By Janet Lane
Published in the Calgary Herald and the London Free Press

March 7, 2020

No matter what assets your city has to offer, a company looking to relocate or expand won’t choose your location if it doesn’t already offer the right talent pool. This became clear when Amazon was searching for a location for its second headquarters.

Attracting employers might be easier if a city could answer the question: what can the available workforce actually do? One way to do that is to build a regional competency profile.

An individual’s competency profile lists all skills, knowledge and attributes they have gained from education, training and experience — not just those for which they have credentials. A regional competency profile uses surveys and other data to estimate the profiles of the local population.

In 2016, East Kentucky used this method to attract replacements for massive numbers of lost coal mining jobs. County economic development associations wanted to attract new employers and knew that besides their location between major hubs in the aerospace and automotive manufacturing sectors, they had a skilled workforce with a strong work ethic and a willingness to work in new jobs.

East Kentucky Works, a workforce development organization, led the project. They, and a team of consultants, surveyed hundreds of workers to gain an understanding of their untapped skills, willingness to commute to new jobs, interest in undertaking training, salary expectations and so on. They combined the survey information with remarkably detailed labour market information, which included the numbers of people employed in various occupations, by industry sector. While it’s not possible to get such granular numbers in Canada, data from the census could be adapted for this use.

Next, by looking at the knowledge and skills components associated with each occupation as found in the U.S. skills database (O*Net), they were able to build a profile of the workforce in the region and a sense of the region’s capacity to adapt and learn its way into a new economy. Canada is currently developing its own version of O*Net.

Using O*Net again, they then identified the compatible occupations with the fewest competency gaps that would need to be filled. These would be the easiest kinds of jobs for people to transition into.

Armed with this information, they began to approach employers of people in these compatible occupations — many of which were in the supply chain for the aerospace and automotive sectors.

And it’s working.

While they haven’t replaced all the mining jobs that were lost, yet, some new manufacturing jobs have been created in the region. One Canadian company that couldn’t find enough mechanically competent workers in Ontario, looked at the workforce profile information and decided to expand its operation in East Kentucky.

Changes in the economy can result in highly prized jobs being suddenly gone, forever. The usual response is for economic development agencies to devise a list of their location’s competitive advantages, such as low taxes, easy permitting, good quality of life and an educated workforce, and dangle them in front of companies that may be looking for a place to set up or expand their business. That was the approach used by cities across North America in their response to Amazon’s quest for their HQ2 location. Many did not make the cut because of a lack of suitable workers.

However, this competency profile approach, pioneered by places like Kentucky, could give prospective employers greater confidence of their success in a new location. If enough workers with all the desired competencies are not yet available, but the competency gaps have been identified, local education and training providers could, as they did in Kentucky, devise the appropriate programs and courses to fill them.

This is not a quick fix. But for regions, towns or sectors that are experiencing disruption that results in large numbers of people being displaced from jobs, it’s a way to end the normal handwringing and blame game and be creative and proactive about attracting new employers. It’s worth a try in Canada.

Janet Lane is the director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation.