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Chapter 2: All About Workforce Development

This blog post is a DRAFT chapter for a book being published by Origami Works Foundation. We will correct inaccuracies in the final book version. If you identify any inaccuracies, please let us know using this Feedback Form.

This chapter lays out some workforce development fundamentals for you, including how various stakeholders are involved. We’ll answer these questions: 

  • What is workforce development for?  

  • How does it operate? 

  • Who delivers services to employers, jobseekers, and wage earners? 

  • How is it funded?  

  • Who benefits? 

The main purpose of this book is to inform you, an employer, about why and how to leverage your community’s investments in workforce development to meet your organization’s talent needs. We think it helps to have a basic knowledge of how this enormous ecosystem functions overall. Armed with that awareness, you can gain a fuller understanding of the many ways to access benefits and achieve goals, often at a low cost, or no cost at all. 

Workforce Development Aims

Workforce development is all about boosting the skills and opportunities of residents in a region to fuel economic growth and prosperity. Think of it as a collaborative effort between the government, schools, businesses, nonprofits, and other entities to close gaps between the businesses who need talent and people who need work. 

Workforce development often involves investing in education and training for employees and potential employees. It also can address other kinds of gaps, such as lack of public transportation, or issues with the quality of available jobs (e.g., low pay or lack of benefits). 

Workforce development can address not only gaps and problems, but also opportunities. For example, an industry with high-growth potential is more likely to take root in a region if the area has talent to meet its needs. An area might decide to invest in building specialized skills, maybe through its community college system, to build a talent pool and attract business.  

Workforce development programs also support entrepreneurship and small business development, empowering individuals to start their own businesses and create jobs in the community.

Workforce development might also address plain information gaps. If businesses and potential employees aren’t aware of one another, or if misperceptions and inaccurate assumptions are in play, they are unlikely to make a match. 

By investing in workforce development, governments and other stakeholders aim to provide local industries the skilled workforce they need to stay competitive and keep the economy humming, while also making sure everyone has a shot at success. 

Workforce Development Activities

Developing a region’s workforce probably sounds like a good idea. This section describes how it is done - i.e., the major functions of workforce development at a macro or regional level. 

Identify Gaps and Opportunities

Workforce development starts with assessment of the current and future needs of industries within a region. Why? To identify areas where there are shortages of skilled workers, where specific skills are in high demand, and ways to strengthen the workforce to meet specific regional employer needs. 

Developing a strategic plan for workforce development requires careful consideration of various factors and questions. Employers might be asked to participate, for example by sharing their challenges in filling jobs with skilled applicants, as well as their ideas for how to bridge gaps. Here are some key questions that might be addressed: 

  • What are the priority industries and sectors driving economic growth in the region? 

  • What are the existing strengths and weaknesses of the local workforce, including skills, educational attainment, employment rates, and demographics?

  • What are the current and projected labor market trends in the region? 

  • How can workforce development initiatives be tailored to maximize opportunities for underrepresented groups, including minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, and veterans? 

A thorough strategy also considers what metrics and indicators will be used to measure the success of workforce development initiatives. 

Who does this kind of assessment? Federal funding stipulates that states and local areas receiving funding must create workforce development boards to serve as strategic leaders of local workforce development efforts. A workforce development board coordinates with education and economic development stakeholders to administer regional workforce programs that meet the needs of job seekers, career-seekers, businesses, and communities. A region’s workforce board is responsible for deploying federal workforce development funds and implementing federal programs, and may also administer other funds and resources. 

The federal guidance on workforce boards emphasizes the importance of employer participation on the boards, and that the broader work of the boards should meet employer needs. 

Implement Initiatives and Programs 

Workforce development also involves seeking to close gaps and leverage opportunities through a variety of program types and experiences. Here are some examples of initiatives and programs that fall under the “workforce development” umbrella: 

  • A nonprofit organization offers general skill building and job placement to a low-income community

  • A community college develops a certificate program in an emerging industry

  • An employer partners with a local school system to offer paid apprenticeships to students 

  • A community-based nonprofit works with an employer to promote retention of entry level employees, by providing “success coaching” and emergency loans 

  • A “coding boot camp” teaches programming skills to populations under-represented in the tech field, and places newly certified trainees in jobs 

  • With the support of private funders, a vehicle rental business offers inexpensive leases to help employees get to jobs on the other side of town 

These are just a few of the different ways workforce development appears in our communities. Successful workforce development not only provides helpful interventions, but also is intentional about maximizing access to programs. Promoting affordability, accessibility, and awareness can help ensure that individuals have the opportunity to participate in workforce development programs regardless of their background or circumstances.

