More than 18 months into the pandemic, the employment headlines can seem like an algebraic riddle: If U.S. employers are seeking workers to fill 10.9 million jobs, how can 8.4 million workers be unemployed?

The answer, of course, is found in the myriad disconnects facing the education-workforce system. Misaligned skill sets and skill shortages. Employers creating in-house training programs while higher education institutions experience enrollment declines. Postsecondary education opportunities that only broaden the equity gap.

“For all of us in the room who’ve been chipping away at this problem, the problem has magnified,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health and author of a new book, “Workforce Rx: Agile and Inclusive Strategies for Employers, Educators and Workers in Unsettled Times.”

Ton-Quinlivan, who spoke during a panel discussion Nov. 17 at the 2021 CAEL Annual Conference in San Diego, said it’s time for “a call to action for us to rev on all engines, for all organizations to come forward and do what we do best, and really, not just do it as individual contributors, but play as a team because this is not an individual sport, but a team sport.”

The panel, “Agility in Action: Creating Workforce Wins Through an Innovation Ecosystem of Partners,” pulled together experts working at the intersection of education and the workforce to discuss how to bring together the often disparate pieces of the education-workforce system to collaborate and help more individuals find better and more meaningful employment.

Among the ideas panelists shared for bringing together policymakers, educators, and employers:

Seek novel ways for employers to contribute.

Those working to make the pathways between education and careers more seamless often begin by inviting employers to help design curriculum that meets their needs — but that route can be slow-moving and strain the budding partnerships they are trying to build.

Panel moderator Jack Mills, CAEL’s senior vice president of partnerships, impact, and insights, cited other ways employers can bring value. Among his suggestions: They can provide technology and tools needed for the instruction, facilitate mock interviews and tours so students can get an up-close look at a company, and provide opportunities for internships, apprenticeships, co-ops, or clinicals so students can learn and work at the same time.

Employers also can leverage their own relationships, a step that grows the ecosystem of partners working toward a common goal.

Demonstrate to employers that community colleges and four-year colleges and universities are prepared to be agile and collaborative.

Employers have demonstrated a willingness to invest in in-house training, yet postsecondary education institutions are experiencing an enrollment decline. The time should be ripe for the two to work together — but some missteps of the past might need to be addressed.

“For employers, there’s some learned helplessness,” said panelist Kai Drekmeier, co-founder and chief development officer of InsideTrack. “They had tried to work with colleges and universities so many times and kind of got some disinterest. We almost need a marketing campaign to say, ‘No, no, no, we’re here. We’re ready to be agile.’”

Focus on addressing faulty system design over fixing a problem with money alone.

Ton-Quinlivan encouraged conference attendees to consider how adjusting the way money is distributed can lead to better, more collaborative innovation. “If you’re in a position to redesign policy, think about the flow of money,” she said. “How do you redesign competition?”

Ton-Quinlivan, previously executive vice chancellor of workforce and digital futures at California Community Colleges, said that instead of encouraging the state’s 115 community colleges to compete against one another, California encouraged regional competition — a process that led to collaboration among schools and other entities across a geographic swath of the state.

“The regions, they had to meet each other, they had to work together, they had to allocate the resources,” she said. “They learned.”

Consider improving a community to be a success — even if an education-workforce partnership’s work cannot be scaled to fix a systemic problem.

CAEL President Earl Buford described the work he did as CEO of Employ Milwaukee, where he pulled together 30 manufacturers in search of solutions to a lingering employee shortage. After months of conversation, they agreed to create a flexible, competency-based apprenticeship program, now known as the Industrial Manufacturing Technician Apprenticeship and in place in more than a dozen states.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Buford said. “Keep involving the right players. Don’t stop doing what you do, and just continue to talk to your partners about how can we do more of this? How can you continue to be supportive in our regions?”

“Just don’t get frustrated because you don’t hit that magic ‘scale’ number right away.”