Predicting the Future of Work: NAWB CEO Ron Painter Discusses How to Train Workers for Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet
In the 21st century, the world of work is constantly changing. This podcast series, Reimagining Career Pathways, will explore the needs of the future workforce, rethinking traditional education pathways to connect students today with the in-demand jobs and skills of the future.
Over the past few decades, the emergence of new technologies has changed the shape of the workforce. Jobs that existed for centuries have disappeared, and many jobs of the future have yet to be created. According to Ron Painter, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards, as the workforce continues to evolve, the way people are trained for jobs will have to change as well.
“I think we have to fundamentally rethink, how do we deal with an individual throughout their career? Because there’s going to be this constant need for reskilling,” says Ron.
Because workers of the future will constantly need to upskill, workforce development boards around the country have channeled their focus onto lifelong learning.
“For us in the education and skill development industry, I think that we have gone through a period of conversation around lifelong learning. But I really think the challenge now for us in the industry is to figure out really, how does that work?” Ron asks.
So what are those in workforce development doing to propel lifelong learning, from K12 to retirement? Listen in to our interview with Ron Painter and guest host Kevin Fudge of ASA to learn more about how local workforce boards are preparing for the future, and what can be done to create work-based education that provides students and workers today with the skills of tomorrow.
Kevin Fudge: Hi, this is Kevin Fudge. I’m the director of consumer advocacy and ombudsman for American Student Assistance. Today we’re speaking with Ron Painter, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards. Hey Ron, how are you doing today?
Ron Painter: I’m doing good, Kevin. How are you?
Kevin Fudge: Excellent, thanks. So in a sentence or two, could you introduce yourself, and the work you do at National Association for Workforce Boards?
Ron Painter: Sure. I am the CEO here at the National Association of Workforce Boards, as you mentioned, NAWB for short. And we represent the nation’s 550 local, business-led Workforce Development Boards and a number of state workforce boards are members as well. We do that representation here in Washington with not only what you would think of as a Washington-based organization on Capitol Hill with the administration, but also with a number of other organizations that are in the district that are also involved with workforce and education issues. For example, NAWB is a member of the Committee for Education Funding. So it’s part of what is intrinsic to the work of local workforce boards.
Kevin Fudge: We hear a lot about the knowledge economy, jobs for the future. And so much of what people understand about workforce and workforce development can be based off of previous versions of manufacturing and hard labor. So what do you think the most in-demand jobs are and the most in-demand skills are for the future? And what types of programs do you think students and people seeking work need today for these jobs of tomorrow?
Ron Painter: Great question, Kevin, and one that right now we’re getting very frequently. We are also involved in some work with JFF, a joint venture we call AWAKE, that is looking at how technology is going to impact our industry in education and workforce development. I’m also a member of the workforce advisory for the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute as they look at where is and where are we going with automation and where are we going with artificial intelligence and how will that impact what we’re doing.
Ron Painter: I’m a big fan of Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mine, and in it Pink talks about what he sees as these skills that are in demand. And I would very much agree. It has to do with the analysis of data, because as we continue to be able to access more and more data, the question becomes, how does that data fit together? And as Pink points out, one of the critical skills of symphony, how does that data help us tell a story about what’s happening in a particular industry?
Ron Painter: So I think the skills that are going to really be necessary as we move through this is the ability to understand graphs, data, be able to interpret data and that’s not just that what we would think of as as a management level. I was recently at an advanced manufacturing plant and one of the parts that had been pressed, a very large part, was undergoing an examination by laser of the measurements and the skill of the press, or the quality of the press. And the operator was explaining to me what he was seeing on the screen in terms of the data that the laser was giving him, the measurements, what might need to be sanded or grinded.
Ron Painter: So he was interpreting data. It was his responsibility to do quality control. So I think this notion of, or this ability to look at data and analyze it is going to be top to bottom. I think the other thing is the ability to work in teams. I think it’s even probably more critical today when many of us aren’t in the same location. We see a lot more of a virtual work. So, how do you do that teaming? How do you do communication? So the ability to understand the data, the ability to tell the story, the ability to communicate, work in teams, I think are going to be critical skills moving forward. The rest of it as somebody in town here had said to me was this whole business of education and workforce is pretty easy. All we need to do is to teach people skills that we don’t know they’re going to need for jobs that don’t exist yet. So I think as we think about it, I really like to come back to what I think are going to be these really core skills.
