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How your professional association can beat the competition to the next generation of talent

What are the most pressing challenges facing your trade or professional association or professional society? Attracting talent is likely at or near the top of the list.

In 2000, the labor force participation rate for all workers (age 16 and over) peaked at 67.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2026, the labor force participation rate is projected to drop to 61%, due largely to the aging population.

As these statistics show, a shrinking workforce is indeed inevitable. Most sectors in the economy already face hiring challenges, and the competition for employees is likely to get even more intense. Your industry can’t reverse the trend of an aging workforce, but it can beat the competition to the most capable employees by making its case to the next generation of professionals and skilled workers.

When I joined Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt (TW&B) in July 2011, the country was still reeling from the recession. The unemployment rate according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics was an astonishing 9.1%. With the rate of unemployment so high, I was surprised when the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA) contacted our firm seeking fundraising counsel to raise money for their initiative to introduce the fluid power industry to high school and college students.

NPFA member companies had consistently ranked workforce development as the most challenging issue their companies faced in several biannual surveys. Even during the recession, the companies couldn’t fill their available positions with qualified candidates. The NFPA board agreed to create a 501(c)(3) organization and to invite their member companies to give (in addition to the association dues) to the newly established NFPA Foundation to address this problem.

This challenge isn’t unique to the fluid power industry and, in fact, could have negative implications on the entire economy. Regarding the impact faced by the NFPA, CEO Eric Lanke said, “Without a strong pool of qualified applicants, U.S. manufacturers are facing a shortage of labor that will lead to decreased production and offshoring, putting our country’s economy at significant risk. Solutions are critically needed now.”

At TW&B, we’re hearing from more trade and professional organizations and professionals interested in generating philanthropic support from their members to fund workforce development. For me, the NFPA solution has become a case study of how to take bold action on this specific issue.

Here are some actions to overcome workforce development challenges that became apparent to me after working with the NFPA.

1. Define the underlying challenge.

The NFPA believed that in addition to changing demographics of the workforce, not enough technical colleges and universities were teaching fluid power technology. To combat this, the NFPA leadership included key objectives in their strategic priorities which focused on increasing the number of educated technicians and educated engineers embarking on careers in fluid power.

If your industry is also struggling to attract new talent, there’s probably an underlying problem that has been masked.

2. Develop specific objectives, strategies, and tactics to work toward attracting new talent.

To track return on investment, establish incremental steps that will show results over a long period of time. Soon, these strategies and tactics will become a part of the association’s culture.

Using the NFPA as an example, the fluid power industry needs both technicians that are trained in 2-year technical colleges and engineers that are educated within universities. The NFPA developed strategies for both tracks. The first of two strategies included outreach to introduce fluid power to middle and high school students. One tactic developed by NFPA leaders introduced students interested in science and engineering to fluid power technology by engaging those students in weeks-long Fluid Power Challenges. The students worked in teams to solve a problem using fluid power technology. Another tactic identified technical colleges equipped to train fluid power technicians. NFPA then directed to those 2-year institutions the students who participated in the Fluid Power Challenge from high schools close to the equipped technical colleges.

NFPA’s second strategy revolved around research and education programs within universities. They believe that increasing the number of faculty that are teaching fluid power is the most direct route to encouraging more students to consider careers in the industry. They are building curriculum modules that can easily be inserted into standard mechanical engineering courses across the country. By doing so, they will expose more mechanical engineering students to fluid power technology.

3. Partner with established organizations to reach your target market.

A quick way to introduce your association to high school or college students is to partner with other organizations that share your desired outcomes.

Junior Achievement is an example of a way to join forces with a like-minded organization to introduce your industry to high school students. According to JA, 30% of JA alumni indicate that their JA experience gave them an idea of what to do for a career. A partnership with your association and JA could create more engagement with your association’s individual members while working toward a longer goal of attracting talent to your industry.

To introduce your industry to college students, look for honor societies that recruit the top students in your association’s sector. Partner with a corresponding honor society to focus your association’s strategies on students already interested in the industry and be sure they are aware of career opportunities. The Association of College Honor Societies is a resource to investigate each honor society and its area of focus.

4. Create a corresponding foundation to support workforce development.

Your association may already be classified as a 501(C)(3)—and workforce development may already be included in your association’s mission. But in many cases, the association is tasked with other responsibilities and this need has not been addressed. It’s also likely that your association has no additional resources to fund this initiative. This is where philanthropy enters the picture.

It may seem unnatural to ask individual members or member companies to make a philanthropic gift in addition to their annual dues. But, if your association’s members demand action on this issue, the elected leadership must act.

5. Track your outcomes.

Tracking and reporting outcomes are essential to maintaining the support of your association’s board and donors. Every donor wants to know if their support had a positive impact. Donors to your initiative will be no different and possibly even more diligent. To association member companies, this gift is also an investment and they will expect a return on their investment in the industry’s future. This is where tracking progress on strategies and tactics will support your long-range objectives.

When key stakeholders agree on a specific problem and develop a plan to make progress toward a solution, raising the philanthropy to execute is the logical next step. Your association has a built-in constituency with accompanying self-interest. Recognizing the advantages your association has compared to many other non-profits and developing a mindset of abundance, rather than scarcity will make the fundraising process more easily executed.


 About the author:

Don Souhrada is president of Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt (TW&B) http://twbfundraising.com/, a leading fundraising consulting firm based in Chicago. Don’s development career spans nearly 30 years and includes extensive experience in health care, higher education, fraternities and associations.  His firm embraces a personal approach that fosters greater comfort with the process. “I always remember the words of a donor who said while making a contribution, ‘I can’t tell you how happy I am to write this check’. It was one of my best days as a fundraiser.”

The Inevitable Shrinking Workforce