Importance of Workforce – Interview with Colleen LaRose

Ed BurghardBuilding A Skilled Workforce

I met Colleen in a LinkedIn Group.  The topic was the importance of workforce in attracting, retaining and expanding company investment.  I was interested in what Colleen was saying because I had heard a compelling presentation from Mark Lautman  a founding director of the Community Economics Lab, a private not-for-profit think tank that innovates new approaches to economic development to work in a labor and capital constrained economy. Mark was making the case that retirement in the baby boomer population is going to create a serious shortage of skilled labor.  Colleen is with the NERETA (North East Regional Employment and Training Association).  The NERETA is all about workforce development, so I reached out to her for some additional perspective on the importance of workforce and challenges we may be facing as economic development professionals.  I think you will find the information Colleen shares both informative and important.  If you get a chance, check out the NERETA website and you will find a veritable treasure trove of additional information about workforce development.


Having access to a highly skilled workforce is a key to any company’s success.  It is so important, communities work hard and invest meaningful taxpayer dollars in attracting and retaining top talent.  From your vantage point, what are the top 3 strategic mistakes community leaders typically make in creating their workforce development plan?

Not including workforce development and education professionals in the planning process.

Workforce development professionals are often relegated to the assumed position in a community as a “social services provider”…and that is a shame, because there is so much more to workforce development than only helping those who are struggling financially.  Workforce development, done correctly, should be at the table with economic development, making plans for the future of the community together.  Workforce “Investment” Boards were named as such because they are making critical investments of human capital capabilities into the community.  They should not only be called to the table when a business is in jeopardy of closing down, or when a prospective business in considering locating the community.  Workforce development should be having active conversations with economic development about what the future needs of the community will be …what is the vision?  Who will be the “actors” (employers, employees, educators, etc) who will help employ that vision? Workforce development can offer connections to apprenticeship training, incumbent worker training, customized training, applicant screening, research and evaluations regarding return on investment for training, as well as rapid response and marketing information.  There is so much that workforce development already does as listed above, but there is also so much that it also could possibly do!  Here are some ways workforce development can aid in job creation (not typically a role we see them in..but they have the capabilities!)

  1. Seeding/training entrepreneurs
  2. Helping companies recognize expansion opportunities
  3. Providing HR support/onboarding
  4. Providing workforce management? (change management, org. dev., team training, etc.)
  5. Liaison to economic development and funders?

Not doing focus panels with employers from the major industries to fully understand what they need and how resources might be shared to accommodate the needs of several employers simultaneously.

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to be a part of an initiative conducted by the Heldrich Center at Rutgers University in which they brought together employers from the same industry in a region and literally sat them down at a table together and started to dig into what workers they needed, what training could be done collaboratively etc.  It was amazing to see these competitors begin to recognize the value (that it could save them a lot of money..and that they could leverage government resources) if they worked together.  Industry sector studies and industry cluster studies are powerful tools for communities to give employers reasons to talk with economic development and workforce development to engage.  Looking back on these conversations, it is interesting that economic development was NOT sitting at the table during these conversations.  One has to wonder how much more could have been accomplished if they had been!

Not considering the needs of the growing workforce (quality of the schools, opportunity for economic advancement, etc)

Human capital is the main engine of business.  But communities are not only about having jobs and supporting the businesses…communities are also about the quality of life for the people who live there…and offering those families hope for their future generations.  Do we have conversations with businesses about the future of the community…not just the future of their business?  Do we discuss beauty? Do we discuss engagement of the workforce? Do we ask what their vision is?  Do they want to help build something greater than just piles of money for themselves?  Do we offer possibilities to them like profit sharing or worker-owned cooperatives?  Or do we sit back and hope they will contribute to the community?  Ask any development officer how many donations they get in a year without asking for it?  Not many.  If we have  vision for our communities of more shared wealth, of less stratification, of all people being able to share in the milk and honey of this great country, we need to start talking about it on the local level and offer suggestions for the vision of the future that we see….  These are economic development issues.  These are workforce development issues.  These are issues of sustainable communities and hope for our collective futures.  Profit mongering is not going to get us where we want to go.  That was old thinking.  We need to think win-win.  That is when society truly grows and prospers …when everyone’s contribution is valued.

The concept that labor markets are indifferent to state lines is consistent with the idea that natural industry clusters are indifferent.  What are the implications of that indifference?  What are a couple ways economic development professionals should be taking advantage of these labor markets to better position their community for capital investment?

Each state acts as competition to the other states…but if states could see themselves as a region that is working cooperatively, recognizing that all do better when each does better, the dynamics would change.  What is most important is that the businesses …wherever they locate…is best served so that they can grow and expand.

Recognizing that employees and jobseekers readily cross county and state lines was one of the great impetuses for creating the North East Regional Employment and Training Association.  Too often federal training dollars that are divided up by state, are not utilized optimally because thinking strategically apparently stops at state borders.  I jest of course, but I have seen considerable waste, such as fully staffed One Stop Career Centers literally less than three blocks from one another…when all they needed to do was to cross a free bridge!  Such great waste of tax dollars simply can no longer be tolerated!

