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Book Review
May 2023

Sector-based workforce development and the U.S. labor market

Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies. Edited by Maureen Conway and Robert P. Giloth. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute, 2014, 476 pp., download.

This book, edited by Maureen Conway and Robert P. Giloth, is an updated edition of Giloth’s Workforce Intermediaries for the Twenty-first Century, published in 2004. This updated edition provides a broader perspective on sector-based workforce development by reflecting on the field’s progression over several decades. It highlights the significant work done in the field between 2003 and 2013 and charts the field’s future direction. By identifying the challenges and opportunities facing sector-based workforce development, Conway and Giloth hope to open a conversation with workforce practitioners, policymakers, investors, and researchers. Consistent with this goal, each chapter of the book provides insights from a different scholar or practitioner.

According to the authors, sector-based workforce development aims to organize the training of workers in the context of an industry sector. The concept rests on the idea that if workforce policies and programs focus on groups of firms with similar products, processes, occupations, and locations, they will be more effective in addressing common business and employment needs. The authors highlight that the definition of sector-based workforce development is not uniform, noting that the breadth of the term “sector” can lead to definitional challenges (for example, the term can refer to manufacturing businesses broadly or to screw-machine businesses specifically).

The book identifies sector strategies and workforce intermediaries as two key components of sector-based workforce development. As explained by the authors, sector strategies acknowledge the dynamic nature of regional economies and labor markets and seek to shape change within that context, using various criteria to target an industry or a set of occupations. Sector strategies reflect two prominent schools of thought: one promoting access to “good” jobs and another advocating for making “bad” jobs better. In addition, successful sector strategies take into account the perspectives of both workers and employers, an approach that can create “systems change.” Systems change calls workforce intermediaries into action, with those intermediaries serving as critical partners in aligning the needs of workers and employers. Although workforce intermediaries are not expected to perform every specific task involved in a strategy, the partnerships forged by them aim to build credibility with a range of stakeholders. In discussing these approaches to workforce development, the authors zero in on the needs of poor and economically disadvantaged Americans.

Reflecting on the field’s progress over the past several decades, Conway and Giloth refer to that progress as an “uphill advocacy campaign” supported by worker training and efforts to advance institutional capacity and leadership development. The authors believe six factors led to the campaign’s piecemeal adoption over the years. First, the public and private sectors shifted away from skills training in the 1980s and 1990s, responding to various changes in the U.S. labor market. Second, and during the same time, employers reported growing gaps in “hard” and “soft” skills across the labor force. Third, the decline in unionization, the fragmentation of the labor market, and the increased use of third-party organizations in workforce development created business-information gaps. Fourth, racial and gender-based discrimination resulted in the continued isolation of vulnerable groups. Fifth, a lack of adequate evidence led to skepticism about sector-based workforce programs. Lastly, to the extent that these programs existed, they thrived off creativity but lacked coherent structure.

Over time, the recognition of these challenges led to the emergence of sector-based strategies that focused on issues of economic equity, with research published by Public/Private Ventures in 2008 showing that these strategies could achieve strong employment and earnings effects. Many groups and organizations charged forward in 2003–13. The authors put a spotlight on the National Fund for Workforce Solutions (NFWS), which shunned a system that placed workers in entry-level, often dead-end jobs with limited advancement opportunities based on seniority. The organization adopted a model that emphasized career advancement and helped employers expand their access to potential employees who could contribute to an increasingly skill-intensive workplace. In the first 5 years of its existence, the NFWS built a strong network across more than 30 cities, directing the investment of millions of dollars into the training and advancement of tens of thousands of low-wage workers through more than 100 workforce partnerships.

The authors also present five case studies from the healthcare, construction, manufacturing, and restaurant industries, clearly demonstrating the impact an organization can have on both sides of the labor market. The case study that was particularly useful in shaping my understanding of accomplishments in the field of sector-based workforce development involves the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, a national restaurant-sector partnership that helps low-wage workers secure livable wages. At the time of the book’s publication, ROC United had trained and helped more than 5,000 low-wage workers to advance to livable-wage jobs in the restaurant industry, promoted the organization’s 100 employer partners to conscientious consumers, and published about 20 reports based on more than 5,000 surveys of restaurant workers nationwide.

In addition, the authors discuss capacity building, innovations to community colleges, and the use of apprenticeships in construction. This discussion provides valuable insights into how to create an integrated workforce system that many experts and policymakers have long sought; how to bridge “silos” in education, training, and human-services delivery systems in a way that could better serve the needs of a diverse student body; and how to create a demand-driven model that could overcome the challenges of gauging industry demand and its implications for preemployment training programs. While significant, this discussion only touches the surface of the accomplishments covered in the volume.

In addressing the path forward for sector-based workforce development, the authors acknowledge the strength of the field’s current ecological system and infrastructure, outlining both challenges and positive trends associated with the next generation of sector-based workforce programs. The authors also argue that the field is at an inflection point, noting that if it were to meet the challenges of the coming decades, it would require coordinated reflection, agenda setting, and investment. More specifically, the authors offer five suggestions for next steps: engage key stakeholders in dialogue, conduct the next generation of research, highlight synergies among career pathways, build allies outside the sector field, and focus on improving the conditions of workers in low-wage jobs. Conway and Giloth close with the following cautionary message to readers: “At this economic moment, with rising inequality and tepid economic growth, with businesses looking for skilled workers and many workers unable to find family-supporting careers, with ever-growing economic division and divided politics, the vision of sector work—a vision that brings mutual success for business and workers, that support families and rebuild communities—could not be more important.”

Despite being advocates for sector-based workforce development, the authors do an exceptional job of providing a well-rounded perspective of the field, not hesitating to speak candidly about its shortcomings and future challenges. In my view, the key takeaway from the book is that despite the many challenges facing the labor market, commitment to sector strategies can yield significant results. As demonstrated by the successes of the NFWS and ROC United, the dedication and tenacity of one organization can affect thousands of lives. Lastly, although the book intends to engage workforce practitioners, policymakers, investors, and researchers in conversation, it would appeal to any person interested in the U.S. labor market.

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About the Reviewer

Kennedy Keller

Kennedy Keller is an economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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