Defining Workforce Development For Startups

June 29th, 2020


4 min read

By Taylor McLemore, Managing Director of the Techstars Workforce Accelerator

As a new Techstars accelerator program, one of the most common questions I receive is: “What does Workforce Development mean?” Great question! 

Lots of people have asked: “Is that edtech, future of work, govtech, or gig economy startups?” 

My response: Yes 😊   

How I Define Workforce Development

Here’s my definition of workforce development, as it pertains to startups: 

Workforce development includes startups and technologies that enable human potential through work. 

The goal is simplicity and elegance (h/t Ted Serbinski). The emphases are:

  • Human-centric

  • Expansive and inclusive (as innovation should be)

  • Specific enough to see if something does not fit the definition

This definition is our North Star. Our Techstars Workforce Development Accelerator team works every day to support founders and innovative startups that understand problems in this space and care deeply about building solutions for workers and companies. With this definition, I am embracing a broad mandate (more on that in a bit). 

Credit and Context

First, I want to recognize that this accelerator is joining existing communities of startup founders, builders, investors, nonprofits, intermediaries, researchers, advocates, academic institutions, academic groups that don’t think of themselves as institutions, and government agencies that have been endeavoring to address workforce development problems for decades. I feel a responsibility for this accelerator to be a part of these communities and contribute to understanding problems and, through the founders we support, contributing to system-level solutions. 

Workforce development means many things to many people. What some might see as disagreement on a definition, I see as opportunity. 

The data shows that diverse groups build better solutions. It is my hope that our definition and the efforts of our program contribute diverse ideas and pathways for diverse people to engage in this critical problem space. 

Workforce problems, how people experience those problems, and opportunities for solutions are changing, and the speed of change is accelerating. Globalization and the transition from the Installation Phase to the Deployment Phase (per Carlota Perez’s framework from Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital) of the current information technology revolution is reshaping the contours of systemic workforce issues that trace back hundreds, tens, or only a few years. The emergence of the gig-economy, technology-driven learning, and employers adjusting to a more connected world are a few of the many signs of this change.

Workforce Development and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic, with the potential for nearly 200 million global job losses according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), is accelerating many trends in workforce development, and it moves the lines of competition with incumbents. This acceleration is both good and bad at a social level. 

The bad is that we see this pandemic extolling painfully harder outcomes on those with fewer resources and historically lower access to education, opportunity, and economic mobility. These systemic issues have always existed, but in this current crisis, they are being felt more widely and much more deeply. 

Systemic changes rarely happen without extreme discomfort, which gives me hope that the time for change is now. I would argue that this is beneficial for startups because I believe there is no greater point of leverage for change than entrepreneurship. 

The good is that necessity is driving adoption of or at the least openness to solutions that can improve education, how we work, and the definition of employee-employer mutual success.

It is important to not lose the human focus for the macro trend, and that is why I embrace the definition of workforce development as the enablement of human potential through work.  We, as a global community, need innovative startups that are focusing on the humans at the center of the challenges and opportunities.

Why Do We Need a Broad Mandate?

One line I repeat to startup founders is, “Maintain optionality!” 

Embracing a broad mandate allows us to do what we do best at Techstars: focus on the team. Openness to an expansive and inclusive definition of workforce ensures I can select bold founders with problem / opportunity fit. I like to think of founders as the competitive advantage of an early stage company, the ingredient that balances the daunting odds of building something from 0 to 1. I search for those unique founding teams versus trying to predict exactly what will happen across the expanse of workforce development. 

Embracing Our Impact Mandate

Does this definition imply an impact mandate? Yes! 

Our team supports and invests in companies building products and services that generate profit / economic value or have the potential to do so in the future (the definition of long-term business sustainability), delivering value to customers, treating employees and suppliers with respect and fairness, supporting communities, and managing environmental impact. 

For lack of a better term, I will define companies that meet those criteria to be “good companies:” companies that are intentional about the relationship between technology and work and committed to outcomes of shared prosperity. The first order effects of good companies motivate me: better products and services, consumer safety and utility, meaningful and equitable employment. The second order effects are subtle and add just as much fuel to my fire: when good companies succeed and win they influence other companies to behave better, contributing to resilient communities and diverse and inclusive pathways throughout an economy and society.    

Check out all our Techstars Accelerators and see which ones have applications open now. 

#Techstars Workforce Development Accelerator

About the Author

Taylor McLemore

Taylor McLemore is Managing Director of the Techstars Workforce Accelerator. He is an entrepreneur, scale and growth executive, investor, venture advisor to family offices, and community builder. Taylor cofounded Codeable, a coding school, and founded Patriot Boot Camp — a nonprofit established in partnership with Techstars and Governor Jared Polis. He graduated from Davidson College and lives with his family in Denver, CO.