One way to begin to better position communities for capital investment is to demonstrate that tax dollars are used efficiently….certainly.  But also, we should be thinking about the needs of industries, and how to best serve those needs.  Creating enmity between local regions by stealing businesses across stat lines with ridiculous bribes called subsidies and incentives is not helping the workers at all..and is detrimental to both the health o f the community and can damage the good will of the workers.

I would love to see a cross border economic gardening initiative, where the benefit is in growing the region, not competing for meager spoils.  If you begin to engage business proactively in what they want…what is their vision…and you do so with a true interest in their development, in the development of their industry, everyone wins….

You recently launched a new website for the North East Regional Employment & Training Association.  Can you share some perspective on the goal of the website and a brief overview of what can be found there?

The goal of the website is to connect workforce investment boards and their stakeholders (the stakeholders are all people who have an interest in the quality of the workforce) so that we encourage “regional thinking” with regard to the northeastern US.  With a new collaborative attitude, we could reduce training costs, improve our knowledge base with information sharing, work as a block politically with regard to legislative issues that impact workforce development and economic development, and join forces in such activities as research (like sector studies and cluster studies), grant writing, etc.  We have to think much more strategically in the northeastern US about what our “unique selling proposition is” and how we can capitalize on our advantages and sell them.  We are too compact here in the Northeast to be doing battle across state lines.  We need to think “win-win.”  If we do what is in the best interest of the businesses and what is in the best interest of the workforce, we all succeed together

The resource page of the website is chock full of information!  It is the only place where you will find all of the workforce development websites in the northeast, all economic development contacts in the northeast, all higher education and technical school contacts in the northeast, and that is just scratching the surface!  We are hoping it becomes a “go-to” website for people who are writing grants, for employers who are looking to connect with those who can help them in acquiring or training a world class workforce, and for those who are interested in taking a more regional approach in collaborating to save taxpayers money.

The training page provides organizations that do training for Workforce investment board staff, partners and board members.  We are also just beginning a series of monthly webinars to fill in on topics we know need to be discussed but that have not been given adequate time.  Our first webinar topic is about placing unpaid interns and volunteers in for profit companies.  What are the rules?  Most WIBs just stay clear of this altogether, but it can be a great strategy for jobseekers.  Interning is not just for college students!

We also have a “News” page where we regularly highlight information about workforce development, economic development and education that would be of particular interest to those in the northeast.

Social media seems to be changing the old rules of economic development in surprising ways.  What impact are you seeing social media have on the future of workforce development?

What I am finding is that social media is allowing for the contribution of people who may have wanted to be part of the conversation before but were not tied in politically and therefore had no way to get their voice heard.  It is always true that the more robust the conversation (many people from varied walks of life participating) the more enlightened the solutions that are developed.  This is just not possible with “board meetings” or as I like to refer to them as “bored meetings”…because most people are stuck there listening to other people’s agendas while patiently waiting for their turn to talk about what matters to them.  In social media, you can drop in and drop out of conversations as fits your need.  There also are no time constraints and space constraints as when putting together in person meetings.  There is also a boldness that is quite healthy that is coming from social media.  It can sometimes be difficult to point out that something is not working when you are sitting in the room with the people trying to make it happen, but it is easier to say it is not working when you are not sitting with them face to face, even if you know they are in the group and may hear your dissatisfaction.  Think about restaurant reviews…few people send their food back or complain to the wait staff, but they are comfortable mentioning it on Facebook or Yelp.  If we don’t know what is not working with our programs, we don’t know how to fix them!

As for employment matching, social media has made it much easier for employers and recruiters to find the people who they are looking for…and it has helped jobseekers immensely too, as now jobseekers can bypass gatekeepers at companies and go straight to decision-makers.  So, there is a flattening in societal stratification allowing people to speak with others they wish to, even if they are in a different social class. This is powerful for lower classes to be able to network their way to higher positions of power and influence simply by making the right online networking connections.

There is also a wonderful transparency that is helping to light the path for jobseekers in that they can now also talk with other staff at a perspective company to find out the real scoop about what it is like to work there.

With exciting opportunities on the horizon such as crowdfunding, one’s imagination soars at the possibilities for future generations once they truly harness the power of online collaboration.

Economic Development Organizations are constantly looking for best practice models to emulate.  Can you share some examples of what you might consider as cutting edge workforce development programs and your thoughts on what makes them unique?

There are many models that are impressive all across the country, but those that emphasize collaboration between workforce development and economic development seem to have a distinct advantage.

