Monday, August 12, 2019

Creating an Educated Workforce in Three Phases

Two weeks ago, I posted about an upcoming panel discussion I was asked to participate in -- a panel on how associations are successfully working to develop a better educated workforce for the industries they represent. That post can be found here.

Well, that panel happened at a conference I attended last Thursday, and I thought I would provide an update. Believe it or not, I had someone reach out to me over email, interested in hearing more. As a quick aside, having readers respond to the things I write here is one of the main reasons I keep blogging. More on that next week.

As I sat up there on stage listening to my co-panelists talk about the work their associations were doing to develop educated workforces for their industries, I quickly recomposed what I was planning to say in my head. I tend to do this a lot, seeing different (and sometimes better) patterns in things when forced to look at them through other people's eyes. Instead of focusing on the four stacked programs I described in my previous posts, I described what I saw as the three phases my association had (so far) gone through in our journey towards building a better educated workforce.

Phase 1 - Building college curriculum

My association's workforce journey really began with our members expressing a specific need. They would hire an engineer out of a good university, or a technician out of a good community college, and the individual would have no background or understanding in fluid power - the technology my association represents. The employer in question would have to spend two years training the graduate in things they felt should have been part of their educational experience.

To respond, our association began building partnerships with instructors at 2-year and 4-year colleges, and providing them with resources to develop the curriculum pieces they needed to teach our technology in the frame of their existing programs. We thought if the schools would only teach our subjects, the people hired out of those schools would be ready to go to work on day one.

Phase 2 - Developing middle and high schools programs

But it wasn't enough. Especially at the 2-year level, our curriculum was an elective, and too few students were electing to move into it. Now that we had the college education programs we wanted, we had to build a pipeline of students interested in studying those subjects.

That meant creating outreach programs for middle and high school students. We had to get younger people interested in and excited about our industry, so we built several programs designed to engage middle and high school students in fluid power-themed design/build competitions. Our most successful, the Fluid Power Action Challenge, started with twelve students in one competition, and has now grown to encompass more than a hundred events and 21,000 students.

Phase 3 - Stacking everything in the same communities

But that wasn't enough either. As those Action Challenges rolled out across the country we realized that it did little good that have a great middle school program in one community unless there was also a great high school and tech school program in the same community.

This is really when the strategy described in my previous post came online for us, where we are now consciously building "Fast Track to Fluid Power" Hubs in communities around the country. Each has a community-wide middle school Action Challenge, a series of local high schools with fluid power-specific programs in each, a central community college with a validated fluid power degree or certificate program, and, perhaps most importantly, a committed group of industry members willing to serve as judges, coaches, and mentors in these various programs.

After the panel, I got a lot of good feedback from people who had been in the audience. Evidently my comments had resonated strongly with them, but one consistent question kept coming up.

How? How does your association manage all of this activity?

I could tell the people asking the question were coming from a place of already over-taxed association resources, where any foray into workforce development felt impossible because they had no spare resources or staff people to dedicate towards it.

And I'm pretty sure my answer didn't help set their mind at ease. There is no magic formula. Like everything else in our world, if you want to succeed you have to dedicate resources to it. In our example, out of a staff of twelve, we have four full-time positions dedicated to these programs, including a newly-promoted Vice President of Workforce Development.

We certainly didn't get there overnight, but our Board, recognizing that "creating an educated workforce" is one of the four major objectives of our association, has supported this growth in resources every step of the way.

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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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