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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The challenge is to identify the hot career fields 10 years in advance, give students the specific skills they need in order to hit the ground running after they graduate from college, plus provide them with the general knowledge they need to switch careers on a dime when the hot employment fields du jour fizzle out during the collapse of the next economic bubble. All at an affordable cost, of course.