What Is Workforce Development?

By Staff Writers

Published on July 23, 2021

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Workforce Development Training Programs

In today's economy, workforce development and continuing education fuel growth. They ensure that employees have the skills and knowledge to support current and future businesses and industries. These skills, however, also benefit workers themselves, giving them the tools they need to be successful and competitive in the workplace. Learn about workforce development basics, why everyone should look for continuing education opportunities, and where to find them.

Meet the Author

Abby Herman

Abby Herman is a writer and journalist with years of experience covering topics in higher education and workforce development. A former classroom teacher and corporate-world professional, Abby also has first-hand knowledge of continuing education and its benefit to both employees and employers. From required teacher recertification to voluntary communication classes, Abby has experienced professional development from multiple perspectives.

Expert Sources

Continuing education coordinator of marketing, Howard Community College Director of Asheville Center for Professional Studies (related to Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College); former regional advisor of Workforce Solutions for University of Phoenix Director of the Office of Continuing Education & Workforce Development, Vermont Technical College Owner, The Training Doctor, LLC Owner, Beautiful You Rice, stylist and nail technician at Salon Glow Corporate counsel, DuPont Corp. and generational wealth coach Founder and CEO of WizIQ


Across the world and across all industries, a successful business – and economy – is dependent on educated, highly skilled workers. But how does one gain the necessary skills to keep up with a demanding and changing job market? Many experts agree the answer lies in workforce development.

The goal of workforce development is to enhance the skills of those already in the workforce as well as provide tangible and relevant skills to those looking for employment. From courses at a community college to certificate programs at a technical school to on-the-job training, individuals can find a diverse selection of workforce development opportunities to meet their professional goals.

Who Needs Workforce Development?

According to the White House, as of July 2014, some 3.1 million Americans have been unemployed long-term and struggle to find jobs that match their existing skillset. Likewise, many employers in a range of industries and sectors say they cannot find skilled workers to fill their current job openings and grow their businesses. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of the last day of business in July 2014, there were 4.7 million job openings across the country. There is no doubt that a skills gap exists in today's workforce, and economists and policymakers both agree that the solution to this problem is education and training.

While workforce development opportunities are ideal for the unemployed, they also greatly benefit those in the following categories.

High school diploma holders

In today's job market, education can give an applicant a competitive edge; however, a formal degree is not the only path. Those with little or no postsecondary education can take advantage of certificate programs, professional certifications, or licensure to get one up the competition. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012, 11.2 million adults aged 18 and over with a high school diploma or less held a professional certification or license. Jobs in fields such as cosmetology, construction, nursing, and education require specific training. Certificates, licenses, and certification offer ways to bypass the commitment and financial investment of a full degree program, while still offering invaluable training and required skills for in-demand careers.


Returning to civilian life can be a difficult transition, particularly when it comes to finding employment. Workforce development classes and programs can be ideal for returning veterans who need help translating their military skills to civilian life professions. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that in 2012, more than 121,000 veterans participated in vocational rehabilitation and employment programs, which offer a range of employment services – including job training – specifically to veterans, active-duty service members, and eligible dependents. Through training provided directly from Veterans Affairs, a community college or a technical college, vets can return to civilian work seamlessly and continue to contribute to society and the economy.

Current professionals

For people currently employed, professional development and continuing education can be in the form of on-the-job training to improve existing skills, formal classes to learn new skills and/or technologies, or formal certification to demonstrate expertise and advanced knowledge in a particular area or topic. Regardless of one's position, title or industry, continual learning is necessary to stay on top of the job market and to remain viable in the workforce. There is no question that workforce development is a necessity for both employees and businesses to remain competitive, particularly in today's global economy. "For an individual, it may mean raising the income for their family. For a business, it may mean staying competitive. For the [government], it certainly grows or enhances economic development," says Carrie Oleynik, continuing education coordinator of marketing at Howard Community College. Harman Singh, founder and CEO of WizIQ, agrees that continual development benefits both the individual and the organization, particularly in today's booming technology sector: “Skills have a half-life of 2.5 to 5 years and employees need constant development, especially those in fields or organizations that work with cutting-edge technologies. Skills that are required today did not exist five years ago.”

