3: Convening and Planning

Why Does Early Buy-In, Joint Planning and an Intermediary Matter?

So far this toolkit has addressed Why a Sector Initiative may be an effective approach to meeting the needs of industry and workers in a region, and some key factors to sector success (industry analysis, a convening organization, coordination across partners, employer engagement, etc). At this point, you may be wondering:

  • How does a sector initiative get off the ground?
  • Or, what is the first step to the development of a sector partnership?

Common success factors to getting a sector initiative off the ground are:

  • Early buy-in from stakeholders (including the leaders of the target industry) about the workforce challenge at hand;
  • Joint articulation of a desired change;
  • A Partnership Intermediary that can coordinate and facilitate development and activities of the partnership.

A number of factors may serve to catalyze the development of a sector partnership. While all sector partnerships are developed to fill an un-met workforce need in an industry, most sector partnerships begin under different circumstances depending on the geographic region, its industries, its public/private infrastructure, and shared readiness for change. The partnership’s evolution will also vary depending on how the industry is identified, and how a workforce challenge makes its way onto the radar of relevant stakeholders.

In all sector stories, the acknowledgement of a particular challenge in an industry is the first step to developing a sector partnership. Two common ways this might occur are: one, an industry is prioritized based on a regional industry analysis, and then a shared challenge across employers in that industry is identified via further data analysis and information gathering; or two, a common challenge across employers within the same industry emerges, is verified via data analysis and information collection, and then determined by stakeholders to be a challenge worth the time and resources needed to solve it.

In both scenarios, a Regional Needs Assessment is a necessary first step to uncover the validity of targeting a particular industry, and identifying the major challenge(s) within that industry.Once an industry is confirmed and some idea of industry challenges is identified, a formal sector partnership can be established to further uncover the root cause of observed challenges, and develop a joint solution.

Keep in mind that an industry may have many workforce challenges. Sector partnerships often begin their work by addressing one high priority challenge, but may evolve to address other related challenges within the same industry. Common workforce challenges include high turnover among key positions, difficulty recruiting or retaining entry-level workers, a gap between skills of job applicants and skills needed to fill critical occupations, high rates of retirement, a lack of human resource capacity, and others. It may be helpful to understand a Basic Typology of Employer Challenges that sector initiatives can address.

Engaging employers at this early stage is highly recommended in order to reveal what problems are common across an industry (as opposed to within a single firm), build relationships with the industry’s leadership, and to begin identifying which employers will be actively involved in driving the development of a solution.

If an intermediary has not yet been identified, it should be considered an immediate next step. The intermediary can play a significant role in the process of engaging employers and other partners. The responsibilities of the intermediary are detailed on the Step One page of this chapter.

Keep in mind that the initial intermediary (individual or organization) that has directed activity so far (such as needs assessments, initial employer and stakeholder engagement, etc) is not necessarily the long-term intermediary. Part of the early phase of needs assessment and partnership development will require identifying an intermediary organization that will best fit the needs of the partnership and the target industry.

These are the four questions you want to answer through the convening and partnership development stage.

  • Is there clarity about the challenge to be solved?
  • Is there industry support and willingness to move forward on a solution-based initiative?
  • Is there a willing and knowledgeable intermediary (or convener) to take the lead?
  • Are there obvious stakeholders in the community that should be involved as sector initiative partners?

To fully answer these questions, you will need to follow the four steps outlined in the rest of this module.

Step One: Identify and Employ the Right Partnership Intermediary

The right convener, often known as a workforce intermediary, implies an organization with an understanding of employer and worker issues in a specific industry. Sector initiatives utilize workforce intermediaries to engage employers and other key stakeholders, to coordinate information and resources, and to facilitate the development and implementation of an effective response to the identified challenge within the target industry. An intermediary does not chart the course of the sector partnership, which is the responsibility of employers in the target industry. Instead, the intermediary is responsible for mobilizing the partners and providing a forum for action.

