Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century: A Conference Overview

December 22, 2014
By Steve Shepelwich, Senior Community Development Advisor

Policymakers, practitioners and researchers shared perspectives on transformative education and workforce development strategies and policies.


Workforce development and labor market issues have come to the forefront as the nation continues its recovery from the Great Recession. Changes in worker demographics, the structure of the economy and evolving demands for skills all effect the policies and practice needed to build a responsive workforce development system. On October 15-17, the Federal Reserve Banks of Kansas City and Atlanta and the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University hosted the national conference, Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century, to explore these issues.  

The goals of the conference were to provide a forum for policymakers, practitioners and researchers to share perspectives on transformative education and workforce development strategies and policies to:

  • Improve opportunities for job seekers and workers, especially the long-term unemployed, ex-offenders, people with disabilities and others who face the greatest difficulties in the labor market;
  • Meet the needs of employers for a highly skilled, well-educated, competitive, and productive workforce; and
  • Deliver effective and efficient solutions that can be adopted by federal, state, or local/regional governments as well as by educational institutions, businesses and nonprofit organizations.

These issues were addressed over three days through highly interactive panel discussions with over 60 leading experts engaged in workforce and human capital development.

A common theme was that the changing economic realities will require new workforce development policies. Dr. Harry Holzer, a professor at Georgetown University, noted that to obtain middle-level wages a worker needs at least middle-level skills if not higher. Good-paying jobs for workers with only a high school diploma or less have dramatically declined.

Rapid technology development and globalization are also significant drivers of change that make the labor market very fluid and dynamic. This increases the risk that a job in high demand today may not be tomorrow. Holzer said workers bear the increased risk that their skills may become dated or obsolete.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, described a changing workforce that will be experiencing these pressures. For the first time in American history, about half of babies born in the United States are from minority communities. Morial said that given the increasing importance of minorities in the workforce he is concerned the effects of systemic disparities faced by minorities will have an even greater impact on the overall economy. In particular, minorities are more likely to face lower educational attainment, greater likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system and other barriers that reduce access to higher paying jobs. He said the current workforce system is inadequate to meet the need of training these workers for the jobs that require the middle-level skills described by Holzer.


Dennis Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Fed, addressed these themes during his keynote presentation. Lockhart said the development of soft skills, or the prerequisite skills and aptitudes, need to receive greater attention. Based on his discussions with industry leaders, these skills are often an impediment to employment. “In my view, the employability of young people and adults who are deficient in soft skills will go nowhere but down,” he said.

Lockhart, like Holzer, also described a future in which the job-specific requirements in most industries will evolve rapidly and become more digitally demanding, with increased automation and digitization reducing routine job tasks. “To be and remain employable, workers will trade on what cannot be programmed, and work arrangements with employers may be structured to provide those employers the most tactical flexibility in their workforce management,” Lockhart said.

To remain responsive and relevant, Lockhart said the workforce development system will need to operate with greater coherence, cohesion and coordination.

These initial discussions set the stage for panel presentations on topics ranging from credentials, competencies and curriculum reform, to intelligent workforce development systems and workforce policies for the long-term unemployed and underserved populations. Emphasis was placed on policies and practice that showed promise of scalability and replication. 

Summaries of the conference sessions and video highlights will be released in the coming months. In addition, the Atlanta Fed, Kansas City Fed and Heldrich Center will publish Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century in the spring of 2015. This book will extend and deepen the discussions started during the conference.

Visit the conference website for additional information about the agenda, speakers and conference sponsors.