We’ll take a deep dive into services for businesses in Chapter 4. In the meantime, here is a summary of the types of activities embedded in workforce development initiatives and programs. 


Frequently Offered Services for Businesses

Frequently Offered Services for Individuals 

Recruiting & Hiring 

  • Job description development or revisions

  • Support for adoption of skills-based hiring practices

  • Candidate resume review

  • Candidate pre-screening

  • Identification and referral of qualified candidates 

  • Identification of interests, skills, and goals

  • Resume development

  • Interview preparation 

  • Job search and placement support

Training and Development

  • Customized train-to-hire programs

  • Upskilling programs for incumbent employees

  • Earn-while-you-learn programs, such as apprenticeship 

  • Training for talent management staff on inclusive hiring practices

  • Training in “soft” skills

  • Training workplace navigation skills

  • Industry-specific training

Retention and Inclusion

  • Onboarding practices to support retention

  • Connection of new hires with necessary support services

  • Coaching support for employees to support success and career advancement

  • Success coaching 

  • Connection to support services (e.g., housing, child care, food, transportation, etc.)

  • Financial coaching

  • Digital literacy training

Who Delivers for Employers and Individuals? 

Within the workforce ecosystem, we see services delivered to employers, jobseekers, and employees by various types of entities, in these categories: 

  • Public administration and government agencies 

  • Public and private education 

  • Nonprofit organizations 

  • Industry associations and labor unions

This section provides an overview of each of these categories. 

Workforce development involves many stakeholders who may or may not be labeled “workforce development.” Some entities may never intersect with or even know about one another. So, in this book, we refer to the totality of providers as the “workforce development ecosystem,” or for short, the “workforce ecosystem.” We are purposefully avoiding the term “workforce development system,” which implies one integrated system that is coordinated by some single entity. This is seldom the case.

Public Administration and Government Agencies

Regional or local government agencies involved in workforce development typically aim to meet the needs of both employers and individual job seekers and employees. In addition to workforce boards, already described above, here are some of the key agencies and how they engage with employers. 



Departments of Labor

State and local departments of labor administer workforce development programs and services aimed at connecting job seekers with employment opportunities and assisting employers with their hiring needs. DOL staff may work directly with employers to provide recruitment assistance, job matching services, and information on available workforce development programs and tax incentives. DOL may also offer customized training programs and apprenticeship opportunities designed in collaboration with employers to meet specific skill requirements.

Departments of Economic Development

Regional or local departments of economic development work to attract and retain businesses, promote economic growth, and support job creation in their communities. They engage with employers by offering incentives such as tax credits, grants, and loans to encourage investment and expansion. Economic development agencies also provide assistance to employers seeking to access workforce development resources, navigate regulatory requirements, and connect with training providers and other business services.

One-Stop Career Centers

One-Stop Career Centers serve as hubs for employment and training services, providing job seekers and employers with access to a range of resources and support. They engage with employers by offering recruitment assistance, job posting services, and access to job fairs and hiring events. One-Stop Career Centers also facilitate workforce training programs and apprenticeships in partnership with employers to meet industry demands and fill skill gaps.

Overall, regional or local government agencies involved in workforce development engage with employers through collaborative partnerships, targeted outreach efforts, and customized service offerings aimed at addressing the workforce needs of businesses and driving economic growth in their communities. 

Educational Institutions

Educational institutions are the original workforce development entities. K-12 schools and higher education, both public and private, educate a region’s workforce by teaching academic skills. In the past, schools were the only organizations companies relied on to educate their geography’s workforce. While that responsibility is now more distributed, obviously educational institutions continue to play a vital role, and also work with employers in new collaborative ways. 

The educational heavy hitters in workforce development are typically community colleges. But educational institutions at all levels can and do serve as valuable partners to employers in a regional economy. 

For example, K-12 schools provide exposure to career paths in popular or emerging industries. Many also collaborate with workforce development stakeholders and/or employers to build curricula that develop in-demand skills. 

Fun Fact: Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs offered in many high schools provide students with hands-on training in various industries such as healthcare, information technology, engineering, and culinary arts, preparing them for careers directly after high school or further education. After falling out of favor and languishing for a few decades, CTE is enjoying a renaissance of interest and funding. 

