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How Hennepin County, Minn., Takes a Holistic Approach to Workforce Development

By rethinking the hiring process and potential skills gap from all angles, the county is working to secure a future for everyone.

by / June 13, 2016
The Minneapolis (pictured here) and St. Paul region will have more than 100,000 jobs that can’t be filled by qualified applicants within the next five years. David Kidd/e.Republic

The workforce development efforts now ongoing in Hennepin County, Minn., are an increasingly common example of how technology and government policy intersect, but ultimately it’s a story about securing a future for everyone.

Helping people get the training and assistance they need to start working is a nice idea, but economic and workforce development aren't undertaken purely out of generosity. An aging workforce is expected to soon leave a big gap between the jobs America needs and those qualified to do the work. It’s why Obama launched the TechHire Initiative last year. Technology jobs need doing now, so avenues to employment must adapt to the times and happen faster.

The Minneapolis and St. Paul region will have more than 100,000 jobs that can’t be filled by qualified applicants within the next five years, according to Hennepin County. And 32 percent — 2,200 positions — of the county’s own workforce is also expected to retire within five years. These workforce programs aren’t rooted in idealistic thinking — government is trying to ensure today’s markets are still there in 10 years.

Hennepin County’s comprehensive approach to workforce development, called Hennepin Workforce, is an attempt to change course and close the impending skills gap through partnership with community organizations, code boot camps, state and local governments, private companies and educational institutions that include the Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of Minnesota. The Career Connections initiative supplies narrowly focused training so people with additional barriers to employment, like veterans, can equip themselves with the skills for a job in county government. In addition, the County Pathways program trains students with skills needed for employment with the county or private companies in the fields of building operations, health, office administration and human services.

Beyond formal programs, there’s recognition within the county that times are changing and so government must adapt. Internal planning documents supplied to Government Technology outline a desire from the county to attract and retain talent by catering to the needs of employees based on their age and current stage in life. Embracing gender and ethnic diversity also is a component of the government's renewed approach. The county recently realized the need for a change in approach that would work in a constrained environment, explained Sandy Hvizdos, division manager of IT talent for Hennepin County.

“This bigger picture of the baby boomer retirement, the escalating need for resources, has really made us stop dead in our tracks. We need to revise the whole thing. We can’t just do what we’ve been doing in the past,” Hvizdos said. “We’ve adopted a grow-our-own philosophy as opposed to trying to find experts in the field and attract those. We’ve been trying to attract and re-create entry-level positions coming in.”

It was around 2012 when the county was migrating off Windows XP that the new approach started. Attracting cheap labor quickly was challenging, she explained, and the first attempt at an internship program was sloppy. But the county has since matured the program and developed relationships with organizations like the Minneapolis Community and Technical College and Normandale Community College, leading to internships for about 60 students and the eventual hire of eight.

“One of the great things we have going for us is that a lot of private corporations have to set up some artificial engagement with the community,” Hvizdos said. “One of the things we’re trying to sell with our millennial population is that we’ve got that built in. You are making a difference; you are contributing back.”

Policies and standards with Hennepin County are also changing so that potential new hires don’t face as many barriers. If someone can do the job, that’s what’s important, Hvizdos said, not if they meet a technical education requirement. Special interest groups such as those serving female constituencies and Native American populations are also among the county’s partners.

The county’s minimum qualification standards and promotion processes have changed, and job descriptions, skills databases and roles are being updated. A renewed partnership with the county’s human resources department is essential to making programs like these work, said Jerry Driessen, CIO of Hennepin County. These types of partnerships can be difficult, he said, because no department likes to hear from another that it isn’t doing its job perfectly, but “fortuitous events aligning all at the same time” have made it possible.

“A new CIO and a new HR director starting at the same time following the county administrator’s direction were able to make a very fine partnership,” said Driessen. “I would also credit the county administrator for clearly articulating the direction not just with IT, but across the whole county that the challenges with workforce in the future were not to be taken lightly and that we needed these sorts of partnerships.”

Programs like the Obama administration’s TechHire are great, Driessen said, but localities need a more holistic approach. Governments that are often operating based on decades-old bureaucratic structures aren't prepared to handle the new challenges that arise. And that’s what needs to be altered so the government can in turn change what the outside world looks like.

“We’re doing it all the way through,” Driessen said. “We always look at a huge problem and think, ‘We’ve got to bring a seasoned veteran in.’ In technology today, and the way the world’s moving, the workforce was born with an iPhone in their crib and using technology all their lives. We’ve got to find our talent differently, and we’ve been doing that.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.