Kevin Fudge: In your opinion is there a disconnect between employers perception of what they need—the skills—and the people that are preparing students? How have the employers perception of what is needed changed over the last 10 to 20 years as technology has increased? And then how does that impact the way that we prepare people through education and through training for those opportunities?
Ron Painter: I think for the employer, Kevin, how their work is done, whether that is in manufacturing or whether that’s a delivery of services, obviously has changed radically with the introduction of, the continuing introduction of, automation and robotics. So from the employer standpoint as we move into manufacturing 4.0 or 2.0, the employer is really constantly having to innovate and update.
Ron Painter: I think how that reflects back on skill development is that the employers are looking increasingly for evidence of competence. So once upon a time, if we had a high school diploma or we had a B.A. degree or an A.A. degree there was a certain amount of assumption of competency, a cache that we were competent. I think from the employer’s standpoint, I don’t want to say there’s a there’s not a confidence in that, but I think there’s more pressure to demonstrate competency than just saying, I have gone through training. I have a certificate from a training provider, whether that’s the diploma, the degree or literally a certificate that says I went to training. I think the question becomes, do I have a competence in a particular skill?
Ron Painter: I think for us in the education and skill development industry, I think that we have gone through a period of conversation around lifelong learning. It’s become almost a given—an assumption—when you go into a meeting. Of course, we have to do lifelong learning. But I really think the challenge now for us in the industry is to figure out really how does that work? What does that mean? How is that funded and how does that work?
Ron Painter: Once upon a time, as you may have read, some of us have lived that you may have read it, companies did and they still do, a large amount of in company skill development. So they would track that. But as we’ve gotten more into the gig economy, as we’ve gotten more into increasingly that skill development being the responsibility of the individual—how that individual keeps track of their skill levels and their competencies, what kind of certification they go after, how that’s paid for—I think now those challenges of lifelong learning are really coming to to the fore.
Kevin Fudge: Right.
Ron Painter: As institutions in communities, the Pre-K through 12, community colleges, postsecondary, workforce development boards, I really think we are in the throes of grappling with so how actually does all this happen?
Kevin Fudge: Yeah, you mentioned that and automatically I think of people making almost like a digital portfolio. So like a certificate in years past will be demonstrated you know capability. But it’s almost like you want a student or worker to walk around now with their own YouTube channel showing potential employers how they are skilled in whatever they’re doing. Whether it’s manufacturing, whether it’s building. Whatever.
Kevin Fudge: And that’s their portfolio. And then a potential employer can look at that and say ‘Wow, here’s actual evidence. I can see that they’re capable of doing what I need them to do.’ This is great. Kind of building on those lines, so how then do you strike the balance between helping people prepare and demonstrate competency for things that are going on right now? Like an employer needs a worker to be skilled in something in the present, but then also be able to prepare for the future. How do you strike that balance between present and future?
Ron Painter: I think the huge challenge in front of our our industry today, Kevin. For me, it goes back to we understand the concept of lifelong learning. Now I think it’s incumbent on those of us that are national associations in the industry is to start to figure out well then how does that actually work? Who holds these electronic portfolios, as you say. How do we stop thinking in terms of people who are entering or emerging into the labor market, people who are already in the labor market. We think of them as incumbent workers versus emerging workers versus dislocated workers versus re-entry. I think we have to fundamentally rethink how do we deal with an individual throughout their career. Because there’s going to be this constant need for reskilling.
Ron Painter: And again, while it may not be a preponderance of how the market works right now, the gig economy is going to be a part of the market going forward. So how do we account for those individuals? How do we set up a framework for those individuals to be able to to stay current, keep their cache current. I was going to say I think the other challenge for us as an education and skill development industry is that as individuals, as consumers, we are kind of used to going online. So this notion of consumer choice and how the consumer expects a product or service to be available to them.
Ron Painter: I think is also one of the challenges that the education and skill development industry faces is that we have a much different consumer than when I went to school. It used to be this linear thought, you know, where you were going to get the little nippers off to up to kindergarten and then they’re going to go through one through 12 and then hopefully they will go to some kind of post secondary education whether that’s the more traditional occupational skill development, apprenticeship, tech training or whether they go out to the community college or they go to a four year. I think we have to rethink what that looks like.
Kevin Fudge: Right. I’m curious—as a national organization how do you manage the challenges of different regions and their priorities? So for example, if you’re doing workforce development in the Northeast with such a high concentration of private liberal arts college and the idea of postsecondary education people equate with four year school. Versus other parts of the country where there may be or receptivity to two year schools to transfer to a four year schools, or there may be industry that is partnering with the local two year schools to develop programs to help enhance employment in particular areas. How do you sort of govern that? Do you try to bring something that’s happening in a rural context to an urban context or vice versa? Do you focus more on workforce and employers in one area versus the education space, the K12 space in another area? How do you bridge those gaps and manage that balance?
Ron Painter: I think there are two ways I’d answer that, Kevin. The Forum, which is an annual event here in Washington we say is powered by NAWB, does a lot of look at not only what are the issues that are being discussed in education and skill development, but we do industry briefings. So we have industry panels that come out of various industry sectors to talk about what are the pressures on that industry current, and what do people see moving forward? Third part of that then is sharing promising practices, what seems to be working.
Ron Painter: Core to NAWB is that we believe that local business-led workforce boards need to have the ability and the authority to make the decisions that you’re talking about. How are we going to invest federal and state dollars in our region in order for the labor force to stay current and for us to support businesses in a way that continues to provide them qualified workers?
Ron Painter: Because we believe that at that local and that regional level, the kind of things you’re talking about, the assets that I have in terms of not only just the education side, the skill development side. But what assets do I have in terms of transportation, housing, quality childcare, broadband access—which is still a major problem in many rural areas across the country is access to broadband. People in urban areas just make assumptions that everybody has fast internet. That’s not the case. So but we believe again that these local workforce boards, a majority of the membership of whom are private businesses, are in the best position to strike the balances that that you’re talking about.
Ron Painter: So a major part of what we advocate in Washington D.C., not only with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, but across the board, is this ability for people at the most local level that it makes sense to make these decisions.
Ron Painter: We do believe in metrics. We do believe that we need to set what are the outcomes that we’re expecting. What are the outcomes that we expect to see from these investments. But we believe then the ability and the authority to put that together has to lie with local and regional workforce boards.
Kevin Fudge: I think that’s a really great point. Because I was recently at a conference, and they mentioned there’s a group from Arkansas. And they’re mentioning how they’re working with schools and they got grant funding from the state to increase training for people to be plumbers. Because there’s areas in Arkansas that don’t have full plumbing. And so people are kind of looking around the room and people from urban areas are like, really? Like in the United States today, there’s places that don’t have full plumbing. But it’s the same mentality. Like you almost have to get out of your bubble and see what’s going on. And so the strategy and the idea that whoever’s on the ground in that community, the micro level, the macro level, the city, the county, those local workforce investment boards will know what strategies to put in place and how to allocate and get those resources.
Ron Painter: Right. And as you think of talent as an asset for a region, where our region is going to put forward business expansion for the businesses that are here. We’re going to put forward a strategy around business attraction. One of those assets becomes the skill of the current labor force. I would also argue it becomes the depth and the vitality of the workforce development system to keep those workers current.
Ron Painter: So as you do that, the other factor is that the National Association of Counties, NACo, tells me that local governments across the U.S. invest more than 25 billion dollars a year in economic development activity. Well, who best to understand what those economic development investments are that are being made by local governments, and what’s the corollary needs and impact on workforce development again, than local or regional workforce development boards who are charged with bringing the community together to think about these other systems, if you will, or these other impactors on workforce: housing, transportation, quality child care. The depth of an access to the skill development and education systems in our region.
Kevin Fudge: So of your member organizations, which groups are making the most strides in workforce development? And what are the programs that have been most successful?
Ron Painter: I think there is there’s amazing, amazing work going across the country.
Ron Painter: I think there are a number of places around the country that are doing amazing work. Think of Tarrant County, Texas—amazing work in re-entry. I think you look at places like Eastern Kentucky—what what they’re doing around retraining individuals to tax and working with tech companies on remote gig workers and teaching them coding and teaching them. And then working with tech companies to make sure that that they have employment. I think when you look at advanced manufacturing, you look at things that are going on in the old former or the former Saturn plant down in Spring Hill Tennessee with the workforce. Ford has it going there. And then you go on to Alabama to look at what the workforce board and the community colleges are doing with with Mercedes and with others there with with Toyota.
Ron Painter: So I think again it’s sort of illustrating that as you look at what you might think are what we would consider successful programs, it’s reflective of the economy.
Ron Painter: When you look at San Diego and the work that they’re doing not only around technology, but what they’re doing around biotech. In Chicago, retail is a critical part, retail and hospitality, and the work of the workforce board there. Also with about 10 other workforce boards across the country, including Dallas, looking at retail. So I just think there is so much going on.