For adults, community colleges as well as four-year colleges and universities collaborate with local employers on workforce development initiatives aimed at upskilling current employees, or addressing skill gaps in key industries. And, they often offer continuing education and professional development programs designed to meet the evolving needs of both jobseekers and employed individuals. 

Higher education also facilitates work-based learning opportunities, such as internships, apprenticeships, and cooperative education programs, which allow students to gain hands-on experience in real-world work settings. 

Work-based learning provides students or participants with opportunities to gain hands-on experience, develop relevant skills, and apply theoretical knowledge in real-world work environments. The goal of work-based learning is to bridge the gap between classroom learning and the demands of the labor market.

Nonprofit Organizations

Workforce programs and initiatives are also often delivered by nonprofit organizations. These entities provide direct services to both employers and job seekers. 

These organizations generally seek to support individuals who face barriers to rewarding employment. Many tend to focus on specific populations, e.g., 

  • Those who lack experience or educational credentials 

  • Youth, especially those who are unemployed and not in school 

  • College students, sometimes focusing on students who are the first in their families to attend college, or members of groups underrepresented in higher education

  • New members of a community who bring valuable skills but may not be familiar with the local economy–dislocated workers, immigrants, refugees, and English language learners

  • Returning citizens and justice-involved individuals

  • People who have experienced homelessness 

  • Persons with disabilities or mental health challenges 

  • Single parents 

  • Veterans

  • Employed persons whose skills are less in demand than in the past 

Since different populations tend to have different needs, this focus lets nonprofits tailor programming and support to jobseekers and employees, and the employers who employ them.  The workforce ecosystem has developed successful approaches to supporting specific populations of unemployed or underemployed individuals to succeed in the workforce. In the process, these organizations connect employers with talent pools that they might not find otherwise. 

For example, a program that serves justice-involved individuals may offer support in getting criminal records expunged, while a program that focuses on a population with disabilities can help navigate requests for specific work accommodations. This focus also enables private donors and funders to support populations that interest them. 

Industry Associations and Unions 

One additional category of organizations that deliver workforce development programs and initiatives are organizations tied to specific industries, such as industry associations and labor unions. These organizations serve broad functions, and they also may play crucial roles in workforce development. Here's how they contribute to workforce development and typically interact with employers. 

  • Industry associations and unions often provide skills training and education programs designed to meet the needs of workers and potential workers in specific industries. These programs may include certification courses that help jobseekers and employees develop the skills and competencies required for success in their respective fields, and signal individuals’ readiness to perform on the job. 

  • Industry associations and unions often sponsor apprenticeship programs and work-based learning opportunities that provide hands-on experience and training to individuals while they earn a wage. These programs help to develop a pipeline of skilled talent and prepare individuals for career advancement in their chosen field.

  • Industry associations and unions may administer training grants and funding programs, such as financial assistance for skills training, purchasing equipment and materials for training facilities, and offering scholarships and tuition assistance to jobseekers and employees who want to advance their education and skills.

Organizations that deliver services to employers might be called by different names, including community-based organizations, providers, delegates, delegate agencies, workforce partners, or workforce nonprofits. Throughout the remainder of this book, we’ll mostly refer to them as “business services partners.” 

How Individuals Access Services

The visual below demonstrates the different ways individuals access workforce development programs. Individuals seeking employment or training may go directly to a workforce development program; be referred by a different social service; or access a program through their school. Job holders may also utilize any of these routes or work with their employer on finding an appropriate program. 

Here are some sample scenarios: 

  • Sylvia (jobseeker) goes to her local food bank (social services) and picks up a flyer about a job training opportunity (workforce development program). Ultimately Sylvia is referred to an employer, interviews, and secures a job. 

  • Eric (jobseeker) is a senior in high school and interested in apprenticeship programs. His counselor (school) refers him to a program offered at a nearby community college, in partnership with a local business. Eric enrolls and eventually is hired by the company sponsoring the apprenticeship program. 

  • Manuel (employee) works for Fairmount Manufacturing, and has experienced some recent financial difficulties. His supervisor (employer) connects him with a nonprofit organization, which provides financial coaching. 

No matter how individuals access the workforce ecosystem, they can be referred to appropriate organizations, programs, and services. 

Who Pays? 

Workforce development is supported by an array of funding, policies, and programs at the federal, state, and local levels. This section provides an overview of the major sources of funding for workforce development, including --

  • Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)  

  • Other government funds

  • Philanthropy 

Handy Hack: If you are based in Chicago or Cook County, you can skim this section, or skip it altogether. Instead, focus on the localized funding explanation in Chapter 3. If you are not in the Chicago area, you may want to review this section, and skip the explanation in Chapter 3. 

Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act (WIOA)

The primary federal source of workforce funding comes from funds distributed through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA, pronounced “we-OH-ah”). Most of these funds are allocated through grants to states using formulas that account for economic factors including unemployment and poverty rates. States then pass this funding on to local areas. 

Learn more about the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) on the Department of Labor website.

WIOA funding provides reimbursements to employers for the cost of wages to hire eligible recipients, the cost of training that builds team members’ skills, and assistance with strategies so employers can avoid layoffs. It also provides job seekers with vouchers they can use to access training services.

While federal WIOA dollars ultimately benefit employers by providing them with trained, qualified employees, the money is not given directly to them. Instead, the funds go to the entities listed earlier–community based organizations, community colleges, social service entities, and intermediaries–who in turn serve the needs of employers. 

Additional Government Funding 

Workforce development funding originates in agencies and programs beyond WIOA. The table below provides just a few examples of how workforce development funding is embedded in and administered by various federal agencies and programs. 


Includes Workforce Development Provisions for 

Through … 

Departments of Labor

Specific populations who face barriers to rewarding work, including senior citizens, migrants, veterans, and others

Various programs in addition to WIOA

Department of Education

Students enrolled in educational programs that incorporate occupational training

The Pell Grant program and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act

Department of Housing and Urban Development

Those living in identified challenged communities

Community Development Block Grant 

Department of Agriculture 

Individuals receiving food assistance 

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP

Beyond the various federal investments sampled above, state and local governments also are a source of workforce development investment. While they utilize WIOA and other federal funds, they often maintain their own programs and funding streams for workforce programs. Similar to federal funding, these programs and streams may prioritize specific populations. 

Additionally, workforce development is often embedded in a variety of public services. For example, construction permits may require that developers provide training to and hire local residents. A government agency primarily focused on serving the homeless or immigrants may also offer job training and placement services. So, activities that serve workforce development aims may originate in policies and funds not obviously labeled “workforce development.”


Foundations and philanthropic organizations also contribute substantial sums to the workforce development field. For example, national organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have made career pathways a focus of their work. State and local philanthropy can support organizations and programs that are not able to access national funding. 

There are also national and local collaboratives that fund workforce development in partnership with local organizations and employers to ensure there are programs in place. The National Fund for Workforce Solutions, for example, has pulled together over $380 million since 2007 from over 800 local and national funders. 

Workforce funding also comes from foundations that may focus primarily on “non-workforce” areas. For example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation—which prioritizes children’s issues— provides grants for workforce development, citing the importance to children of living in a family with sufficient income. Philanthropy from foundations connected to Walmart, JP Morgan Chase, and other major employers also support workforce development, along with their corporate commitments to hiring. 

Funding Flows & Trends 

The visual below summarizes how funding reaches stakeholders in the workforce ecosystem. Federal funds can go directly to program participants, programs, or employers, or be directed through state and local governments. Philanthropy also plays a key role in funding programs. 

As is the case with any public funding, ideas for workforce investments compete with a wide range of other priorities, and funding may ebb and flow based on the economic environment, unrelated budget considerations, the priorities of office holders, or the effectiveness of advocates to secure funding. 

Federal funding for workforce development has been decreasing in recent years. According to the Government Accountability Office, funding for the 43 federal workforce programs declined from $20 billion to $14 billion from 2009 to 2017. And while advocacy for greater workforce funding tends to be dominated by training providers and other groups working on behalf of challenged jobseekers, employers have recently become more involved in voicing the need for increased funding of workforce development. 

Regardless of the source of funding, there is growing recognition of the critical role employers play in workforce development —not just as consumers of talent, but as experts on what skills and career paths workforce development programs should be prioritizing and as the site of on-the-job learning. This has meant that decision makers often have prioritized funding for initiatives that have employer partners in place. 

Who Benefits?

All this investment begs the question, who benefits? We say: everyone. This section summarizes benefits to employers, individuals, and the community at large. 


Workforce development arguably benefits any employer who hires anyone--since workforce development, broadly defined to include public education, impacts virtually every employee and potential employee. 

