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US lacks in workforce development; competitiveness at risk

June 01, 2017
By: Ellen Marrison

If it takes a village to raise a child, it may take an entire educational support system as well as public policy reform and funding to get that child into a skilled technical job. A two-year study coordinated by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the disjointed method of workforce development approaches in the U.S. may be hampering the economic competitiveness of the country. To combat that disjointed approach, the study, Building America’s Skilled Technical Workforce, makes a series of recommendations for policy makers, educators, employers, and other stakeholders in the future development of a skilled technical workforce.

Public policy should more fully support students, workers, employers and educational organizations with the right incentives to improve the quality of technical education and training, the report asserts. To help, an alliance of industry, trade, academic, and civic associations and labor unions should organize a nationwide public-private communication campaign to raise awareness of the value of and demand for these workers, as well highlight the return that such a job could bring.

Additionally, Congress and state legislatures should oversee legislative reforms and improve the workforce labor market information systems, tools and data and provide funding for the activities the report recommends. While the U.S. lacks many mechanisms that other countries have that require their governments, educators and employers to coordinate on policies and practices at the national level, the authors found promise in some experiments that are currently underway in some areas across the country. If such efforts can be coordinated, outcomes and return on investment are improved, the study found. One chapter of the report details different successful programs that merit further study. For instance, “wraparound” student support services at the postsecondary level like those in the ASAP program at CUNY have shown positive results. The program offers full-time students intensive advising and tutoring, priority in registering, free transportation and textbooks, and a waiver to help cover financial shortfalls. The program nearly doubled the share of students graduating within three years and increased the number enrolling in four-year college. While CUNY’s costs increased, the higher graduation rates meant CUNY actually spent less per college degree.

In a paper commissioned for the study, one researcher called for changing Career and Technical Education standards, which currently are course-specific and geared to particular jobs, to a set of standards more closely aligned with a set of broader career clusters and pathways. Federal policy makers have the opportunity to eliminate bureaucratic rules that could better integrate CTE across several education reform efforts as they consider the reauthorization of the Perkins Act, the researcher found.

The report’s recommendations come as a result of several issues that were identified through the study. For example, the authors contend that requiring a four-year degree for jobs that may not require it may be contributing to the difficulty employers face in finding qualified workers. Meanwhile, many workers may be unaware of well-paying jobs that are available, or they may lack the appropriate basic math or science skills for those jobs.

Such challenges raise questions regarding the education and workforce development systems and whether labor markets have the incentives and information to function properly, the report maintains. It goes on to assert that if such challenges cannot be overcome, there are implications of diminished productivity and reduced economic activity.

Other issues outlined include the fact that the demand for a skilled workforce is changing so rapidly that workers, employers, educators, policy makers and civic organizations need to be highly flexible and forward looking. And while some jobs are being eliminated through automation, others are in high demand and can be found in health care, advanced manufacturing and information technology, which are expanded on in the findings. It shows how those jobs could be filled by people with credentials obtainable through a community college, career and technical education programs, apprenticeships and web-based programs.

The authors report that there is evidence that some employers may not be committed to hiring certain groups of workers, paying high enough wages or providing sufficiently stable employment to ensure an adequate return on investment in education and training. And U.S. labor rules are outdated and have not accommodated a more technologically based workforce. Nontraditional and contingent workers are creating pressure to revise the current rules and ensure that incentives to promote education, training, innovation and growth are sustained over time.

Building America’s Skilled Technical Workforce was a collaborative study overseen by the Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy (STEP), a standing board established by the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine in 1991. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened the Committee on the Supply Chain for Middle Skilled Jobs to examine the coverage, effectiveness, flexibility, and coordination of the policies and various programs that prepare Americans for skilled technical jobs. The study lasted more than two years and included academic reviews, a national symposium and commissioning of several papers on the topic. 

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