Ron Painter: But to say it again, it’s because local and regional workforce boards are looking at what’s the situation in front of us and how best do we respond.
Kevin Fudge: I appreciate you mentioning biotech and retail. Because I think a lot of times when you say the word workforce, people automatically think of manufacturing in a plant. And workforce means a lot. And it’s a broader context than I think most people would give. And building on that idea, so what can employers do to engage younger workers?
Kevin Fudge: I’m just curious to know how do we encourage training or introducing these these ideas to younger people whether they be millennials, whether they be gen z, I mean whether they be young people like middle school, like 12 to 14, as they’re transitioning into high school and starting to think about what they want to do for career and postsecondary education.
Ron Painter: I think we’re seeing a lot of that as the workforce innovation and opportunity act charged the boards with getting with their education colleagues to talk more about career pathways. I think you are seeing the notion of dual enrollment in many, many places. That’s where as a high school student, I can take courses at the community college level.
Ron Painter: I was just, not too long ago, in Riverside, California. And they were talking about the number of students who graduated from high schools in Riverside County, who also had at least a semester, if not a year, of community college credits that they had attained at the same time. So I think we’re seeing more employers reach back and get engaged with the career and tech center. I think the Carl Perkins legislation that just passed, reauthorization, where Perkins language is now consistent with WIOA language around in-demand industries and in-demand occupations and skills. So I think you’re starting to see some of that alignment on our side of the ledger.
Ron Painter: I think you’re also seeing employers reach more into secondary schools with more opportunity for dual enrollment. At the same time, you are seeing an increased focus at the federal level around work-based learning. The Cadillac of that being the focus on apprenticeship programs. Traditionally, we would think about the building trades when we would think about apprenticeship. But we are seeing Hartford and Zurich and Axion do those apprenticeship programs in the insurance industry.
Ron Painter: We’re seeing apprenticeship programs being developed in technology. We’re seeing apprenticeship programs being developed in healthcare. So this renewed focus on the value of ‘earn and learn’ work-based learning I think is a way that employers are engaging young people. Our role is to try and show people options and opportunities. And that extends to, ‘college doesn’t have to be the only pathway to good employment, solid employment.’ This work-based learning, ‘earn and learn,’ if you will, whether that is through apprenticeship or other types of work-based learning, on the job training internships. I think we’re seeing renewed interest in that. I think it’s really good—demonstrating that there are other pathways to skill development.
Kevin Fudge: Yeah, absolutely. So what’s the most effective way to implement apprenticeship programs on a much wider scale? who’s going to create the greatest role or opportunity for the implementation. Is it a combination of parents, students, schools, governments? Is one entity going to have a greater impact than another? How do you see this working out—over the longer term implementing apprenticeships on a wider scale?
Ron Painter: I think it’s going to be a combination of all of that, Kevin. We’re watching a number of experiments around competency-based hiring. So as employers begin to examine their labor force more, as they really look at what kind of skills, what kind of competencies they really require, instead of just the shorthand of a high school diploma required or a college degree required. Actually coming and looking at what are the competencies, what are the combination of competencies that are required.
Ron Painter: We’re seeing that put into play with work-based learning and with apprenticeship, as the Cadillac of work-based learning, workforce boards across the country are helping translate that into what does that look like around skill development. What are the kinds of skill development that you can begin or you can do completely in high school that would carry over into a two year degree, that would be honored toward a four-year degree.
Ron Painter: I also think that from the public standpoint, we do need to do more of that communication. We do need to help parents understand that, college doesn’t have to be the only pathway, that there are other pathways into to solid employment. And that pursuing an apprenticeship doesn’t exclude college. Many of the building trades, The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the IDEW, pioneered this notion of apprenticeship that leads to a journeyman’s status that by the way also gets you an associate degree. So, I think we’re going to see more of that recognition. Part of that is you know, the cost of postsecondary.
Kevin Fudge: I’m sure, like you, we’re all looking forward to seeing how this unfolds. I really want to thank you for speaking with me today. It’s been a pleasure, Ron.
Ron Painter: Kevin, it’s been a pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity.
This podcast episode is sponsored by American Student Assistance®. ASA® is a national nonprofit committed to helping kids know themselves, know their options, and make informed choices to achieve their education and career goals. To learn more about ASA, visit asa.org.