Workforce Development at Colleges and Beyond

For-Credit Courses

For-credit courses can be ideal for people exploring careers outside their current field or who want to brush up on specific areas of their present job. These courses can often be found at a local university or community college, and are generally part of the college's degree programs. Students, however, can still take them, one class at a time, without having to pursue a full degree. Colleges are increasingly working with local businesses and employers to better prepare students for job market demands. Enrollment can vary, but most schools require the completion of an enrollment or registration form and tuition or fee payment per class. Other schools may provide classes on an open basis and not require an application. Classes may be offered online or in the evenings to accommodate working adults, and can run a full semester or be part of an accelerated program. Specific course schedules and offerings vary by college.

Non-Credit Classes

Non-credit classes are another option. These are generally professional development or continuing education courses that focus on a particular industry skill. Many occupations require workers to complete continuing education units throughout their careers to comply with federal and/or state laws and regulations, remain licensed or certified, or to maintain membership with an association or licensing body. Examples of fields that typically require continuing education include health care, teaching, law/legal, accounting, engineering, architecture and health and safety. Those seeking continuing education can find non-credit courses at their local community college, 4-year university or through an employer. Organizations often hire experts to conduct workshops, seminars and classes to train employees on specific knowledge or tools in-house.

Massive Open Online

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are less formal options for professional development, but can be a great way to gain knowledge on and exposure to certain topics. Several colleges and universities across the country offer MOOCs in a range of subjects, and many people have already begun enrolling in MOOCs to learn in-demand skills. Inc., for example, reported that Google enrolled some 80,000 students in its HTML5 course, which was lead by the company's Chrome Developer Relations team. As Forbes pointed out, MOOCs are exceptionally suited for corporate development and learning because they are semi-synchronous, which allows groups of employees to view the same materials at the same time, but complete assignments and projects individually, at their own pace. Additionally, MOOCs are specifically designed to allow students to study and view course materials at home so that more classroom time can be devoted to role-playing and exercises to put knowledge into practice. Lastly, some MOOCs offer credit or certificates of completion (for a fee), which gives employees something tangible to show for all their hard work.

Test-Preparation Classes

Test-preparation classes prepare workers for tests and certifications required in a particular industry or profession. Examples include the CPA license exam for prospective certified public accountants, PHR and SPHR exams for human resources professionals, and teacher certification exams. Test-prep classes are also available for graduate school admissions exams, medical licensing, bar review and undergraduate admissions. Testing companies, local high schools, online and local colleges and tutoring companies offer test-prep classes, often for a fee.

Certificate Program

Lastly, individuals seeking to obtain additional skills may opt to complete a certificate program, which is typically available through professional organizations, licensing boards and colleges or universities. These programs tend to be short-term, with some taking less than two years to complete. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012, the top three providers of certificate programs were trade, vocational, technical or business schools (32.2 percent); 4-year institutions (28 percent); and community colleges (21.7 percent). A certificate is an ideal way to enhance one's knowledge and skills in a particular area or to gain necessary skills in a different field in preparation for a career change. They are also a great return on investment. According to a Department of Labor study on job training, in 2012, those who earned professional certifications or licenses had higher salaries than those at every level of education below a 4-year degree who did not have a certification or license.

Most Common Sectors for Workforce Development

While workforce development and continuing education can be beneficial in any and all fields, it is more common – and sometimes a requirement – for certain professions and sectors. In some industries and licensed professions, such as healthcare, education and architecture, continuing education is a licensure requirement that is mandated by employers, certification bodies, professional organizations and licensing boards. Other industries, such as information technology, change so quickly that continuing education is essential to stay on top of current trends and developments. By participating in a workforce development program at a community college or enrolling in continuing education courses elsewhere, workers can meet these licensure demands and stay current in their industries.