The intermediary may or may not be the fiscal agent of a sector initiative. Some sector partnerships combine the responsibilities under one entity, the benefit being a more seamless approach to align partnership activities with leveraged resources. Others separate them in order to encourage a streamlined focus on the policy and practice changes needed to address the challenge, without the administrative burden of fiscal management. Whether the fiscal manager of the initiative or not, the intermediary entity must possess the appropriate staffing mix and skills set to coordinate the sector partnership. (See job descriptions of a partnership intermediaries.)

A variety of organizations can act as an intermediary, including employer organizations (such as chambers of commerce or trade associations), labor-management partnerships, local workforce investment boards or one-stop centers, community colleges, training providers, faith- or community-based organizations, placement firms, or others. A consideration often factored into the identification of an intermediary is the potential for a conflict of interest that may directly impact the decisions of a partnership. To avoid such conflicts, intermediaries are not typically a single employer or a single training provider. Here are some Real Life Examples of Partnership Intermediaries.

The first responsibilities of an intermediary will be to identify and recruit community stakeholders to participate as full partners in the initiative; to engage industry leaders who will participate as full partners and chart the direction of the initiative; to coordinate in-depth analysis of the industry and challenges it faces; and to facilitate the first stages of strategic planning.

Step Two: Identify Partners

Employers are the most important partners in any sector initiative because the partnership is built around their needs. To meet their needs, intermediaries must recruit the right mix of service providers that are knowledgeable about the industry, as well as the workers and resources in a region.

Some sector initiative intermediaries initially recruit a small group of stakeholders, heavily weighted toward employers, to act as an advisory group.

Key industry “champions” (defined as employers that see the worth and potential of a sector partnership, and speak on its behalf) can be the key to success during the early phases of an emerging sector partnership.

The exact mix of partners will depend on the region, the industry, and the types of organizations available. Here's a sample membership list of sector partners of an actual sector initiative.

To get the right mix of partners, ask: Which stakeholders in the community should take part, or who could be a resource in this effort? For example, who is currently working to match workforce needs in this industry with workers? Which employers in the industry are best positioned to guide the partnership’s activities? Who besides employers can bring knowledge of the industry? Who can bring knowledge of the region’s available labor force? To help answer these questions, consider the following list.

Employers

Employers are partners, drivers of the initiative, and customers. As such, they play a unique role in a sector partnership. Sector initiatives should attempt to engage as many employers as possible within the target industry and defined geographic region. Of those employers, the partnership should be driven by a set of industry leaders (such as Presidents and CEOs of companies) that are energized by the potential to overcome particular workforce barriers to competitiveness, and committed to working with the partnership to develop solutions. Such employers are often called business champions, particularly when they are active in the promotion of the sector initiative. This does not happen on its own, but requires the intermediary to actively pursue input, make the case for involvement, and encourage engagement.

Industry and Trade Associations

Industry and Trade Associations should also be engaged. They bring valuable expertise of the industry, can open doors to other employers within the industry that are not yet engaged, and can help spread the word about the sector partnership and its goals.

Economic Development Agencies

Economic Development Agencies are important partners in local sector initiatives because they likely have their finger on the pulse of local industry needs, risks for job loss, and potential new companies moving into a region. Sector initiatives are increasingly being used as part of state and regional business retention and recruitment strategies.

Public Workforce System

The Public Workforce System should actively be involved in order to use existing resources that bring employers and workers together. Local systems may already be addressing employer needs in the target industry, and could therefore serve as knowledgeable partners.

Educational Institutions

Educational Institutions are responsible for providing training for the current and future workforce, and are therefore keys to any region’s economic vitality if their curriculum, degrees, and credentials remain relevant to the needs of industry for good workers, and the needs of workers for good jobs. Sector partnerships should therefore include representatives from regional community colleges, technical colleges, universities, and the K-12 school system. Private training providers should also be considered.

Organized Labor

Organized Labor can have significant influence on training, worker recruitment, retention, and contracts. If they play a role in your region and/or target industry, a labor representative should be included as a partner.

