Workforce Development: More Than Teaching People to Fish

The point is not to just to teach a person to fish, but also to teach him or her as many ways as possible to get food to survive. The same is true with developing today’s workforce. The goal for agencies, industries, and educators must center on teaching students as many ways as possible to get a good job and stay in it.

We’ve all heard it dozens of times, on office wall after office wall and as part of untold numbers of PowerPoint presentations. It’s been attributed to a Chinese sage, Maimonides, Lao-Tzu, Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie, an Italian poet, a Native American, Mao Zedong, and even The Bible.

Give a man a fish, feed for a day.

Teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime.

Right?

Wrong. Teaching a man to fish is just a more efficient way of starving.

The fact is knowing a particular skill, while important, will only get someone a job today. To ensure a lifelong ability to work, the person must understand how to adapt to the ever-changing employment landscape.

Take the fisherman example. If that person is only trained to catch bounty in one particular lake or creek bed, what happens if the population dwindles? What’s more, how does the fisherman recover from a line or rod breaking? What if the fish are bony and inedible?

The point is not to just to teach a person to fish, but also to teach him or her as many ways as possible to get food to survive. The same is true with developing today’s workforce. The goal for agencies, industries, and educators must center on teaching students as many ways as possible to get a good job and stay in it.

A Case in Point

Here’s a good illustration. Many believe manufacturing in the U.S. is hampered by cheaper labor overseas or that jobs have taken away by automation. The reality is quite different. In fact, there has never been a time when America has produced more goods, to the point that several hundred thousand manufacturing job opportunities are going unfulfilled. Growing our manufacturing base here at home is limited more by the lack of qualified talent than anything else.

For sure, some folks who spent a lifetime in the industry are no longer employable, but that has more to do with the fact that required skills sets have evolved. Yesterday’s jobs are no more. In their place stand advanced manufacturing employment opportunities that might look nothing like those opportunities 10 years ago.

The average manufacturing worker might have to know how to use computers to design and program complex Computer Numeric Control machinery, operate lasers, manage quality control, weld at an advanced level, and work in high-performance teams to solve complicated problems. These positions require sought-after skills from a wide range of providers of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education and, more and more, third-party, nationally recognized credentials. For someone to continue a well-paying career in manufacturing, he or she will need to truly stay a lifelong learner.

Needing new skills to capture job opportunities isn’t limited to positions in construction and manufacturing. The same is the case in nearly every other industry. High demand exists in practically all sectors, including finance, hospitality, logistics, and health.

Maintaining a competitive workforce requires the right balance of training for jobs today, plus giving employees the tools they need to critically think about how to leverage them—as well as build upon them—to remain employable. The future is all about flexibility and continued learning.

The problem is complex but solvable. Any significant change will require strong commitment from all stakeholders—government, education, and businesses—who collaborate and recognize that it’s all about creating a shared future. And, of course, a building a workforce with the skills to adapt to succeed.

Walter Dario Di Mantova is the vice president and partner of Powerminds, a tribe of strategic and creative minds invested in transforming education, workforce, and economic development that spans every discipline and every kind of partner. He can be reached at walter@power-minds.com.

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