What is Workforce Development?

Workforce development used to be considered the “poor cousin of education.” It was defined as providing training to produce more and better-prepared workers. Thought leaders have since pushed for a more expansive view. Workforce development is now considered to be more than a single program or initiative. It is an interconnected set of solutions to meet employment needs: It prepares workers with needed skills, emphasizes the value of workplace learning and addresses the hiring demands of employers from the outset. The goal is to place workers in jobs where there are career development opportunities.

Following an extensive review, Workforce Connections’ preferred definition represents labor supply as well as demand perspectives, from Workforce Development in Developing Countries: A Framework for Benchmarking, by Robert McGough, Jee-Peng Tan, and Alexandria Valerio of the World Bank:

Workforce development serves a dual function; enabling individuals to acquire knowledge, skills and attitudes for gainful employment or improved work performance; and providing employers with an effective means to communicate and meet their demand for skills.

Three other noteworthy definitions are summarized below. The first, from the U.S. Department of State focuses on education and skills development, while also alluding to the importance of soft and non-cognitive skills:

Assisting youth and adults in acquiring knowledge and developing skills beyond basic literacy, numeracy, and life skills, which are part of the basic education program, and behaviors to find legitimate jobs, establish viable self-employment ventures, and stay employed and productive in a changing economy.

The second, from RTI International, references the need to target education and training services to employer demand, as well as building systems for linking job seekers and employers:

Workforce development initiatives aim to deliver targeted education, training, and employment support services that allow people to improve their opportunities for employment. These initiatives assist governments, universities, and training institutions to understand and anticipate the changing demand for skills. They also build tools and systems that bring together job seekers and employers.

Third, FIELD Report #17, “Skills for Jobs for Growth,” by Monika Aring and Lara Goldmark of FHI360, emphasizes systemic factors, encompassing education systems, economic policy, and workplace learning:

Formal and informal education systems, economic development policies and programs, and the private sector’s human resource function.

Guide to Infographic

Workforce development approaches fall along a spectrum between broad-based public sector skills development investments, on one end, and privately financed and run efforts on the other. Public sector efforts are essential to achieving large scale, but are often slow to adapt to employer demand and quality may below or mixed. Conversely, private investments are generally high in quality and market relevance, yet remain fragmented and limited in scale, and fail to generate spillover effects. For example, large employers may offer state of the art training opportunities to their own employees, while at the same time local education institutions struggle to produce work-ready graduates.  A balanced approach brings these two strands together in a coordinated way – through on-the-job training and experiential learning models for example – so that public and private efforts complement and inform one another.

To Learn More

Tan, Jee-Peng, Robert McGough, and Alexandria Valerio. Workforce Development in Developing Countries: A Framework for Benchmarking, World Bank, 2010.

“The future of workforce development: A Q&A with Lara Goldmark,” FHI360 Degrees blog, 2014. 

Aring and Goldmark, “Skills for Jobs for Growth,” FIELD Report No. 17, 2013.

US State Department Standardized Program Structure and Definitions, 2010.


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