Building Workforce Strength

By Ron Elsdon

[Editor's Note: This book related article originally appeared in Career Convergence Web Magazine in August 2010.  It is being reprinted as part of our Special Book Review issue now.]


Workforce strength benefits individuals by providing meaningful and rewarding work; it benefits organizations by building a solid foundation for creating value; and it benefits communities through fulfilling, shared experience and financial prosperity. While workforce strength is observed at the system or institutional level, it is created at the individual level. So it is necessary to look through both organizational and individual lenses to understand how to build and sustain workforce strength. Relationships of people with each other and with organizations are at the core of workforce strength. It is here that, as career professionals, we can bring special insight to bridge the needs and strengths of individuals with those of the organization. This means linking the disciplines of workforce planning and development to that of career development; for ongoing development, whether at the organizational level or the individual level, is a connecting theme.


What does this mean in practice? First, it is important to understand that workforce strength is the combination of knowledge, skills, practices, and shared values, embedded in the workforce, which enable an organization to deliver exceptional performance while adapting to constantly changing needs. We can consider workforce strength as a combination of capability and flexibility. Capability means having the skills needed to deliver valued and meaningful services or products. It means embedding these skills in systems that focus on providing exceptional outcomes for customers, whether internal or external, while creating an environment that affirms contributions from all in the organization. Flexibility, on the other hand, is the capacity of an organization to adjust capabilities and systems to changing needs. For example, in healthcare flexibility means adjusting to using electronic medical records for rapidly sharing patient information anywhere in the system by equipping doctors, nurses, and other primary healthcare providers with the ability to enter medical data directly, rather than having handwritten medical records transcribed. Providing needed flexibility may include blending permanent and contingent staff to handle shifts in demand, or working hand in hand with educational institutions to address emerging skill needs.


How can we strengthen workforce capability and flexibility? Here is where workforce planning and development and career development come into play. Workforce planning is a systematic approach to understanding future needs so that steps taken now, through workforce development, ensure that capabilities are there when needed in the future. Workforce planning includes profiling the current workforce to identify its strengths, understanding future needs and understanding the gaps that need to be filled. Workforce development is the response to filling those gaps through taking key steps to secure the needed workforce. It includes the career development of individuals as a key bridge between meeting the needs of the individual and the needs of the organization. Here are some factors we need to consider as career professionals in integrating career development practices into organizations:

  • Tailoring to organizational culture - for example, understanding the balance between central direction and local autonomy as it affects system-wide or local implementation of career development initiatives

  • Building sponsorship and partnerships - this includes both internal and external relationships to build support for career development initiatives and sustain momentum once the initiatives have been launched

  • Acquiring the needed skills to design and implement career development initiatives - skills include content knowledge of the career and workforce fields, and capabilities in project management, analysis and metrics, relationship building, and business and strategic understanding

  • Creating effective communication - communication includes first listening to people in the organization (Praeger, 2003), to build clarity about the purpose of the services and the primary messages, as a foundation for outreach individually and in group settings (for example, introductory sessions, brown bag briefings), recognizing that word-of-mouth will likely be of most significance over time

  • Measuring progress - measurement includes blending quantitative and qualitative perspectives about career development initiatives to inform decisions about ways to continually improve the programs

  • Guiding change - this means using proven frameworks to address key steps that are central to effective organizational change, for example the eight stages grouped in three primary categories - creating a climate for change, engaging and enabling the whole organization, and implementing and sustaining - presented by Cohen (The Heart of Change Field Guide, Harvard Business School Press, 2005) and described in our recent book “Building Workforce Strength”

  • Addressing practical implementation issues - these issues include: blending individual and group delivery, integrating in-person and virtual delivery, building a repository of career related knowledge, and linking to educational institutions

These aspects are addressed in greater depth in Building Workforce Strength, which includes an example of a healthcare organization, Kaiser Permanente, which implemented a broad based workforce and career development initiative, and a discussion of a pilot career development initiative in a high technology setting. Here are comments from one Kaiser Permanente employee, responding to the question, how has this (career development support) changed your life? “Oh gosh. I’m a single mother . . . and . . . It’s helped me so much . . . when I didn’t think I could get help. I got help. . . . Once you put your feet forward then you start running.”


To support people and organizations in their path forward, consider the following questions as you interface with organizations which are thinking about implementing a career development initiative to build workforce strength:

  • How ready are these organizations to embrace career and workforce development?

    • What may need to be put in place?

    • How will the organization define success?

  • What is your role, as a career development professional interfacing with the organization?

In bringing your career development expertise to address workforce strength you can help create better environments for clients, enhance organizational success and contribute to community prosperity, certainly worthy goals for our profession.


Parts of this article are extracted from Building Workforce Strength: Creating Value through Workforce and Career Development, Edited by Ron Elsdon, Praeger, 2010. It is available in the NCDA Career Resource Store.



Ron Elsdon

Ron Elsdon, Ph.D., is founder and President of Elsdon, Inc. in California. Ron specializes in the workforce and career development fields, providing organizational consulting, individual career counseling and coaching, public speaking, publishing and lecturing. Ron has more than 25 years of leadership experience at diverse organizations in a broad range of sectors, and has been an adjunct faculty member at, or affiliated with, several universities. He has authored numerous publications and has spoken regularly at national and regional events in the career and workforce development fields. He is author of Affiliation in the Workplace (Praeger, 2003) and editor of Building Workforce Strength (Praeger, 2010). With his co-author, Ron was awarded the Walker Prize by the Human Resource Planning Society for the paper that best advances state-of-the-art thinking or practices in human resources. He holds a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Cambridge University and a Master’s degree in Career Development from John F. Kennedy University. Ron can be reached at renewal@elsdon.com.

