Monday, April 7, 2008

Making promises to our children

There are a variety of thoughts and opinions about how we should proceed in developing our workforce, particularly at the state and national levels. Far too often, the basic needs of local business are overlooked and worse, longer-term strategic requirements are not factored in. As a result, companies that would hire additional workers and pay them a living wage, can’t find the kind of skills that they require.

What motivates me each and every day, in my position as a workforce professional, is a much more basic standard—each and every person should be given the opportunity to maximize their human potential and access work that flows from that.

One organization that seems to support this very basic, but powerful standard is America’s Promise Alliance. Their Five Promises lend an organic foundation to what I see as part of workforce development and would go a long way towards providing our nation with a workforce that would be second to none.

Here are a few thoughts of my own, tied to each one of the Allliances’ promises.

Promise 1 Caring Adults

All children need support and guidance from caring adults in their families, at schools and in their communities. These include ongoing, secure relationships with parents as well as formal and informal relationships with teachers, mentors, coaches, youth volunteers and neighbors.

It really does take a village to raise a child. If you look at a time in America when our youth were flourishing, it was a time when the community-at-large played a key role in supporting parents. Examples of this can be found in the volunteerism that was prevalent during the 1950s and 1960s and is all too often lacking in our communities today. For those interested in the contrast between then and now, may I recommend an excellent book by Alan Ehrenhalt, The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Values of Community in America.

Promise 2 Safe Places

All children need to be physically and emotionally safe wherever they are — from the actual places of families, schools, neighborhoods and communities to the virtual places of media. They also need a healthy balance between structured, supervised activities and unstructured time.

One of the great dangers facing children today is that they don’t have a chance to be children anymore. All too often, even children that have intact families are forced to participant in far too many activities, whether it be sports travel teams, overly structured programs in dance, theater and other very worthwhile activities. Children need downtown where they can read, play and experience the outdoors.

Two excellent books worth reading about what constitutes a safe healthy environment for children would be the late Neil Postman’s book, The Disappearance of Childhood and a book I read during the fall, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Postman makes a provocative case that that technology, rather than being the solution for all our problems, has not liberated but infantilized society, putting a frame around modern problems of education, child-raising, and loss of meaning.

Promise 3 A Healthy Start

All children need and deserve healthy bodies, healthy minds and healthful habits. These result from regular health check-ups and needed treatment, good nutrition and exercise, healthy skills and knowledge, and good role models of physical and psychological health.

The U.S. continues to fall behind the rest of the developed world in issues pertaining to childhood health. Too often, where one lives determines the level of healthcare they receive. Not receiving adequate healthcare is an economic issue in this country and affects large portions of people within our state.

Health Affairs a health policy journal has a blog. Brian Smedley’s post on March 12 addresses some of the costs associated with not ensuring a healthy start for children.

Promise 4 An Effective Education

All children need the intellectual development, motivation and skills that equip them for successful work and lifelong learning. These result from having quality learning environments, challenging expectations and consistent guidance and mentoring.

Education is a major concern in the work we do on the workforce side. There are certainly things we can do to better prepare our young people for the world of work. There are models that are effective and hopefully, legislators and policymakers can put aside partisan differences and work together to make sure the U.S. is competitive throughout this century.

Promise 5 Opportunities to Help Others

All children need the chance to make a difference in their families, at schools and in their communities. Knowing how to make a difference comes from having models of caring behavior, awareness of the needs of others, a sense of personal responsibility to contribute to the larger society, and opportunities for volunteering, leadership and service.

Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone highlighted the demise of social capital and the consequent issues associated with this. Putnam and Lewis Feldstein collaborated on an update to Putnam’s earlier book, offering a much more optimistic view of examples where social capital is at work.
Better Together: Restoring the American Community offers a dozen case studies of what can be done when communities come together around a common purpose.

Workforce development is focused on all segments of our population, young and old, displaced workers and those lacking essential skills. Our youngest citizens, however, is where our future lies and these five promises are a great starting point to focus our energies and resources on. It is my hope that our nation will once again make investments in all its people, not just the interests of a privileged few, as the trend has been for the last eight years, or more.

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