Educators and Workforce Developers: Do we know who customers really are?

In economic development today, one factor commonly cited by corporate decision makers in project location decisions is availability of skilled workers. Successful workforce development requires cooperation between economic developers, educators (at all levels) and workforce-development professionals.

To be successful in any business, it is imperative that we understand our customers. For example, a car dealer that does not recognize that women make many of the family car-buying decisions might be targeting their advertising to the wrong customers by touting a vehicle’s horsepower rather than its safety features. Similarly, those of us in workforce development might miss opportunities if we fail to correctly identify our real customers. One group in particular that may want to view workforce development differently is educators- and here’s why:

However, today, I would like to ask educators and workforce developers to look at this in a new way. Out in the “real” world, customers are the ones that buy our product. But in education, think of it instead this way…the people that buy our product are the employers that ultimately hire the individuals that we educate and/or train. Those individuals (our students or clients) are our “product.” As students progress through the education system, no matter how much education they receive, each step in their education is simply “adding value to the product.” Parents are the “suppliers.” They provide the raw materials to which educators add value. However, each product, to be useful, must ultimately be “sold” (hired by an employer.) Thus, the employer becomes the “customer” of the education system.

To be successful in any business, it makes sense for a businessperson to ask his/her customers what they want and then provide it. Are we, as educators and workforce developers, asking our “customers” (the employers) what they want and then providing it? If not, then we are not successfully meeting our mission.

One school superintendent then asked me, “If this is true, then why are my ‘bosses’ (the school board) my suppliers instead of my customers?” He is right. That does not make sense. Perhaps we need to consider recruiting more employers to run for the school board. In my opinion, when that happens, there will be better alignment between the needs of the customers and the value-adding processors (educators.)

Based on this point of view, I would challenge you to think differently when asked: Who are my customers?

By Gordon Ipson CEcD, FM. Gordon Ipson is Manager of Economic Development for Northeast Missouri Electric Power Cooperative in Palmyra, Mo. He is a Certified Economic Developer (CEcD) with 38-years-experience in economic and business development. Gordon currently chairs the Northeast Missouri Workforce Investment Board (NEMO WIB) and has been nominated to represent northeast Missouri on the Missouri WIB. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in business, economics and economic development for colleges and universities in the United States and Australia.

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