Obama, Private Sector Call for Better Workforce Preparation

By Staff Report

Jul. 14, 2009

In a flurry of activity this week, both the Obama administration and the private sector are calling for U.S. workers to get more education and training so that they can fill jobs that increasingly demand higher-level skills.

President Barack Obama was scheduled to outline a proposal for increasing funding for community colleges on Tuesday, July 14, at Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan.

In prepared remarks released in advance of the speech, Obama said that community colleges play a central role in helping workers survive economic change.

“[T]he hard truth is that some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won’t be coming back,” Obama said. “And that only underscores the importance of generating new businesses and industries to replace the ones we’ve lost, and of preparing our workers to fill the jobs they create.”

Obama called his American Graduation Initiative the “most significant down payment yet” on his stated goal of ensuring that by 2020 the U.S. has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Under the plan, Obama projects that an additional 5 million people would earn degrees and certificates from community colleges.

The $12 billion, 10-year program would help the institutions improve their facilities and expand online education. It would be financed by cutting waste out of the student-loan program, according to the White House.

The goal of the effort is to push workers beyond a high school education. In a July 13 report, the White House Council of Economic Advisers projected that by 2016, occupations demanding an associate’s degree or advanced vocational training will grow twice as fast as jobs with lower qualifications.

The highest-growth areas will be health care, education, transportation and construction.

“In general, the U.S. economy appears to be shifting towards jobs that require workers with greater analytical and interactive skills—skills that are typically acquired with some post-secondary education,” the CEA report states. “Many of the fastest growing jobs—including aircraft equipment mechanic and environmental engineering technician jobs—will require the completion of an associate’s degree or certificate program.”

The White House advocacy for increased education and training comes amid new evidence that many new hires lack basic and applied job skills.

Nearly half of the 217 employers surveyed in a study titled “The Ill-Prepared U.S. Workforce” said that they provide remedial training programs “to erase deficiencies among their newly hired entrants in skills they expect them to have when hired.”

The companies called the training efforts only moderately or somewhat successful and said that programs often failed to meet company needs, according to the report. The study was conducted by Corporate Voices for Working Families, the American Society for Training & Development, the Society for Human Resource Management and the Conference Board.

Companies indicate that the applied skills that are most lacking are critical thinking and problem solving, while the basic skill in short supply is writing in English, said Mary Wright, a program director at the Conference Board.

The report defined three areas of training—workforce readiness (or remedial), job-specific and career development. One of the problems is that training budgets incorporate all the categories into one reporting stream.

“A lot of companies were not separating the cost of the remedial from the job-specific training,” Wright said. That makes it more difficult to demonstrate the drain on company revenues—and competitiveness—that results from deficiencies in the U.S. educational system.

“It’s not a good use of company resources to train people in things they should have known before they arrived,” Wright said.

Wright is encouraged by the Obama community college initiative. She said smart companies develop strategic partnerships with local educational institutions. The schools provide technical training, while companies offer job shadowing and internships.

That kind of cooperation is going to become more critical with the growth of so-called middle-skill jobs that require more than a high school education.

“There’s a real opportunity for both sides to be much more collaborative,” Wright said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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