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Sally Gelardin, Ed.D., International & Multicultural Education   on Monday 08/02/2010 at 01:13 PM

In his new book, Elsdon guides us into an exploration of workforce strength, "the one place where the individual, the organization, and the community meet for the benefit of all, and for the creation of economic growth and vitality."

I believe that there are many reasons to build workforce strength. Here are a few:

1. Considering the challenging state of the economy, where boomers are leaving the workforce (by choice or not), it is in the bast interest of the individual, community, and organization to support education, training, and career development for individuals of diverse backgrounds to replace the boomers.

2. Since the rapidly growing aging population requires skilled service, it is in each of these entity's best interest to support education, training, and career development for young people, including individuals of diverse backgrounds and immigrants, to take care of aging boomers on up.

3. Since boomers are living longer, it is in each of these entity's best interest to support education, training, and career development for older individuals, so they can continue to contribute to society.

As author of two NCDA monographs, "Starting and Growing a Business in the New Economy" (Ron Elsdon in a contributor to this monograph) and "Career and Caregiving: Empowering the Shadow Workforce of Family Caregivers," I am very interested in Ron's new book and will interivew him on August 26 on the topic of building workforce strength. Listeners are welcome to join the discussion at http://careerwell.org.

Sheryl Spanier, CMF   on Sunday 08/08/2010 at 05:44 PM

Dr. Elsdon’s recommendations inspire career development professionals’ leadership in the evolution of tomorrow’s workplace. I am looking forward to reading further ideas which are both timely and powerful for our nation and the role of career counselors in helping build and shape a 21st Century workforce.

We have a unique opportunity to help integrate our educational and workforce strategies and structure in line with future employment standards, needs and processes.

The widely publicized desperation of people who seek employment in defunct areas and with outdated job search skills is a call to action for career services professionals, educators, governmental agencies, business leaders and labor unions to refocus from job security to career growth.

While whole job categories have been eliminated, there continues to be inadequate linkage between the world of work, education and training. Industry leaders, educators and political stakeholders can begin by having dialogues in which they plan to work together on future job categories, skills, needs, career advisement, and state of art talent sourcing and job search techniques for future workers to fill emerging opportunities. Time is of the essence. Communities and economies that have been company or industry centric are suffering while new industries are soon to be in desperate need of trained talent to meet the anticipated growth.

What are the steps to address this gap?

We need to can create pathways that bridge employment, community and educational structures so that education is pragmatic and relevant, industry is re-connected to the the talent ecosystem and the workforce pipeline is filled with prepared workers. Ideally, this will ensure that career planning and competencies are realistically in line with the world of work. For example, high school curricula, college and university majors, assessment tools, Department of Labor job categories all should be in alignment around building future workers and leaders competencies.

Labor unions can expand their members’ opportunities and serve the future workforce needs of employers by joining forces to identify and train for anticipated competencies, rather than holding the line on job security.

Employers can collaborate with educators to create internships, field service opportunities, mentoring, skill partnerships that encourage awareness and excitement among students who complain that they see no future for themselves. Knowing that what they learn in school has purpose and focus will provide a motivational structure to otherwise drifting students. Investments in the future workforce will enable employers to be truly part of their communities and to prepare a ready and engaged talent pool.

Business leaders can help by seeking out the perspectives, experience and skills of teachers, guidance counselors, career advisors, talent management and career services professionals to create more effective bridges between workplace needs and education. Corporations and organizations can adopt schools, sponsor training and exploratory programs that expose youth to careers of the future. Businesses can seek out mature workers to re-train in line with real-world career opportunities in their own communities in programs provided in partnership with companies that need their newly developed skills. Schools and higher education can become more connected to business needs through bring a student to work days, career options presentations, inviting professionals, business owners, leaders and particularly successful alumni to present career panels, adopt students, mentor and encourage future workers.

And here’s an idea: people on unemployment can be offered information meetings, shadowing, training programs followed by internship or even volunteer opportunities that give them exposure and experience in growing fields of interest while they are in job transition. Career counselors skills can be taped to provide assessment and teach state of the art job search skills so that workers in transition do not become discouraged seeking the wrong situations in outmoded and ineffectual ways,

Career Development professionals can help education to become more relevant to future employment. Guidance counselors and college career planning and placement officers can reach out to organizations and corporations to create better information for students about their career options, can form relationships with human resources and staffing departments, and even take field trips to employers so that students can be encouraged to think about the world of work in realistic ways.

Of course, to make this possible, we need to overcome our long standing resistance to “vocational education” as outdated and counter productive. Let us remember that our pure liberal arts education ideal was originally designed many years ago to prepare for the four basic career areas: teaching, ministry, law and medicine.

Career Development Professionals have a potentially critical role in the future of the workplace. Collaboration between employers and educators is more critical than ever to align training with actual skills gaps. If we anticipate worker shortage 25 years out, we can begin to identify and fill the vacuum more strategically. Information sharing is key to our future success.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.