Human Service Agencies

Human Service Agencies are increasingly a critical partner in local efforts to transition workers into training and job advancement opportunities. Sector initiatives often address labor shortages of entry-level workers, or discover a need to “backfill” entry-level positions after removing previously identified bottlenecks of incumbent worker advancement. For these reasons, the human service sector becomes important to provide support services and resources to low-income, low-skilled worker populations as they upgrade their skills and secure jobs.

Community- or Faith-based Organizations

Community- or Faith-based Organizations exist in many forms, and depending on their mission could be an invaluable partner in a sector partnership. This might include, for example, a private foundation or a non-profit organization that targets a certain population of workers. They can bring valuable knowledge about the particular needs of worker populations.

Local and State Elected Officials

Local and state elected officials often have a deep interest in supporting a particular industry or worker constituency group. Fully engaging them as a partner in the initiative’s development, or keeping them fully informed are both advantageous to the sector initiative’s success.

Others

Other entities, depending on the needs of the industry, should be considered. Some sector initiatives involve transportation and housing agencies, for example.

Characteristics of Members

In addition to the above categories of partners, a convener may want to consider the following mix of characteristics and individuals in the partnership:

Influencers

Regardless of what category of member they fit into, in any region there are specific individuals who will be important to engage, because they have the power to influence others. These include “do-ers” – people with a reputation for getting things done, “naysayers” – people who will rally others against the partnership if they are not brought on board, and “politicos” – those with formal or informal political influence who can garner support for your work.

Resources

Partnerships need information. Consider bringing on board individuals or entities who can help provide and make meaning of information and data. These include organizations that specialize in data and analysis generally and also subject matter/ industry experts. Many partnerships have engaged retired industry leaders who have substantial knowledge and experience. These individuals can act as a strong but unbiased resource for the partnership.

Decision-Makers

Across categories, think about the presence of decision-makers or at least those who have the ear of decision-makers in their organization. It doesn’t matter how many great ideas your partnership comes up with if there’s a lack of authority to put those plans into action.

Step Three: Engage and Enlist Partners and Employers

An intermediary should consider how and why the many and diverse partners are recruited. In all initial communications, share the purpose of the initiative. Provide an overview of the life cycle of a sector initiative. Explain why their participation is critical, and how their organization can benefit from participating (Sample Handout - What a Partnership Can Do For You). Be clear about partner roles and responsibilities.

Remember that employer engagement must start early, and can take different forms depending on existing relationships with employers, their knowledge of public workforce or education systems, the level of “pain” they may be feeling with their current workforce challenges, or other factors. It also takes time, and should not be rushed. (Rules of Thumb for Engaging Employers)

One of the most important success factors for a sector partner is a strong understanding of the industry, how it works, its needs and priorities, and future trends (see Chapter 2 for more on secondary and primary data sources). Conveners should use a variety of methods to build their knowledge of the industry and connect with employers.

The most important method will be talking to representatives of the target industry one-on-one.

But they may also want to:

  • Attend trade association meetings or trade shows related to the industry
  • Arrange tours of key companies in the industry
  • Talk to union leadership or attend one of their meetings
  • Attend public policy or community meetings that affect the target industry
  • Consider holding in Industry meeting or similar event

All of these methods serve at least two purposes: first, to engage employers and stakeholders; and second, to gather important information about the industry, its needs, and resources available to meet those needs. They also serve to build momentum in preparation for the first planning meetings of the partnership.

For more ideas on enlisting and engaging employer partners, check out this video.

Convening Employers: What’s in a Name?

The ability to convene employers may often hinge on the level of information and authority you seek (CEO, Human Resource Director, Front-Line Manager, or Line Worker.) As important is the expectation you set for the meeting. Consider that words can have a lot of meaning. Inviting employers to a “Summit” may indicate to that employer that they will be meeting with the highest levels of government; if that is not true the employer may be disappointed and feel as though they were misled. Consider some of these terms, often used interchangeably, and the meanings they tend to impart:

Conference – A business conference is an event organized by an association, individual, publication or private company for the purpose of networking, education or to discuss a business topic with a range of speakers.

