Monday, January 14, 2008

No focus on the workforce

[I know most of my posting, of late, has been centered on the political. What can I say? I’m a “junkie” when it comes to politics, particularly pertaining to policy, which has been sorely lacking in substance, IMHO. For those needing a break from politics, you can read an essay that I wrote that leaves politics aside and is a perfect read for this snowy day, in Maine (and elsewhere). For those who haven’t grown tired of the horserace, read on.—JB]

The skills required to succeed in the 21st century have dramatically changed. No longer is merely having a strong back, able to sustain long hours of manual labor, enough to guarantee a foothold on the socio-economic ladder reserved for the middle class.

As Alvin Toffler has said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Unfortunately, more and more American workers are being left behind, because they lack those requisite skills. Unless the U.S. makes critical investments in education and more specifically, skills-specific training, our national workforce will no longer be competitive and in my opinion, this will dramatically hamper any hopes we have for economic growth that benefits most Americans, not just the wealthy.

Demographic trends are driving the changes that need to happen. While the U.S. labor force doubled during the previous 40 years, it will grow very slowly over the next several decades. No longer do we have the luxury of baby boomer population growth, meaning an available pool of labor, with the required skills that employers want.

Currently, we are finding that the younger workforce, the ones that we’ll require to replace the aging baby boomers, lack the educational attainment of these same boomers. This does not bode well for the future.

Sadly, I’ve heard very little coming from any of the candidates, about workforce specific initiatives that will be required to support any of the new jobs being promised by the likes of McCain, Romney and others. Obviously, when you are campaigning in Michigan, you better talk about job creation, even though you know it will be forgotten once you leave the state.

The U.S. lacks an effective system for adults already in working, but who want to increase their educational attainment and job skills. What I’d love to hear from politicians is that they support a federal policy that supports the education of working adults, including basic education for those hampered by low literacy. We also need English instruction for those who are not proficient and some meaningful funding for postsecondary education/training for those needing educational and occupational credentials for job advancement and increased productivity.

In Maine, there is a tremendous opportunity for those willing to pursue skilled trades. The Cianbro Corporation, Maine’s largest construction firm, has a need for upwards of 200 welders and over 400 skilled trades people. Rather than rely on state and federal monies, Cianbro is doing much of their own training, out of necessity. I commend them for that. However, there should be programs in place that could direct those receiving public assistance and who were physically able, to access these employment opportunities, which by the way, pay living wages.

The only stump speech that I’ve heard that dealt with this with any kind of specificity, was about two weeks ago, when Bill Clinton, campaigning for his wife, rattled off some key points and offered tangible solutions to some of these issues. Unfortunately, Hillary’s website is a bit thin on specifics about this. Obama’s is no better.

Personally, I’m growing tired, as we enter the home stretch for the presidency, to have so many so-called viable candidates offering little, or no meat, on issues so crucial to our nation’s economic health. Furthermore, for Republican candidates, to try to outflank each other on the right and continuing to go to that tired trough of trickle-down economics, while waging war in Iraq and god knows where else, is intellectually vacuous at best, and I would argue, immoral. Adding to my consternation is the gaggle of talk-radio cheerleaders, trying to coax some higher meaning from policies that will cripple us.

We’re now ramping up to the final stages of the horserace and still, nary a candidate that the thought of pulling the lever for, elicits enthusiasm, or rather, even seems tolerable, for that matter.

Despite claims that voters are jazzed and engaged, my sense it that America’s voters are dumber than ever and new media, or not, few writers, bloggers, or anyone else, is holding candidates to any kind of meaningful standard.

Note: I want to credit the Center for American Progress and in particular, Brian Bosworth's report, Lifelong Learning-New Strategies for the Education of Working Adults, for helping me coalesce my thoughts on this topic. This has been a big part of my life for the past 18 months. I've acquired a "crash course" on workforce issues and how they parallel effective strategies for growing the U.S. economy. Sadly, most politicians remain ignorant of their importance, preferring instead, to talk in platitudes that do little to push necessary policies forward.

If you'd like to read more about what political leaders should be focusing on, please visit the website for The Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

No comments: