Rethinking how we finance workforce talent

A Michigan utility company is working to create more access to the customer service talent pipeline

For the past year, a group of nonprofits has been digging deep into an important question: how do we eliminate cost as a barrier to educating, training, and upskilling in order to make certain everyone has access to opportunities in the changing workforce?

The question was first introduced last fall when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, along with several partners, introduced Talent Finance – a white paper calling for rethinking the public-private approach to financing workforce talent.

The paper clearly spelled out the mission. “We are in a new economy that competes on talent, yet the talent financing and development systems we rely on were built for a different era and economy. The global pandemic has introduced new urgency and risks that require bold thinking and transformational change.

“In this dynamic economy, skills and job opportunities are constantly changing and new skills and opportunities are emerging. Amid this change, employers, workers, and government face growing risks in achieving a return on investment in skill development and managing short- and long-term risks associated with employment and income.”

The brief was co-authored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, and Greater Houston Partnership.

Sarah Castro is senior director, programs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Center for Education and Workforce. She notes since the initial launch, “We’ve really been ramping and amping this thing up to get lots of partners in there.” Castro says, “We have added Social Finance, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Education Finance Council, National Association of Workforce Boards, and JFF.

The Customer Service Talent Pipeline

Since the launch, the Chamber Foundation has conducted sessions with local businesses and organizations to explore talent finance instruments and identify pilots and partnerships with strong employer leadership. The first cohort was made up of 21 organizations and participants were tasked with presenting their ideas for pilot programs that, ultimately, grow and lift up talent.

Deborah Majeski (Photo: DTE Energy)

Among the cohort members, DTE Energy, a Detroit-based utility company. Deborah Majeski, manager of workforce development at DTE Energy shared with the group that a key strategies would be to make sure employers are actually in search of talent. “Now you’re building the pipeline and you want to make sure it’s aligned with jobs, right? You just don’t want to build it and not have people wanting to hire from it,” says Majeski.

“I did a little homework in regards to customer service and realizing that customer service had a very high job demand in the state of Michigan – it was going to be number six for a number of years – I packaged it up in a way to share it with the CPO (chief procurement officer) leadership that this might be a project for us to consider and they grabbed hold of it,” says Majeski.

“We were able to collect the data. And then I was able to build charts that said this is what the story is. We have 11,000 job opportunities in the next 18 months.”

Making the Pipeline Accessible and Equitable

Majeski says the framework for the necessary customer service skills is multi-tiered. Among them, personal effectiveness, academic and workplace competencies, and industry-specific skills.

She explains that customer service needs stretch across many employers. “This project is touching multiple industries. It is touching automotive, health care, entertainment, utilities, private companies like suppliers of DTE, supplies to people in our community here within the Detroit region.”

(Graphic: DTE Energy)

The customer service initiative is now partnered with a local educational institution, according to Majeski. “We were able to connect with Henry Ford College. They have a customer service program. We’re going to be expanding on what they already have.”

Majeski says the learning can also extend to high school students. “We are also discussing with high schools to have dual enrollment. So now I get a high school senior to get a dual enrollment. They’re learning about customer service. They’re getting college credits. We can now start promoting either work-based learning or summer internships. So that’ll be another flow of opportunity.”

She adds that the focus aims to also include career and technical education institutions, as well as adult learners.

The collaborative members interested in growing their customer service talent are also providing information on how to fund the program. “Funding is still an area of opportunity,” says Majeski.

“We have partners here. This membership is working to help us figure out where are the funding sources. They are sharing with us whether they have foundational dollars or are there other grant dollars that they’re aware of that this collaborative might tap into.”

Creating and Maintaining Impact

“I’ve been working in the workforce development space for a number of years now. When you’re really trying to look at solving problems that are within a community and problems that you don’t just want to put on a Band-Aid, you really want to get to understanding the root cause and putting sustainable solutions in place.”

Majeski talks about expanding beyond the local collaboration. “If it’s going to grow to the next level, where does that administrative drive take place? Someone has to keep a pulse to keep it continuously growing.”

“Where would this driver be?” asks Majeski. “So that’s one that still needs to be figured out.”