The Overlooked Partners That Can Build Your Talent Pipeline

Companies that tap community-based nonprofits can develop better long-term skill strategies and enlarge their talent pools.

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America has a skill problem. It’s not the result of inadequate educational systems letting down younger workers or a lack of aptitude among older workers, as some claim. The problem is the widespread failure of American companies to share responsibility for skill development. Many employers are simply unwilling — or unable — to invest sufficient resources, time, and energy into work-based learning and the creation of skill-rewarding career pathways that extend economic opportunity to workers on the lowest rungs of the labor market ladder.

This national skills crisis becomes clearest whenever unemployment rates are low. As late as February 2020, most industries in the U.S. showed persistent signs of skills shortages. In manufacturing, for instance, there were 522,000 unfilled job openings in late 2019.1 There were similar long-standing job vacancies in many other critical industries, including financial and business services, health care, and telecommunications, with executives noting increased skills gaps in data analytics, information technology, and web design, among other areas.2

The skills shortage was less obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic, as companies shed millions of jobs, but it persists despite that temporary softening of the labor market. And as hiring picks up along with the economy, employers may increasingly develop workforce strategies that are based not only on skills requirements but on increased commitments to boosting diversity and inclusion.

A better and more enduring skills strategy must begin with the recognition that our national skills crisis rests on a deeply rooted but flawed assumption: namely, that skills are individually held. This view overlooks the collective and context-specific nature of skills — that is, the ways in which they are shared, reinforced, and reproduced through group interactions at work. It also creates a false justification for the bias and hoarding that often accompany employers’ approaches to talent management. That results in more educated workers benefiting from corporate investments in retention, leaving those workers with less formal education underserved and undervalued — a phenomenon that labor scholars call the “great training paradox.” Moreover, it leads to the mistaken categorization of entry-level workers as “unskilled.



1. K. Rogers, “Manufacturing Is Facing a Growing Skills Gap That Is Leaving Hundreds of Thousands of Positions Open,” CNBC, Oct. 4, 2019,

2. S. Agrawal, A. De Smet, P. Poplawski, et al., “Beyond Hiring: How Companies Are Reskilling to Address Talent Gaps,” McKinsey & Co., Feb. 12, 2020,

3. R. Jain, N. Lowe, G. Schrock, et al., “Genesis at Work: Evaluating the Effects of Manufacturing Extension on Business Success and Job Quality,” Aspen Institute, Dec. 18, 2019,

4. I. Rademacher, M. Conway, and M. Bear, “Project Quest: A Case Study of a Sectoral Employment Development Approach,” Aspen Institute, Aug. 1, 2001,; and N. Schwartz, “Job Training Can Change Lives. See How San Antonio Does It,” The New York Times, Aug. 19, 2019,

5. A Registered Apprentice program meets the requirements of the U.S. Department of Labor; see

6.Apprenticeship Resources and Data,” Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, accessed Jan. 27, 2021,

7. A. Forbes, “A Measure of Interdependence: Skill in the Supply Chain,” Economic Development Quarterly 32, no. 4 (November 2018): 326-340.

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