Workforce Development in Oakland County: A Q&A with John Almstadt

One of the biggest challenges facing the workforce right now isn’t lack of jobs; it’s lack of necessary skills to fill the jobs now available in this new knowledge-based economy. A primary focus for those in workforce development is to bridge the gap between employers and potential employees, addressing issues of skills training and talent building. Oakland County’s Manager of Workforce Development John Almstadt discusses some of the programs Oakland County, under the leadership of County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, has in place to address the needs of employers and expand our local talent pool.

What are some of the workforce development efforts being made by Oakland County?
In addition to our ongoing work at Oakland County’s nine Michigan workforce centers, we have the Skills Needs Assessment Checklist Project. What we have endeavored to do is to survey employers from advanced manufacturing and industrial sectors. We surveyed them electronically and got 150 responses. We asked them to identify where the jobs are in that sector and the top skills job seekers are required to have to get jobs in those fields.
 
The county will be issuing the report very soon. The consulting firm that has undertaken this project on behalf of us is now analyzing the data and will present me with their final report, which I will then present and discuss with County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and the rest of the county’s Economic Development & Community Affairs staff.
 
We’re finding in meetings with employers that they’re having a difficult time finding qualified workers. We’re worried there is not a sufficient pipeline of talent from young people who don’t find manufacturing and industrial jobs intriguing enough or high-tech enough. We’re focused on narrowing the gap between skills employers need and skills job seekers don’t necessarily have. With the survey we hope we’ll know what the skills are that people need that they don’t have.
 
This project will be very informative in talent needs. One of our major challenges is to develop the talent that employers are currently seeking. That really requires an ongoing dialogue with employers. Oakland County has some great training programs and educational institutions, but unless those programs meet what employers need the match is difficult. We really need to make sure that skills sets are matching employer expectations, particularly in higher-tech industries.
 
EdEn Incorporated, an Oakland County firm located in the Oakland County business incubator at Oakland University, are analyzing the survey data and producing the report. They have issued a similar study for the county about emerging industry sectors. This is s second study of its kind, with this one focusing on advanced manufacturing because we know there’s a number of jobs generated from that sector.
 
What other ongoing projects provide resources to develop local talent?
We have compiled an apprenticeship form that goes through how one can become an apprentice, not only in the county but also throughout the state and country. It identifies 50 occupations for which apprenticeship programs are adequately developed including descriptions of the occupation and program, what schools are offering apprentice training, and the estimated number of future job openings in that field.
 
We look at two tracks for training: community colleges and also partnerships between employers and labor organizations who have their own skills training programs. We will have an updated version available on the county website and in hard copy in each of the workforce centers by April or May.
 
Where are you seeing the most job growth in Oakland County?
Last year’s economic outlook prepared by the University of Michigan indicated a number of jobs would be created in 2012. Everything I’ve heard is that is true.
 
There is job growth in most of the industry sectors right now, but especially in manufacturing, professional business services, and healthcare. Those are the three big areas of job growth. The job sector seeing the greatest decline is the government sector, obviously reflecting reductions in local, state and federal budgets, and we can expect that will continue.
 
We’re seeing more people entering the labor markets because of the great recession, a lot of those people are coming back to the industrial sector. We’re seeing an increase in jobs available and people looking to join the labor force.
 
These jobs that are being created are often high school-level jobs that do require technical training and specific skill sets. We’re making sure customers have skills they need to get those jobs.
 
What measures are you putting in place to address the talent gap?
We’re working with educational and training institutions to secure training on behalf of our customers in the labor market. That’s a huge priority. Training is expensive and funding has been reduced over last few years, so we’re looking very carefully at both what the customer brings as well as what’s labor market-relevant and what’s affordable.
 
Part of the whole training issue is to communicate needs to training institutions. The Skills Needs survey will be shared with our educational partners, which include the K-12 system, community colleges and universities. The initial study on emerging industry sectors found that people do not come to the workplace with basic soft skills. Employers want employees who can come to work on time, who are able to work in group settings, who are critical thinkers, who have communication skills. That finding was very pronounced in the initial study. It’s amazing how much employers are concerned with soft skills. That information was shared with our education institutions in Oakland County and the region, and many of those institutions came together and have added within their respective institutions a soft skills component to their curriculum or in their employment services offices. We’re confident the next study will be met with similar enthusiasm.