Democrats Push to Add Workers in Science Fields

By Mark Jr.

Jan. 27, 2006

With President Bush’s poll numbers mired below 50 percent and Capitol Hill Republicans battling ethics scandals, observers in Washington have been waiting to see what kind of blueprint Democrats will offer to regain control of Congress in 2006.

    Improving the U.S. workforce is one issue they might emphasize. Late last year, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California introduced a plan to increase the number of science, math, engineering and information technology workers. Dubbed the Innovation Agenda, the manifesto also calls for bolstering research and development through public-private partnerships, making broadband technology available nationwide, achieving energy independence and boosting small-business growth.

    “We will add 100,000 new scientists, mathematicians and engineers to America’s workforce in the next four years by providing scholarships, other financial assistance and private-sector opportunities to college students to achieve this goal,” Pelosi said in a National Press Club speech.

    Republicans argue that Pelosi is highlighting initiatives they have supported for years while she and her Democratic colleagues have opposed job training bills and other proposals to strengthen education and small business. The GOP also asserts that it has taken the lead in pushing for more federal R&D funding.

    Pelosi invited Republicans to join Democrats on the innovation initiative. She shied away from drawing parallels between the plan and the Republicans’ 1994 Contract With America, which garnered some credit for the GOP’s takeover of the House.

    “This is not a contract with, for or on America,” she said. “What it is, is a document for the future.”

    Democrats believe that their agenda may get political traction because it addresses issues–jobs and education–that motivate voters and corporations.

    Businesses “consider education and training as an absolute bedrock of their ability to continue to do business in the United States,” says Rep. George Miller of California, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Miller participated in a conference with executives at Stanford University this past fall, one of several hosted by Democrats in advance of releasing their proposal.

    The Democratic plan came out one week before the National Association of Manufacturers released its “2005 Skills Gap Report,” which found that more than 80 percent of the 800 employers surveyed are experiencing a shortage of qualified workers. The most important factor determining business success over the next three years will be a “high-performance workforce,” according to 74 percent of respondents.

    John Engler, NAM president and former Republican governor of Michigan, stressed that improving skills should rise above politics. “I would love to see this be one area where there is truly bipartisanship,” he says.

    Strengthening the workforce is as much a mandate for business as it is for Washington. Employers must think beyond wages and benefits and offer opportunities for supervision, leadership and training to keep the work environment stimulating, according to an expert who helped conduct the NAM survey.

    “You can’t put the emphasis on how you recruit and how you retain employees,” says Richard Kleinert, a principal at Deloitte Consulting. “It’s how you develop them, how you train them, how you engage them.”

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