One example is “Mobilize Eastern Maine.”  What is fascinating about this model is the important role they have given to their workforce board.  In most regions workforce boards are brought to the planning table only when a company is considering leaving a community or one is considering locating in the community.  Other than that, workforce boards are typically treated a social service agencies who serve the “down and out.”  However, in Eastern Maine the community has decided that they have two goals – 1) job creation and 2) job retention.  Therefore, every economic development project they undertake are measured against these two goals.  So, while economic development projects still go through all of the same hoops that most communities require, (politicians, public administrators, fiscal, etc) …what is interesting here is that the workforce board has the final say in what does and does not get funded based on whether it is important to create a job or retain a job in that region.  This really is walking the walk not just talking the talk!  Communities will often say that the workforce is their number one priority, but this puts those words in an actionable format.

Another region that has been progressive is the Alexandria/Arlington VA WIB where the WIB was the organization that wrote and submitted their CEDS plan!  Most WIB’s do not even know what a CEDS plan is, so I found this to be quite remarkable.

One other progressive region is actually straddling two states, Ohio and Pennsylvania and is referred to as Oh-Penn.  Oh-Penn is the first officially-designated interstate region in the country and the initiative was started by a workforce investment board director!  Their website explains best why this important, ”The goal of the Oh-Penn initiative is to enhance economic and workforce development of the five counties which share a common labor force, worker dislocations, current and emerging industries and a collective vision.  It is wonderful to see labor regions recognized, not state borders.  This just makes so much more sense for jobseekers and employers..and success for the region is success for both states.

There are lots of other great examples of workforce boards collaborating in unique and progressive ways with education, community and faith based organizations and a variety of employers from a myriad of industries.  But I highlight these three because they are terrific examples of workforce development working hand in hand with economic development, and that is when real progress in a region happens.

Who should consider joining the North East Regional Employment & Training Organization?  What are some of the benefits of being a member?  How would people join?  If you are an economic development professional living outside of the North East, are there similar organizations across the nation?

People who are passionate about developing the workforce and helping to connect it to the marketplace in the northeastern US should join NERETA.  This may include: workforce development professionals, economic development professionals, educators, job coaches and job counselors, human resources professionals, recruiters, business people, and even jobseekers!

The benefits of being a member are: Discounts on conferences, seminars, webinars, and our career fairs, you will receive our monthly newsletter, you can post job openings for workforce development positions on the NERETA website, and post workforce development related rfp opportunities and links on the NERETA website.  But the biggest benefit I think for members is that members get to be part of the decision-making at NERETA by forming and/or joining committees around workforce issues in the northeast that matter to them.  We will set up a subgroup for them on any issue they would like more information about…so for example, veterans representatives can have their own group just to discuss the  employment needs of veterans in the northeast.

Joining is easy – just go to and click on the “Join” page.  There you will see  form and a paypal button  that allows you to pay the $99 annual membership fee with your credit card. Or, you can also mail in your payment to the address listed there.

There are no other organizations in the country that are doing exactly what we are doing, therefore, we welcome people to sign up even if they are not in the northeast so that they can learn about NERETA and perhaps set up a similar organization in their region.  There are two other multi-state employment and training associations, Southeastern Employment and Training Association (SETA) and the Great Lakes Employment and Training  Association (GLETA), however, these organizations are strictly for workforce development professionals.

What initiatives is NERETA currently working on?  

  • We are producing industry-focused career fairs monthly starting in September.  See the website at  Every month we focus on one industry sector and hold three career fairs around that industry throughout the northeast.  This could be a wonderful “fact gathering” opportunity for what industries are looking for both from both economic and workforce development!  We are open to working with economic development on these events!  In fact NEDA has already helped us to identify which regions we should hold the career fairs in for each industry.
  • We just sponsored “Economic Developers – take your WIB director to lunch” day…on June 7th. and plan to do it again next year.
  • We are working with NEDA to produce a joint workforce development/economic development conference next yea
  • We are doing monthly webinars on issues that will support more engagement of employers with workforce development (such as encouraging more apprenticeship opportunities, encouraging more volunteering and internships, explaining how to use programs such as “Synchronist” to find out whether they are on a growth trajectory, using customer resource management tools to share information about what employers need, and  thinking regionally such as how to do industry sector studies and cluster studies as just a few examples).  These are not webinars that are being offered by any other entities…but are needed!
  • We are making presentations at state and national conferences about why economic development and workforce development should be working more closely together, how to use social media to maximize efficiency and effectiveness, and did a presentation on the future of the workforce for the IEDC Leadership Summit in January!  All of these presentations can be seen on the website…on either the homepage or the training page.
  • We continue to engage in robust dialogue on our Linked In groups:
    • (about how to improve the workforce devlopment system)
    • (about creating a system of support for entrepreneurs and small business) and
    • (about improving the social media, public relations and marketing efforts of the workforce system) 


I think everybody can agree that having a skilled workforce available is key to creating economic vitality.  Based on your experience and your own study of the subject, what are some of the practical success drivers?  Do you have any papers you would recommend reading or websites you’d recommend visiting if somebody wanted to get a good grounding on the subject?  Please leave a comment.

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