But thinking differently is hard. It’s rebellious. It’s risky. It’s also, according to Steve Jobs, “the only way to win.”

A digitally transformed approach to workforce development = high impact. Look for ways to use the very innovation created under Steve Jobs – the smartphone. It’s where your future workforce is at all times and engages through multiple channels more than 7+ hours a day.

This digital tool provides:

  • Deeper, quantifiable analytics
  • Increased scale
  • A faster, more efficient process 
  • Reduced costs
  • A preferred engagement universe for Gen Z
  • An opportunity to un-silo efforts between industry, educators and government through connectivity

That last one is worth a pause. Henry Ford, arguably auto manufacturing’s most enduring visionary in American history famously asserted, “if everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” In an ‘every-man-for-himself’ era, this approach was considered innovative for its time; a precursor to the team culture mindset of today. And precisely why workforce development shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of economic developers, government, educators, or industry. That crevasse of a skills gap that needs to close in the next five years? That’s on all of our heads, which, when working together and sharing data and resources, will move us all forward. States and regions will be more competitive in business recruitment when they can fill industries’ pipeline; Departments of Education can prepare more kids for meaningful futures in their own backyard; and industry can continue to change the world on American soil. This kind of collaboration in workforce development is a win-win-win.


Nothing changes if nothing changes

“Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation.”  – Dean Kamen (Inventor of the Segway and iBOT)

So while innovation may seem risky and radical, history has already shown us that it’s also essential. Author Geoffrey A. Moore coins the perilous dynamic of this a chasm – the space between innovative visionaries and the more mainstream pragmatists, who, typically (and ironically), helm workforce development initiatives for the most innovative industries in the world. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the power of the pivot that makes or breaks a business, no matter what business you’re in.

So what would Steve Jobs do to attract a new generation of manufacturing talent to save us from off-shoring doom? After selling out of a $500+ never-seen-before mobile phone/computer in January of 2007 with zero inventory, he would innovate. 

And he would win.

Share any feedback below or ways in which you are innovating workforce development.