Monday, October 10, 2016

Fixing the Leaky Pipeline

Last week, I wrote a post titled Education Is Not Enough, in which I argued that associations interested in developing a better educated workforce for the industries or professions they represent have to do more than just create new education programs. If they really want to close the gap in qualified employees that is facing their members, they have to also create new connection programs--programs designed to bring their members into contact with the students being educated in the association's education programs. I concluded with post with:

There's no guarantee that the people you educate are going to find their way into your industry. If your experience is anything like ours, the pipeline you think you're building will prove leakier than you expect.

I wanted to expand on that concept this week, and describe three key reasons why I think these connection programs are essential.

1. We don't control the flow. My association enjoys some long-standing partnerships with the academic institutions that educate our industry's future workforce. One of those partnerships recently resulted in a comprehensive study of how our industry's employees (primarily engineers) found their way into their positions. We wanted to understand the typical pathways and inflection points that steered successful people into our industry rather than someplace else. The conclusions surprised us. Time and again, at multiple points along a successful person's educational pathway, it was an educator--not an interaction with a company or someone in our industry--that helped bend that person's trajectory towards our industry. Academic faculty--in high school, in community colleges, and in universities--exert tremendous influence over an engineer's future career path, and they are the people in a position to direct the flow of future employees through what we might otherwise choose to think of as our employment pipeline.

2. Company employees are busier than ever. My association has developed several successful education programs that are preparing and providing better educated employees for our industry. And some of our member companies are there on the leading edge of these programs, ready and willing to scoop up the best of these candidates as soon as they matriculate. But most of our member companies are not. The vast majority of them are not even aware that these education programs are in place. The demands of our marketplace keep them focused almost entirely on running their operations and keeping their companies meagerly profitable. The news that a school three states over is graduating well-trained engineers that are looking for jobs in our industry is received not with excitement but with trepidation, because the time and resources needed to develop and maintain a relationship with that distant institution and its on-going series of graduating classes are more than they feel they can spare. It sometimes feels that if we're not able to deliver qualified candidates to their office for regular Monday morning interviews, the swift running river of their business will keep them forever separate from the people they need to keep that business growing.

3. They validate that the education programs are actually working. But getting the companies engaged, no matter how many time and resource barriers stand in the way, is necessary, because it not only delivers the help these companies need, it validates in a way nothing else can that the education programs themselves are actually meeting their needs. Lots and lots of current degree and training programs produce professionals who are not educated in anything that the industry that is looking to hire them needs. Only by getting industry into a position where they can evaluate the quality of the candidates being produced by your education programs, and then giving them a mechanism to actually change the your program's content, will you find yourself on a pathway towards success. In my experience, it usually takes several iterations to get something like this right. Just pouring money into curriculum development doesn't actually solve your problem.

So there it is. Three reasons why the workforce pipeline you're building may be leakier than you think. Your association doesn't control the flow of students, your member companies are too busy to engage, and building education programs without industry feedback won't produce education your industry needs. Figure out a way to patch those holes and you might actually have a chance to succeed.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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