Ventriss: Employers Leading the Way to Close the Skills Gap

by Lisa Ventriss, President
Exclusive for Vermont Business Magazine

While disappointing, the recent announcement that Revision Military had decided to move its official US headquarters to Portsmouth, New Hampshire was not shocking. As a worldwide leader in the manufacture of protective military and law enforcement gear, Revision’s demand for its products means it needs access to a larger talent pool. So proximity to Boston and Pease AFB’s cluster of military tech businesses made great business sense. And there are other examples of companies that have found they cannot expand in Vermont for lack of human capital, and are considering expanding into other regional markets.

This perspective is verified on a quarterly basis with the VBR/EPR Business Conditions Survey, in which “ease of hiring” is viewed negatively by over 70 percent of respondents in the latest survey, and which is the biggest contributor to a sustained “neutral outlook” on the state’s overall business climate over the last several years.

The cold fact is that Vermont is home to 30,000 fewer 25-45 year olds than two decades ago, which places us as the second oldest state in the nation. These are the people who work, marry, have children in schools, own homes, volunteer in our communities, and pay taxes. Our shrinking tax base forecasts very worrisome challenges for state government into the future. So all of these data combined compel Vermont to become even more aggressive in its efforts to accelerate the state’s future talent pipeline to avoid other disappointing relocations.

One such important example is the Vermont Talent Pipeline Management (VTPM) project, hosted by the Vermont Business Roundtable and supported by Agency of Commerce and Community Development and regional partners in Bennington, Caledonia, Chittenden, Franklin/Grand Isle, Rutland, and Windham counties. Beginning in 2017, VTPM took the lead by rolling out a unique, statewide, employer-led, data-driven model, created by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, for filling the most critical jobs in the state’s workforce. To date, three industry collaboratives have been organized in construction, health care, and most recently, advanced manufacturing, to address the skills gap within priority industries. Future industry collaboratives are planned for Information Technology and Tourism.

While informed by data from the Vermont Department of Labor and Vermont Futures Council, in this particular collective impact strategy, the employer’s voice establishes both the quantifiable short- and long-term forecasts, as well as the qualitative requisite education, competencies, soft skills, and credential requirements for a successful hire. And it is this demand-side information – on behalf of an entire industry – that is aggregated and shared with regional education and training providers to determine alignment of training programs with employer needs. Thus far, we have been delighted with the positive responses from both regional and statewide secondary, post-secondary, and state- and community-based training providers.

In the case of the Construction Collaborative, which began in April 2017, 17 employers have engaged in a demand planning process to define their short- and long-term needs across six critical jobs, and determined the specific qualifications of a successful applicant for those positions. Educators from each of the state’s youth and adult career and technical education (CTE) centers, Vermont Technical College, and Norwich University have all committed to train students in these six positions according to a specific construction industry credential, which carries college credits, and employers have guaranteed that graduates will receive an interview and, if hired, a bonus wage. It’s a win for employers, educators, and students alike.

To date, the three industry collaboratives have directly engaged 75 employer partners; identified 17 jobs critical to their competitiveness; and forecasted more than 4,000 jobs needing to be filled between 2019 and 2020. And more are anticipated as the manufacturing collaborative demand planning study gets underway.

All of this is to illustrate that industry competitors have found there is benefit in working together to solve a common problem. By reaching consensus on job requirements and descriptions, and sharing their greatest pain points with each other through a neutral convener – VTPM – their voices are louder, hiring signals are clearer, and their Return on Investment is greater than if they were to go it alone.

One strength of this model lies in the relationships that regional partners throughout Vermont (i.e., regional development corporations, workforce investment boards, local chambers of commerce) have with the employers and training partners in their communities. Working in tandem through a centralized infrastructure to conduct the necessary research, analysis, and communication with the industry and training providers, the work achieves a level of agreement and standardization that lifts all boats.

The 2018 legislative session saw passage of H.919: An Act Related to Workforce Development, which included a series of recommendations from the State Workforce Development Board regarding its plans to strengthen and modernize the state’s workforce development system.  Contained within was a provision recognizing the importance of the Vermont Talent Pipeline Management project and states the Legislature’s intent to support its development, scale-up, funding, and roll-out across all economic sectors. The coordination of workforce development efforts between the Agencies of Commerce and Education, Department of Labor, State Workforce Development Board, and Vermont Talent Pipeline Management will help in identifying other credentialing programs within applicable industries.

Processes, like pipelines, take time to produce outputs and outcomes, which is why the Vermont Business Roundtable has also been active in linking business leaders with Work-based Learning Coordinators in Vermont’s secondary schools as a part of Act 77, to expose students to career awareness and exploration experiences as a part of their formal learning process. The VTPM collaboratives, and industries writ large, have the opportunity and obligation to improve their brand and message to students about the fascinating and well-paying careers and growth opportunities within their industries. By highlighting the various on-ramps and pathways to those careers, employers will also help to prime enrollments in the education and training programs that are designed to produce “job-ready” talent to meet their demand for growth in Vermont’s future workforce.

To learn more about the Vermont Talent Pipeline Management project, please visit www.vermonttpm.com (link is external) or, contact MaryAnne Sheahan, Executive Director of VTPM at [email protected] (link sends e-mail).