Employers who take advantage of business services offered directly to them reap additional benefits. These services include free or subsidized support for the talent management function, such as recruiting and hiring, training and development, and retention and inclusion. Details of these services and how employers benefit are covered in Chapter 4. 


Workforce development efforts also benefit individuals, including students, jobseekers, currently employed people, and career changers. Programs benefit participants in many ways: 

  • Enhanced knowledge and skills

  • Achievement and confidence

  • Higher income 

  • The benefits that come with employment (assuming a good job), including structure, accomplishment, growth, community, and benefits

“Helping employers connect with overlooked entry-level talent holds a special place in my heart because I've seen firsthand how the right opportunity can completely transform someone's life. The journey from learning and growing through a program to landing a job is powerful. It's not just about getting people to work; it's about changing lives for the better.” Lisa Bly-Jones, CEO, Chicago Jobs Council 

The Community 

Overall, the functions of workforce development are geared toward building a skilled, adaptable, and resilient workforce that can drive economic growth, innovation, and prosperity within a region or community. Matching skilled individuals to employers in need of talent, and maximizing each individual’s contribution, are critical to the labor market and the economy as a whole. 

Here's a summary of how workforce development benefits communities. 

Workforce development fosters … 

In these ways: 

Economic Growth

Workforce development initiatives help to create a skilled and adaptable workforce that meets the needs of local businesses and industries. By providing individuals with the skills and training they need to secure employment and advance in their careers, workforce development fosters productivity, innovation, and competitiveness, driving economic growth and prosperity in the community.

Job Creation

By investing in workforce development, communities attract businesses and industries that require a skilled workforce, leading to job creation and expanded employment opportunities for residents. Workforce development programs also support entrepreneurship and small business development, empowering individuals to start their own businesses and create jobs in the community.

Reduced Unemployment and Poverty

Workforce development initiatives help to reduce unemployment and poverty by equipping individuals with the skills and resources they need to secure stable and well-paying employment. By providing access to education, training, and job placement services, workforce development programs help individuals overcome barriers to employment and achieve financial independence, lifting families out of poverty and reducing reliance on social assistance programs.

Social Inclusion

Workforce development promotes social inclusion by providing access to education, training, and employment opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds and underrepresented communities. By fostering diversity and inclusivity in the workforce, workforce development programs promote social cohesion, reduce inequalities, and strengthen community bonds.

Improved Quality of Life

By enabling individuals to secure meaningful employment and achieve economic self-sufficiency, workforce development contributes to improved quality of life for residents. Access to stable employment with livable wages allows individuals to support themselves and their families, access affordable housing, healthcare, and other essential services, and participate fully in the social and economic life of the community.

“Fueling community development hinges on what I call “starting the engine.” While affordable housing and small businesses are valuable, the real catalyst is workforce development – fostering meaningful careers, not just jobs. Without viable income, even the most affordable houses lose their appeal. Without residents in stable, rewarding careers, small businesses struggle due to a lack of disposable income in the community.” George Wright, CEO, Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership 

Workforce development plays a vital role in building strong, resilient, and vibrant communities by promoting economic growth, creating jobs, reducing unemployment and poverty, fostering social inclusion, and improving the overall quality of life for residents. Ultimately, successful workforce development efforts benefit everyone. 

Summing Up … 

Effective workforce development requires collaboration and partnership among various stakeholders, including government agencies, educational institutions, employers, industry associations, and community organizations. By working together, these stakeholders can deploy resources and expertise to create comprehensive workforce development strategies that address the needs of both individuals and businesses.

In practice, because funding originates from various sources, decision-making about how to deploy resources is decentralized. Funding and policy decisions made by various government agencies, or by independent parties such as private foundations, might or might not match federal priorities or a regional workforce board’s strategic plan. 

The following graphic summarizes how major categories of stakeholders generally operate in the workforce development ecosystem. The model is not meant to account for every situation–you could find evidence to shade virtually any box in the diagram. Instead, this visual demonstrates which stakeholders hold the most responsibility for the majority of the indicated activity, in many geographies. 

Activity >


Identify gaps and opportunities

Deploy funding and resources

Implement initiatives and programs

Accrue benefits 


Public Administration and Government Agencies

Philanthropic Organizations

Educational Institutions

Nonprofit Organizations 

Industry Associations and Labor Unions


Community At Large



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