Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Is America's problem a lack of jobs?

Over the past few months, it’s become commonplace that if given a sound bite opportunity, politicians—local, state, and most certainly, national—will launch some variation on the theme of job creation. The topic tumbles from their mouths automatically. Apparently they’ve figured out that if subjected to months of double-digit unemployment, Americans will salivate when “jobs” are mentioned—this isn’t a bad thing, but let’s take a closer look, or better, peer forward—by looking backward, to decide whether the lack of jobs is in fact the problem..

None of the following is new information, but from time to time, I think it’s important to revisit—think of it as a recalibration of our workforce/economic development focus.

Back in 2008, just prior to the election of President Obama, Michael Porter, guru of competitiveness at Harvard Business School wrote an article that was published in Newsweek stating that America needed a long-term strategy to ensure our country’s ability to compete economically, on the global stage. He argued convincingly, in my opinion, that the lack of a national economic strategy not dictated by political winds or the latest flavor of the month (my paraphrase) was a major problem for the U.S. and needed to be addressed by the incoming administration.

At the time, Porter indicated that both candidates, Mr. McCain, and the eventual horserace winner, Mr. Obama, were lacking anything resembling a strategy on competiveness. Nothing over the past year handed down from Washington has addressed the points that Porter made regarding coming up with a strategic plan to address competitiveness.

Red flags have been raised over the past two years about the lack of key workforce skills, by The Conference Board, the National Association of Workforce Boards, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to name a few. Their points are clearly delineated by data and labor market information.

Clearly, the jobs that will be in demand when vitality returns to the U.S. economy are comprised of skills that fall within the important middle spectrum of the labor skill set.

Recently, I was sent a link to a report that once again highlights major literacy and skills deficiencies titled, Guide to Adult Education for Work: Transforming Adult Education to Grow a Skilled Workforce.

Produced by the Workforce and Education Policy Group, the report lays out some alarming indicators that fit very well with Porter’s article about competitiveness and, echoing his call to in fact come up with strategy.

Here are a few problem areas highlighted by the report:

  • The U.S. is the only highly-developed democracy where young adults are less likely to have completed high school than the previous generation.
  • Over 1 million young adults drop out of school each year. More than 12 million adults without a high school credential are in the labor force today.
  • At the same time, almost twice as many jobs over the next decade will require a postsecondary credential or college degree, up from 25 percent today to about 45 percent over the next decade.
  • And far too many (93 million) score at lower levels of national assessments of functional literacy skills and are unprepared to enroll in the postsecondary education or job training programs that can prepare them for current and future jobs.

So what to do? Jobs are important and mentioning job creation might help politicians gather some political capital in the short-term, but let’s face the facts. When our economy picks up, and it will, we’re going to struggle to fill existing jobs, once again. Just this morning I was on the phone speaking to the local branch manager of an international staffing firm. She told me that job requests are coming in regularly that she can’t fill—the reason? Most of the current crop of unemployed people can’t pass her basic screening requirements—a demonstration of a stable work history, verifiable references, no criminal history, etc.—basic stuff.

Maybe the issue isn’t jobs, jobs, jobs after all; maybe it’s finding the will to face up to the huge skills gap nationwide, and getting serious in America about being competitive on the global stage once again.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

ARRA money preventing poverty for many

Rather than focus on talk radio, and other media pundits with ideological axes to grind, Americans should be focused on facts and data to decide whether federal and state policies are working. Let's take a look at the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

According to new analysis based on Census data, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) is keeping large numbers of Americans out of poverty in states across the country. In addition to boosting economic activity and preserving or creating jobs, the recovery act is softening the recession’s impact on poverty by directly lifting family incomes.

The report, produced by The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities includes information on 36 states. Maine is one of them, and the data shows that anywhere from 14,000 (lower-bound estimate), to 30,000 (higher-bound estimate) Mainers have been lifted above the poverty line by ARRA funding, with the best estimate being 22,000.

[Thanks to a Twitter feed, courtesy of the Workforce Developments blog for alerting me to the CBPP's report.--JB]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Does unemployment make you unemployable?