Below is a review of some of the sectors where workforce development is most common, as well as some of the certificates available for each sector:

1. BusinessEarly childhood
English language immersion
Educational technology
2. EducationEarly childhood
English language immersion
Educational technology
3. EnergyLine workers
Natural gas technician
Power plant technician
Renewable energy
4. HealthWellness management
Electronic health records
5. HospitalityCulinary arts
Hospitality management
Diversity management
Hospitality sales
6. Information TechnologyNetwork technologies
Cloud computing certificates
Information systems
Business analytics
7. Law/LegalParalegal
Business law
Tax certificate
8. ManufacturingAutomation
Materials manager
Machining and metalworking
Project leader
9. TransportationFleet management
Transit planning
Signal and lighting

Onsite & Online College Workforce Programs

Community colleges

Community colleges are just one option when exploring continuing education units, workforce development courses and certificate programs. Most 2-year colleges offer these opportunities in a range of areas and some employers will cover the cost of classes if they help improve job performance. Many programs don't require a full-time, two year commitment, and can be completed much more quickly, during time off of work. Community colleges may also partner with important local industries to bring continuing education to the area's main workforce.

Work centers

Work centers are stand-alone centers that offer specialized training, professional development and other employment/training resources to help individuals find a new or better job or augment their existing skills in order to advance in their current role. These centers also offer recruitment services to help businesses and organizations find and hire the best-qualified and highly trained staff for open positions. In addition to training and development, learners may have increased access to job opportunities through a work center's resources.

Customized training

Customized training for businesses and companies is also available. Nanette Miner, owner of The Training Doctor, which offers workplace learning solutions in a variety of fields, has provided business-driven training solutions that "bring work into the classroom," she says. "It is designed specifically for the business' needs, not off-the-shelf instruction." For example, Miner recently worked with a company that wanted to improve sales to high-end clientele. Miner designed a custom training program, using the company's own resources and sales techniques, to meet the desired goal and ultimately improve the company's bottom line. Her "students" (the company's employees) had homework and in-class activities that they completed while still fully immersed in their regular job.

While the above are the most common sources of workforce development opportunities, individuals can also seek training and development through professional organizations, trade unions, nonprofit organizations, and federal, state or local government.

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The Benefits of Workforce Development

As mentioned, workforce development is an essential component for economic growth and development and, therefore, offers a number of benefits to employees, organizations and society.

A Happy and Productive Worker

"There's a rapid change in skills needed in the workforce. Having access to affordable training is necessary."

Maureen Herbert

Whether mandated or purely voluntary, the benefits of workforce development and continuing education are far worth an individual's investment in time and, sometimes, money. Not only do workers gain tangible skills and knowledge to move into new or advanced roles, they also acquire relevant skills that help keep them competitive in the ever-changing job market and economy. Workforce training can also help an individual make the jump into a new career. For example, many workers choose to jump start their career through technical training, rather than earn an associate or bachelor's degree. A professional certificate can make them eligible for a variety of jobs.

Daymyan Rice, a stylist and nail technician, chose to earn her cosmetology license for different reasons. Rice was looking to get out of the banking industry and, after being a nail technician for 15 years, decided to take her career further. For Rice, the ability to complete training and licensure requirements in a short amount of time was key. "You are quickly and intensely trained and prepared for a very specific job or career and you can complete this training in a relatively short amount of time."

Another benefit, notes Rice, is that the licensure program is highly focused. “You don't have all the extra ‘fluff' courses. You are completely focused on the career objective.”

An employee may also choose to obtain training or attend a certificate program in an effort to build upon existing skills and further their career. According Singh, workforce development is a great way for employees to practice what they've learned. "Individuals learn not just the theoretical, but also the practical implications. A traditional degree can give one knowledge and understanding, but does not necessarily make them employable."

A Growing and Successful Business

With resources still tight at many companies, managers may be hesitant to let workers spend several days or even weeks and months on training or professional development. Businesses, however, can benefit from providing training courses and programs to employees. Some of the most significant advantages include:

Increased performance, productivity and morale

These three things can have a huge impact on a company's bottom line. With relevant and on-going training and education, an employee is able to do his or her job more efficiently and effectively. This can also build an employee's confidence, which can lead to greater job satisfaction as well as an increased desire to go above and beyond at the office. Development training also breaks the monotony of a worker's day-to-day job, which can re-energize them and give them a fresh perspective on daily work.

Employee retention

As the Harvard Business Review pointed out, investing in employee training and professional development can greatly reduce employee turnover and increase retention, as it demonstrates an employer's genuine interest in an employee's professional success, which in turn increases employee loyalty and commitment.

Cost effective

Lastly, a short-term investment in professional development can save time and money in the long run. Being able to target specific areas of training and development means that employees learn company-specific skills (e.g. company procedures and industry regulations or software/tools and other technologies) that are needed to grow the business and meet goals. Highly functional team members are more productive and can also mentor other workers to help them become high performing employees.

When it comes to development, Miner touts custom-designed training, because it targets the employees' specific job duties and is more meaningful in the long run.

“It's immediately actionable,” says Miner. “Employees learn skills they can put to use tomorrow. They know why they're learning something and it teaches them to think.” Miner goes on to explain that when businesses offer workforce development specific to an individual's job and in real-world situations, they learn how to problem-solve and think things through.

Adaptability is also key – if the industry changes, which often happens, the skilled and trained employee is able to grow and change alongside the business. And since colleges – and other institutions who offer workforce development courses – know that this change is consistent, they too continually update their programs to bring the newest courses and information possible.

A Thriving Economy

"Most businesses that want to grow want to help employees engage in their jobs at a new level, especially if they have been in the role [for a long time]."

Katherine Morosani
Director of Asheville Center for Professional Studies

Highly educated, trained and skilled workers are the backbone of any workforce so it's no surprise that when employees thrive, so do businesses and the overall economy.

"People with money then can purchase what Americans make. Taxes are paid and the country does better as a whole. We then begin to create, sustain and transfer generational wealth for ourselves and our families."

Theo Nix, Jr., Esq.

Developing Skills through Online Education

Much like in higher education, online learning is changing the way workers, businesses and economic leaders approach workforce development. From MOOCs to accelerated certificate programs to hybrid degree options from colleges and universities, online education offers flexibility to busy adult and non-traditional learners. In fact, according to the Department of Labor, this flexibility and non-traditional approach seems to be one of the factors for success within job training and development programs.

There are more than 2,400 massively online open courses
currently available in the US.

Although there are online continuing education and workforce development options for several different fields, certain areas lend themselves more easily to online learning than others. For example, computer and information technology, media and design, management, and business are generally more suitable for online learning as assignments and coursework for these fields can all be done independently, with little or no hands-on training. Colleges and workforce development organizations that offer online courses, workshops and certificate programs allow students to view course material online and interact with instructors and peers electronically. Students can generally complete classes at their own pace, allowing them to take care of professional and personal responsibilities while preparing for or furthering their career. Additionally, for those who are still working while learning, the combination of classroom training and real world experience helps bridge the gap between theory and practice. Curricula are more relevant and students have a firmer grasp on course material.

Some fields, however, require at least some component of hands-on learning. Examples of such industries include skilled trades, industrial, healthcare, fitness and teaching. Development for skilled trades tends to operate on a learning-by-doing approach. For example, auto mechanics, construction workers, carpenters and the like can only become experts in their respective fields by being actively involved in the work. While some components of the courses may be completed online, these students should expect to also complete a hands-on requirement.

Additional Resources for Workforce Development

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