Leading with a Proactive Business Engagement Strategy for Greater Impact

Four best practices for workforce boards nationwide

– by Danny Patterson


State and Local Workforce Development Boards (WDBs) have the opportunity to become the unsung heroes within their state – and make an even greater impact to their communities. Some innovative workforce boards are already leading the way, while others resist the opportunity. The question is why?

In 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), provided the guidance and framework for a proactive business engagement approach to WDBs nationwide. Some WDBs fully embraced this guidance provided in the written law and its accompanying regulations, yet other WDBs still focus exclusively on rapid response activities as the complete directive. If focus is limited to Rapid Response, the odds for success are instantly stacked against the local WDBs, as the system is wired to be reactive – the need to develop and maintain local systems to be informed or aware of a layoff event, to react when one has occurred, and then try to minimize its impact by marketing services and support available to dislocated workers through the OneStop system.

Some say the proactive business engagement approach is too heavy of a lift. I agree, but only if you lack the right data and research tools. Based on my own positive experience implementing this approach statewide in California, here are recommended best practices to guide the shift to a proactive business engagement strategy for greater impact:

1 Proactive business engagement requires a partnership mindset

2 Data-driven approach fuels the right engagement strategies

3 Measurable impact is not only quantifiable, it is simple math

4 Actionable data redefines what’s possible for workforce boards

The bottom line is this: workforce development boards and their OneStop Centers are an employment-based program as evidenced by the common measures. So, the goal remains the same regardless of the approach – develop a skilled workforce and keep people in the labor market. The difference then is the amount of positive impact to the community.


1 Proactive business engagement requires a partnership mindset

Relevant portions of WIOA rules pertaining to business engagement and layoff aversion are listed.Too often, WDBs primarily focus on rapid response despite the written law providing guidance on and encouraging proactive business engagement. They read about a closing in a newspaper and then reach out. I had a slogan when I was the Rapid Response and Business Engagement Coordinator for the California Workforce Development board, “Rapid Response is a failed business engagement.” In my view, it is a broken business model – while it is understandably mandatory, it’s reactive versus proactive – and often too late to make a difference. I recognize the difficult and challenging work carried out by the local rapid response representatives, it is a herculean lift and applaud their efforts, but it remains a reactive response, driven by a business closure or workforce reduction of which they have no control.  WDBs can no longer focus on just rapid response. There is another way!

A proactive business engagement strategy is increasingly becoming the new normal – a strategy that spans across the entire lifecycle of a business: from business development to contraction to expansion. Workforce boards have a dual responsibility – 1) to partner with healthy businesses to enable growth and hiring and 2) to partner with struggling businesses to avert layoffs or downsizing.

WDBs work with businesses in a growth mode for two reasons; a) to help them meet their needs for a skilled workforce and provide increased and diverse opportunities for job seekers, and b) to develop business relationships so that if a company is going through a layoff, the WDB can help the impacted workers rapidly find employment with companies that have available opportunities and need their skill sets.

WDBs also need to identify businesses who are struggling and in danger of closing – to help the business if the owners desire to preserve their company and its employees, through the use of proactive strategies such as professional marketing assistance to increase access to new clients and markets, incumbent worker training to upskill the existing workforce, use of lean principles, connecting them with small business development centers or economic development agencies to access needed financial resources, or to work with them in advance to help the soon-to-be-impacted workers. Similarly, we want to be able to facilitate rapid reemployment and connect workers with businesses through short-term, on-the-job, or customized training programs and apprenticeships.

This is proactive business engagement – where a WDB is a valued partner, actively engaged and vested in the business’s success along the entire business continuum.


2 Data-driven approach fuels the right engagement strategiesRelevant portions of WIOA rules pertaining to proactive strategic data planning are listed.

Today’s reality is that most local WDB practitioners are chasing data rather than having predictive business level information pushed to them. They lack the reliable business data to anticipate business change or predict failure of businesses. Instead, they rely on who/what they already know or have easy access to, such as newspaper articles, business associations, etc. Moreover, the majority of the layoffs don’t meet the federal WARN requirements notification criteria (i.e., employing over 100 full-time workers), so small-to-midsize businesses who are at risk and are laying-off workers are invisible to local WDBs. There is also a reluctance of businesses to share access to their dislocated workers with the local WDB, largely because workforce boards are not recognized as assistance partners.  Additionally, most businesses are not aware of the workforce development system or their menu of business services. This creates a heavy and unnecessary lift for any workforce board.

We found that a data-driven approach provides the best-in-class business, workforce, industry, and business health data – which is organized on an interactive, multi-dimensional dashboard. This enables industry sector and trend analysis at the local or regional level, business and workforce research, time-series data comparisons to improve business outreach and engagement programs.  The ability to then filter these data by changes in company health, NAICS, business size and geography, provides a refined list of the exact businesses which may be open to the outreach messaging of a WDB. By leveraging this actionable data, workforce boards can be proactive versus reactive, understand the changing dynamics of businesses to drive the right engagement strategies and minimize impact quickly. Key insights include but not limited to:

    • What businesses are healthy, expanding and hiring?
    • Who is experiencing financial stress, contraction, and at risk?
    • What businesses are in need of early intervention?
    • Who needs assistance for skills training?
    • What industries are emerging and who is driving the growth?
    • What are the industry sector trends by region?
    • What regions are experiencing expansion or contraction?

The constant stream of business information and insight about businesses, industry health and trends is essential to predict the ebbs and flows of expansion and contraction before it occurs. A continually refreshed list of companies and contact details makes the data actionable.


3 Measurable impact is not only quantifiable, it is simple mathRelevant portions of WIOA rules pertaining to tracking rapid response outcomes are listed.

Measuring impact is always challenging. While federal workforce programs focus on three metrics – job placement, job retention and wages, they do not specifically measure the “jobs saved” if a layoff is avoided altogether (how can one measure something that never happens?) In spite of this, some local boards have taken the initiative to seek more granularity to justify specific program costs, such as jobs saved, even though it is not a reportable item per WIOA.

What gets counted matters. When workforce development boards have strong partnerships with the businesses in their jurisdiction and are actively engaged in their success, the businesses are more likely to share results. Let’s use my own past experience in California as an example of how workforce boards can measure impact using standard metrics in a simple equation.

The State of California has a directive to report both rapid response activity and layoff aversion (jobs saved) activity. For example, after the first year of adopting a data-centric approach to layoff aversion, the California Workforce Board found a way to easily report and quantify the impact. First, they needed to understand the health of the businesses – healthy and growing, contracting but still operating, or closed – across the jurisdictions covered by the 45 local WDBs. Each WDB was provided with the data and research tools to find struggling companies and proactively implement individual strategies for these companies to avoid layoffs. This is proactive business engagement – and the impact and ROI was significant.

Below, I share our simple model that can be used for any state. For purposes of illustration, I have populated it with a very reachable scenario of number of total jobs saved across the state after a year of proactive engagement with struggling and growing companies. Unemployment weekly benefits range from $235 to $823 per week.

Graphic showing calculated annual UI savings due to proactive layoff aversion.In the year one example above, the State realized measurable results from their data-driven, proactive layoff aversion strategies. 1,600 people remained employed. 1,600 people remained taxpayers. Eliminated the emotional trauma of job loss to families. Business owners did not experience an increase in their UI contribution rate. $13.6M in savings for the State Unemployment Insurance fund. This savings and impact is realized year over year.


4 Actionable data redefines what’s possible from workforce boards

Workforce boards today are limited by their lack of actionable data, not their vision. Barriers exist today through no fault of the local boards. The world of actionable data can unleash a world of opportunity for WDBs. Imagine the greater impact that can be achieved if workforce boards:

    • Expand networks quickly with targeted business outreach
      • Understand who is expanding and hiring
      • Understand who is experiencing financial stress and contracting
    • Call with intention (vs. cold calling)
    • Reach the right contact on the first outreach
    • Engage with more than 4-5% of the businesses in your jurisdiction
    • Help businesses hire 500 people, not just 10
    • Assist 80% of the jobseekers at a One Stop Center to land a job and begin a career
    • Exceed the WDB negotiated goals

By embracing the “art of possible” with actionable data, WDBs can have a far greater impact on the job seekers, workers, businesses, and the community.


People are the reason we do what we do – and the lynchpin to business and community

People are the driving force of the labor market. It is the goal of workforce development boards to keep people in the labor market. When jobs can’t be saved, WDBs need to focus on impacted employees, and ensure rapid reemployment for people within the community in healthy businesses that pay good wages, offer health and medical benefits and provide on ramps to careers, not just jobs.  When these layoffs are unavoidable and do occur, lives are disrupted, both for the employees and their families – and depending on the size of the layoff, the community.

That is why a proactive business engagement strategy is the path forward. Building a strong network of healthy businesses who are paying good wages, pays off in the end. That is why having the up-to-date knowledge on who is healthy and growing and who is struggling so you do some advance work on the front end rather than reacting to a layoff event is so critical to supporting the economic vitality of the community.

People matter. Businesses matter. Communities matter. That’s why workforce development boards exist – and why the greater impact they can make with a proactive business engagement strategy is so important.


Photo Credit: “The deal and a partnership” by Bestpicko is licensed under CC BY 2.0.