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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Column: Will Fort Worth’s business community grow? That will depend on its workforce

If the Amazon HQ2 search has done anything, it’s highlighted the critical importance of a city’s labor force in the corporate site selection process. The online giant has stated that a large workforce trained for the 21st century economy is among its top requirements, and other corporations looking to relocate or expand are likely to agree.

Fort Worth has a distinctive identity and a vibrant business community. Local leaders know that to keep its economy strong, the city must evolve to keep pace with relentless change in the business world. Therefore Fort Worth is assessing whether it has the talent pool to attract new businesses to fuel its growth and retain the companies already here.

In order for Fort Worth to better compete in the knowledge economy, which has different requirements than an industrial or service economy as growth depends on the quantity, quality and accessibility of information, its workers must have the tools and skills needed for the 21st century. That requires a shift from the manufacturing and production skills that have traditionally fueled the city’s economy. So “workforce development” has become a top topic. But what does it mean? Let’s define it as actions that the business community can take to attract, develop and retain under-skilled and unskilled labor.

The task may seem overwhelming for one individual or business. However if the Fort Worth business community embraces the challenge, the collective effort has the potential to be transformative.

But what to do?

Step one is to step up. C-suite executives should take a vigorous leadership role. This isn’t something that can be completely delegated to human resources or a training department. Senior executives’ biggest contribution would be to make sure the organization is committed to the task by providing the necessary manpower, funding, resources and intellectual capital. And then hold the organization accountable.

There are several immediate steps companies can take to help current and future employees arm themselves with the skills needed for the evolving economy.

· Team with other companies to sponsor a boot camp series offering instruction in software languages with the most demand such as Java, JavaScript, Ruby and SQL.

· To focus on the next generation of talent, establish a scholarship to aid students studying a topic important to the future of the enterprise. This is also a great way to identify future employees.

· Participate in local career days. It’s simple, but it’s important. Tell the students the skills you need so they can adjust their courses of study accordingly. And be sure to convey that message to the school administrators so they develop curricula that are relevant to today’s economy.

· If the company doesn’t have an active internship program, start one. With pay. Recruit students from four-year and junior colleges. For summer internships, recruit from outside the Dallas-Fort Worth area to help attract future Fort Worth residents.

· The “soft” skills that make people effective and potential leaders in the workplace are often overlooked in training programs. Don’t neglect them. Interpersonal and communications skills are important ingredients for on-the-job success.

Junior colleges are an important source of training and education. Tarrant County College has a track record of working with local companies to craft programs to teach specific skills. By partnering with the business community, education institutions can develop courses that teach skills that are a reflection of the city’s future and not its manufacturing heritage.

Let’s address small businesses that don’t have the resources for large training initiatives. The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce has valuable information on its website about the state’s Skills Development Program. This allows local companies to identify needed skills and apply for funds to customize training programs through local community and technical colleges. (http://www.fortworthecodev.com/workforce/workforce-development/workforce-training/)

Although it’s easy to assume that anyone with a mobile phone is proficient with technology, this could be faulty reasoning when applied to unskilled and under-educated workers. As Fort Worth and the rest of the state reach zero unemployment, those who have been unemployable are an important source of labor. Yet a lack of basic technology and software knowledge could keep them from taking work — even many minimum-wage jobs require a fundamental understanding of how to use technology. Digital literacy classes would help give those who were previously unemployable access to more entry-level jobs, which could act as a gateway to better-paying “middle skills” jobs not requiring a college degree.

The future of Fort Worth depends on all strata of its workforce having the skills needed to handle jobs in the knowledge economy, as well as on the understanding that change in business is constant. And those that don’t change get left behind. The decisions the city’s business leaders make now about a workforce with relevant skills will have a major impact on how successful Fort Worth is in the coming decades.

James Thompson is the CEO and president of The InSource Group, a technology staffing and placement company with offices in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston. He can be reached at JT@insourcegroup.com.

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