An Innovative Approach to Workforce Development

posted May 9, 2014, 8:54 AM by Greg Laudeman

Here is an innovative way to re-engage the long-term unemployed in stable, well paying jobs. It builds on practices and tools that technologists have developed in the last few decades. These practices and tools have proven very effective for “geeks”—e.g., highly skilled technologists—but have yet to make it into the mainstream of workforce development. This is because they are so different from current workforce development practices and tools.

The primary difference between the new approach and the current approach is that the work is distributed: This model does not depend on centralized authorities or knowledge resources. Instead, online social media and informal problem-based events are used to connect experts with novices, and those in between, and improve everyone’s skills. The media and events often involve a friendly combination of competition and collaboration to effectively engages and motivates persons with diverse background and capabilities. The new model builds on technology practices and tools to create supportive interpersonal connections and provide experiential learning:

1.     Provide online social network system that is focus on developing valuable skills by:

a.     Building supportive interpersonal connections to individuals currently working in targeted occupations

b.     Coordinating, organizing, and scheduling experiential learning activities

c.      Put individuals on career pathways that capitalize on their experience and knowledge, educational resources in their community, and the specific needs of local employers

2.     Conduct problem-based experiential learning activities and events that address issues and needs of specific employers and the general community:

a.     Build supportive interpersonal connections to individuals currently working in targeted occupations

b.     Demonstrate and develop soft skill as well as technical skills and overcome biases against long-term unemployed

c.      Move individuals among career pathways that capitalize on their experience and knowledge, educational resources in their community, and the specific needs of local employers

This approach does not replace traditional education, training, and workforce development. Instead it complements and supports traditional approaches, increasing their efficacy.

Why is this innovative model needed?

Basically, an innovative approach to workforce development is needed because the old methods just don’t work. There are many good jobs going unfilled while there are many folks who have effectively dropped out of the labor pool. The economy has fundamentally changed it recent decades, yet workforce development is done in much the same way as it was done in the early 20th century. We need a new approach that not only accommodates but actually capitalizes on today’s economic realities.

A recent article in the Washington Post [1] examined the plight of the long-term unemployed. It noted that, “long-term unemployment has become a trap that is difficult to escape” and “could become a permanent underclass, left behind by the nation’s broader economic recovery.” Skills deteriorate during unemployment. The long-term unemployed tend to take jobs that are less stable and steady, don’t fit their abilities, and pay less than their previous jobs. To make matters worse, employers often place a stigma on the long-term unemployed and won’t even consider their applications.

What’s to be done? Well, it is commonly understood that who you know is as important as what you know. For the long-term unemployed this means rebuilding social connections as well as redeveloping relevant skills. One commentator maintains that, “Employees stopped learning how to go out and find success for themselves” [2]. But the fact is that finding success is not and has never been an individual endeavor. Even the ability to get into, let alone make it through, a training or educational program depends a great deal on how much social support one has. Recent research [3] shows that the most successful college graduates are those who develop supportive interpersonal relationships with professors and get involved in experiential learning.

Today’s technology world provides innovative practices and tools to solve this problem. Social media and networking software provide means for individuals to connect with others around common interests. This technology greatly reduces transaction costs: the difficulty of finding, making arrangements with, and coordinating with others. Software developers are especially good at using special purpose social networks like Github ( and Stackoverflow ( for developing skills and sharing techniques. This is the way technology experts stay up-to-date.

Another way that computer programmers and similar technologists learn new skills is via face-to-face events such as hackathons and unconferences. For technologists a hack is an elegant solution to an interesting problem, and hackers are—in contrast to the term’s negative connotations—skilled problem-solvers. A hackathon is a problem-focused meeting during which participants self-organize (there no or minimal agenda) to develop solutions. Hackathons are friendly competitions in which teams form around competing solutions. At the end, the teams demo their solutions and everyone votes on which is best. Unconferences are similar, but are organized, so to speak, around a general topic. Again, there is no agenda. Participants create the agenda as part of the event, and self-organize around sub-topics, sharing information via informal discussion or collaboration. It’s almost like taking away the formal panels and presentations of a regular conference, and concentrating on the discussions that happen in the foyers, hallways, and lobbies. The difference is that during unconferences technologies such as wikis are used to capture and share content created by participants.


1.     “Long-term unemployed struggle to find — and keep — jobs,” Ylan Q. Mui, The Washington Post, April 18, 2014,

2.     “Why Many Unemployed Workers Will Never Get Jobs,” Ira Wolfe, Huffington Post, Business Blog, May 7, 2014,

3.     “Gallup: College Type Has Little to Do With Success,” Allie Bidwell, U.S. News and World Report, May 6, 2014,