Focus Group – A focus group is a form of qualitative research in which a group of people are asked about their attitude towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging. Questions are asked in an interactive group setting where participants are free to talk with other group members. (Source: Wikipedia)

Forum – Forums are a medium for open discussion or voicing of ideas, such as a newspaper, a radio or television program, or a website. It can also be a public meeting or presentation involving a discussion usually among experts and often including audience participation. (Source: dictionary.com)

Roundtable – A round table is one which has no "head" and no "sides", and therefore no one person sitting at it is given a privileged position and all are treated as equals. The idea stems from the Arthurian legend about the Knights of the Round Table in Camelot. (Source: Wikipedia)

Summit – The term “summit” is one of the most misused in the public sector. To non-public sector participants, a summit meeting usually infers that the meeting will include top leaders of government (governors, mayors, cabinet officials, etc.) with considerable media exposure, expectations, and results that lead directly to action.

 

Step Four: Begin Meeting as Partners and Learn More

Once the core partnership of employers and relevant stakeholders is recruited, formal meetings of the sector initiative should begin. By the time the first meeting is scheduled, a set of potential issues should have been identified during initial regional and industry needs assessments, including individual meetings with employers and stakeholders, and an Industry Roundtable or similar event. The first and second meetings should focus on energizing the partners around this set of issues by facilitating discussions about the issues, and by guiding a process for their prioritization.

For the first meeting (Sample Agenda for First Partnership Meeting), the intermediary must facilitate the discussion in a way that makes clear the needed balance between achieving short-term outcomes and long-lasting change in each issue area. For each issue, the partners should articulate a problem statement, the impact the partnership can have on the issue, and general categories of strategies to undertake toward that impact. The intermediary should introduce the concept of a Logic Model and an Action Plan, or other similar technique for strategic planning. These models emphasize the importance of envisioning change in the foreseeable future, articulating goals toward that vision, identifying benchmarks that indicate successful completion of goals, and action steps needed to complete them. The partnership will want to embark on such a planning exercise by the third or fourth meeting. Another helpful tool at the first or second meetings is an introduction to where the partnership is going, a good example of which is the Roadmap to a Regional Skills Alliance for Advanced Manufacturing.

The first and second meetings should also: 1) Result in the joint development of a mission statement or vision for change; 2) Identify areas for further in-depth analysis; and 3) Begin to identify governance and operational structures of the partnership. This might include staffing arrangements (part-time or full-time coordinator from the convening organization or from partner organizations for example), the Organizational Chart, internal communication plans, and external messaging processes. Remember these items will be fully fleshed out as your partnership evolves, but it is always a good idea to start thinking about them early.

During this phase of the sector initiative, the intermediary will need to keep in mind (and where appropriate share with partners) some key partnership pitfalls and tips, such as:

  • Planning takes time – the process of gathering information and data, analyzing its results, identifying priority issues, developing a vision and goals for change, designing action steps to achieve the corresponding results, and identifying resources to utilize along the way… may take three months to a year of engagement and meetings.
  • No one has time to waste – Recognize that all partners, and especially employers, have competing workloads. Make every meeting a learning experience and a decision-making session. Keep meetings short and focused on solutions.
  • Recognize and reconcile as much as possible common sources of tension – i.e. money, unclear roles and responsibilities, and divergent missions across individual partners.

 See Partnership-Building: Common Pitfalls and Tips for more.

Chapter 3 Review Questions

  1. Have you identified and recruited a willing, knowledgeable and capable intermediary to convene your sector partnership? What are their strengths?
  2. What dialogue has occured with employers in the industry? What were the outcomes? Any new knowledge about workforce challenges?
  3. What buy-in has been secured from workforce development, education and training, labor (if relevant), economic development, community based organizations, or other stakeholders?
  4. What clarity exists around a shared goal or objective if a sector partnership is designed and implemented?