State Advances in Building a Skills-Based Labor Market

By Paige Shevlin, Director of Policy and National Initiatives at Skillful


Advances in automation and technology are placing demands on workers to gain new skills faster than ever before to access opportunity in the changing economy. In the U.S., there are 1.4 million more jobs than unemployed people and businesses are struggling to hire the talent they need to grow. At the same time, many Americans are still struggling to access economic opportunity. As our country’s economic transformation accelerates, building a labor market that empowers all adults to secure good paying jobs in the changing economy will be a defining challenge of our time.


America’s Governors recognize this urgency, and are searching for bold solutions to support workers and employers in this time of transformation. 


That’s why I’m glad to have joined Skillful as Director of Policy and National Initiatives, where I have the pleasure of leading the Skillful State Network, a learning collaborative of 27 states from across the country and political spectrum dedicated to empowering America’s Governors to use their unique position as state CEO’s to build a skills-based labor markets where every adult can thrive.


Paige Shevlin, Director of Policy and National Initiatives at Skillful, mingling at the Skillful State Network Summer Convening.


I was excited to attend the Skillful State Network’s annual in-person convening in Indianapolis in July, where representatives of 21 states came together to discuss the state of the country’s workforce, share resources and learnings, and explore potential solutions.  During the session, a few themes emerged:


1. States are struggling with similar economic challenges


As the nature of work changes, the skills gap creates talent challenges that limits economic growth and makes it harder for states to attract and retain companies. Labor force participation and wages vary widely according to education and skill level, and job growth has not benefitted all areas equally.


2. State systems need to change to adapt to the changing economy


State leaders recognize that our systems for job search, skills matching, hiring, and skills development are not keeping up. Participants touched on how silos within state government create inefficiencies and make it difficult to build meaningful partnerships with business, education, philanthropy, and local government.  Business hiring systems use inefficient proxies to assess talent that prevent people with the right skills from obtaining quality jobs. Education systems are often not set up for people who have jobs but are looking to increase their skills in their field or change careers. Our data systems and tools don’t adequately help people or policymakers to make decisions about jobs and training program can lead to better career outcomes.


3. Creative, collaborative solutions are in the works


States are rising to these challenges. Below are just a few examples of work that is underway.  


A. Helping local employers find talent using skills-based practices. If employers change their recruiting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, and training practices to focus on skills, they’re more likely to find people that will flourish in a given role. Through the Skillful Talent Series, Skillful trains local partners in Indiana and Colorado to incorporate skills-based practices into existing employer partnerships.  States see skills-based practices as an opportunity to improve their business services and better engage employers in the co-creation of the talent pipeline.    


B. Expanding access to in-demand skills for adults. States are making it easier for adults to acquire or complete in-demand credentials. For example, Tennessee Reconnect helps older workers go back to complete an unfinished degree. The recently passed Washington State College Grant program removes tuition as a barrier for low-income adults to attend or complete college. Indiana, Skillful’s second operational state, offers a Workforce Ready Grant that is focused on making programs that lead to high-wage and high-demand jobs more affordable. Their Next Level Jobs website helps Hoosiers learn more about the grant program and matches them with the right training in their area. Indiana also has a complementary grant for employers to build training programs to upskill their existing workforce.


C. Career coaching. Career coaches can play a critical role in helping adult workers achieve their career goals in a changing economy.  In the Tennessee’s Reconnect program mentioned above, tuition assistance is paired with coaching support to inform decision-making about training program selection, improve completion and support an effective transition from training into the job market.  New Jersey is investing in coaching for unemployed adults through its New Start Career Network. In recognition of the critical role coaches play in the lives of job seekers, Skillful and the state of Colorado launched the Skillful Governor’s Coaching Corps, an intensive program that helps counselors and advisors in American Job Centers, our community colleges, our high schools, and our community-based organizations to become better career coaches. The Colorado program is about to enter its third year, with 61 coaches trained, and Skillful Indiana just launched its own program in 2019, with the support of Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb.


D. Leadership structures to drive change and track progress. States can bring state agencies and funding together around common goals, such as aligning education with industry, providing robust data to job seekers, and training employers on skills-based practices. Ohio, Kentucky, Colorado, and Indiana all have set up structures designed to align public and private stakeholders towards a shared goal for workforce modernization and use available resources effectively to drive progress.


State leaders listening to Skillful CEO, Beth Cobert.


In Indianapolis, I saw state leaders seeking bold solutions commensurate with the challenges they face. These leaders understand the critical importance of visionary state leadership, starting with gubernatorial engagement that elevates this challenge a top state priority, rethinks the status quo, and transforming the entire system rather than creating new programs. I also saw states hungry for collaboration, and I am excited to get to work bringing these state leaders together to help accelerate progress through joint learning and action.


The diverse economies, demographics, and policy landscapes of the 27 member states provide a testing ground to develop and share an informed perspective on what solutions will be most successful in different circumstances. This way, states can truly become laboratories of democracy to inform the development of a policy roadmap for state and national leaders.


The challenges are complex and the stakes are high, but states are ready to play their part in creating a labor market that empowers all workers to share in the prosperity of the digital age. Let’s get to work.