Wanted: workers with actual skills

Last month, the consulting firm Education Strategy Group presented a 75-page report to the Montgomery County School Board. The report detailed how this 161,300-student school system, Maryland’s largest, needed to alter its overall strategy and career emphasis because its current programs are not keeping pace with the rapidly changing world of work.

Career preparation “has been marginalized as a priority,” the report stated. The Montgomery County school system now puts most of its resources and energies into preparing students for college, presupposing that college is the only ticket to a good job. Yet a majority of the 2,000 jobs open in the county are middle-skill positions requiring less than a bachelor’s degree.

The U.S. job market has undergone an enormous disruption. The nature of work is changing rapidly, and an increasing number of American job seekers are simply not qualified for today’s jobs. Businesses agree. In August, the U.S had a record 6.2 million job openings while, at the same time, 7 million people were looking for work.

Vocational education and working in the trades continue to be looked down upon. Advocates have rebranded it “career and technical education.”

Our economy will grow faster only if we increase productivity and expand current workforce participation. Both of these are now declining, and that results in slowing GDP growth. The demand for people with specific training or a two-year technical college degree is growing faster than the demand for four-year college graduates. Skills training, academic courses and actual work can be integrated into a career model. It has been implemented in some states. Some states have also encouraged youth apprentice programs.

A May 2017 survey of 4,135 respondents by the Pew Research Center registered “widespread anxiety among Americans over the impact of technical change.” Three-quarters of Americans worry about computers and robots eventually performing most of the jobs now done by people and that this outcome will have negative consequences.

In a recent book, “Men Without Work,” Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, determined that “America’s prime-male workforce participation has been declining at a virtually linear rate for half a century. … For every prime-age man who is [classified as] unemployed today, another three are neither working nor looking for work.” This ongoing trend results “in lower living standards, greater economic disparities and slower economic growth.” Mr. Eberstadt argues that this condition is “America’s invisible crisis.”

Early this month, four regional Federal Reserve presidents convened a conference entitled Investing in America’s Workforce. They report that, in recent years, funding for workforce development has declined. The conference observed that global competition and technological advances have produced job market changes that now demand new and shifting skills.

Most threatened by these developments are the millions and millions of people who are high school educated or less, especially within an aging population in which worker participation rates are estimated to continue to trend downward. Much of this is related to the skills gap and all the difficulties of moving to the areas where the new jobs are. This especially applies to, and hurts, workers in smaller and rural communities. Most businesses, already struggling with digital and global disruptions, will not invest in plants and equipment if they have no access to skilled workers. Construction firms in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico are having great difficulties hiring skilled tradesmen to remedy damage done by recent hurricanes.

An inadequate workforce ultimately limits economic opportunity, mobility and global competitiveness. Current educational attainment does not match current skills needs. Much of the nation’s educational systems are training students for jobs of the past. Asian and German systems are generally better at career and technical education. Ours need to be restructured.

Educators need to better match skills training programs to the actual demand for job skills. Job market disruption is escalating. Businesses, government agencies, school boards, community colleges and non-profit, academic and philanthropic organizations need to work together if they are to produce stronger workforces in their respective communities. It has to be done locally. And it must be seen as an investment, not just another social service. A stronger workforce supports a stronger economy — and ultimately a stronger nation.

Perry L. Weed is an attorney and founder/director of the Economic Club of Annapolis. His e-mail is plweed@verizon.net.

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