Skills and jobs don't line up

Thursday, May 12th, 2011 

No one said winning the future would be easy.

For a bright 21st century, America is going to have to make big changes in the way it thinks about education, workforce development, economic policy and job training. And if that isn't a tall enough order, it’s also going to have to integrate immigration policy into the mix. Oh, and figure out how to pay for it all, then get a sweeping mix of policies passed by a Congress bent on retrenching.

That was the message of a bipartisan panel that met in Washington this week, featuring five eras of leaders in Congress and the Department of Labor.

Evelyn Ganzglass leads the workforce development program at the Center for Law and Social Policy, which organized the event. This is “an especially good time” to look back at what’s worked, and what hasn’t, in workforce development, she said. “The economic challenges we face couldn’t be more daunting.”

A high school degree “used to be the passport, if you will,” said Kitty Higgins, Deputy Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. No more. 

Jobs that don’t require a college degree are scarce. In 1973, 72 percent of workers had only a high school education. By 2018, almost two thirds of all jobs will require a college degree or higher, according to a report (pdf) from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“The world has changed a lot,” said Ray Marshall, Secretary of Labor in the Carter administration. Globalization has taken a massive toll, he said, creating unemployment that is more long term, and more structural. The needs of employers are different now than four decades ago, and the changes are hitting people in their paychecks. In his day, Marshall said, “we did not have the problem of a long-run decline in real wages for American workers.”

In large part, argued the panelists, that has to do with the growing gap between the skills of the American workforce and the skills employers demand. “We’re now paying the price for what we did not do in education,” said William Brock, Secretary of Labor in the Reagan administration.

President Obama has said he wants to raise college attendance and graduation rates, and has promoted a focus on science, technology, education and math in the country’s public schools. For workers unemployed now, though, that’s not much help. That’s where workforce development comes in. Such programs, offered through community colleges, state-sponsored One-Stop job centers, and other training sites, give people a chance to upgrade their obsolete skills to match the jobs on offer.

Given the rapid economic change, workers need a “lifetime opportunity to improve, change, and modify their skills base,” Brock said. Policy makers must “create systems that are much quicker on their feet.” 

One way to do that would be through a lifelong learning account, said Steven Gunderson, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin.

The worker would put 10 cents an hour into a private account, matched by the employer. The worker could draw on the account to fund training, as needed. Other panelists suggested an overhaul of the current workforce development system, which provides training through public and private institutions, largely paid for through the Workforce Investment Act.

However it’s funded, the quality and usefulness of job training varies widely. Many workforce development programs don’t grant credentials that are accepted by industry, said Roberts Jones, assistant secretary of labor for employment and training under Reagan and the first President Bush. Recognized certifications “are the empowering tools,” he said. But, Jones said, the idea of standardized credentials has not gained traction at the departments of labor or education.

And then there’s the immigration issue. Marshall argued that immigration policy must be integrated into workforce development and economic policy. President Obama seems to agree. Speaking this week in Texas, he argued that “immigration reform is an economic imperative.”

“One way to strengthen the middle class in America is to reform the immigration system so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else,” Obama said

All of these solutions, from increasing college attendance to immigration reform, require political will. Which, Gunderson said, is largely absent.

“I shouldn’t be on this panel,” he said, noting that he left Congress in 1996. That there was no current member of Congress on the panel was an “indictment of the lack of leadership” on this issue, he said.

That may be changing. There is consensus, Higgins said, that “what we have isn’t what we really need. The question is, how do we get from here to there.”

“We’ve got to find a new way to do this,” she said. “It isn’t serving our workers.”

Unemployment rate, by state. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In focusing on retraining and skills development, though, the panelists downplayed the grim reality that the economy has lost almost 8.7 million jobs since the start of the recession. Just 1.7 million jobs have been created since the beginning of 2010, according to the National Employment Law Project (pdf). In April, there were 10.4 million people out of work, and another five and a half million working part time but a seeking a full time job. Coordinating skills and jobs may be one answer, but the scope of the jobs crisis has outpaced the current solutions.

“The ability to address this problem in traditional terms is gone,” Brock said. “People in this country are scared. That includes even some members of Congress.” And, he added, “they better be.”

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Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.

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The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

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Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.