Yesterday, labor officials and worker advocates from across the U.S. were in Washington, urging quick Congressional action to extend emergency jobless benefits and to renew health insurance subsidies for the long-term jobless.

Prolonged unemployment insurance, passed this year in the stimulus act, expires this month, and an estimated one million workers will see benefits end in January if Congress does not act.

The health subsidies, under which the federal government pays 65 percent of insurance costs under Cobra for up to nine months, have expired and are not available to the newly unemployed.

The continued sputtering of the U.S. economy has made unemployment extensions necessary, as more than 15 millions Americans remain on the roles of unemployment insurance, 36 percent of them now out of work for more than 6 months.

Benefit extensions have been necessary in most cases, given the state of the U.S. job market. However, joblessness and its effects on idled workers, as well as the challenges it presents employers looking to rehire workers who have been out of work for an extended period hasn't been considered as closely as perhaps it should be, in my opinion.Can workers, even those who entered their phase of unemployment with strong work histories, forget how to work, or lose their employment edge? While there may be no choice at this point but to extend benefits for another period of time, is our current system an effective one, given that so many Americans have been out of work for so long? What can be done to ensure that laid off workers are prepared to go back to work?

The last time the U.S. faced extended unemployment, in the 1970s, the shift in the employment paradigm wasn’t as dramatic. For many workers laid off for the first time, the entire process of looking for a job has dramatically changed. Many are lacking technology skills necessary to access online job banks.

Interestingly, during a forum I conducted with employers looking at ways to reintroduce workers back into the workforce, one employer indicated that if given the choice between hiring a worker that has been collecting unemployment insurance, and another equally qualified person that has been working, even in a position that he/she was overqualified for, she would choose the worker who has a recent history of work. This was an interesting perspective. Her point was that the individual on long-term unemployment had developed habits that she felt affecting them negatively and decreased their value to this employer. She appreciated the efforts and savvy of anyone that has found a way to stay employed in this tough economy. Furthermore, she said it indicated a will to work that she felt was lacking in anyone that has been on extended unemployment.

This is a perspective worth considering. How do other employers and/or recruiters view job seekers that lack a recent work history, particularly due to extended unemployment?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tweeking attitudes

It’s easy to end up in a rut and comfortable, even if you’re someone that regularly strives towards self-improvement. Routine and time in a job can inure and insulate in such a way that you become less effective. That’s where self-awareness comes in. Successful people recognize that tendency and take steps to guard against it.

Several weeks ago, I was asked to speak to a group of professionals about reinvention. I have given several presentations on the need for reinvention, so I thought it would be easy. It wasn’t the “slam dunk” I expected, however. Actually, I walked away from my talk realizing that it has been awhile since I have taken a hard look at where I’m at and where I’m headed. I’ve certainly taken some positive steps forward on the physical front in my own life, but the frantic pace of the past three months has left my psychic batteries in need of recharging.

A trip to the library several weeks ago to visit the self-help section put me in touch with writers like Stephen Covey, Po Bronson, and a few others. I also discovered Dr. Gordon Livingston and his wonderful book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now.

While Covey got me refocused on the importance of moving beyond merely striving for excellence to seeing the necessity of fulfillment in life’s journey. Covey talks about “finding your voice and inspiring others to do so.”

In that same vein, Livingston, a psychiatrist, uses short essays to highlight how each one of us, regardless of circumstances, limitations, and setbacks, has the potential to move beyond these things. Things like relationships matter. We have the power to revise our personal narrative.

When Livingston writes, “we are what we do,” he puts happiness in the context of being under our control.

How do you create happiness? According to Livingston, the three components necessary for it are “something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.”

When he touches on, “we are afraid of the wrong things,” he nails American culture in seven words. Our fixation on fright keeps far too many people imprisoned. So much that is valued in our culture is in fact, fatally flawed. Often, fear of failure prevents many people from even trying. Fear is a lousy motivator.

My time away from work over the Thanksgiving break was put to good use.

Being back in the saddle with a renewed focus feels good and has me anticipating a rousing finish for 2009, and limitless possibilities in 2010.