- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If there were ever a time when the United States needed a national skills strategy, it is today. The nation is shedding jobs at an alarming rate, and even with the overdue passage of the stimulus package, no leading economist expects the unemployment rate to stop climbing soon.

Individuals need help coping with this crisis - identifying where the current and new job opportunities are likely to be and how to develop the skills for them - and the current system is not up to the task.

The skills crisis, however, goes much deeper than today's economic crisis. Each generation has its primary skills challenge and ours is, to borrow from Thomas Friedman, the flattening of the world: the Internet and the integration of China, India and the former communist bloc into the global economy allow most knowledge work to flow wherever best talent can be found at the best price.

Both the British and Australian governments, our main competitors for attracting the best students from around the world to our universities, have recently undertaken major efforts to develop concrete national skills strategies through to the year 2020. The United States has no similar process under way.

Given the urgency of the problem, we can't wait to form a new commission to study the skills issue. Rather, I suggest a two-pronged approach:

(1) Highlight skills as a central focus for the White House's recently created Middle Class Task Force.

(2) Immediately begin reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), using this as an opportunity to transform the public work force development system.

Many of the key lessons needed for building a new national approach to work-force development are contained in WIRED (Workforce Innovation and Regional Economic Development), a U.S. Department of Labor initiative that now covers 39 regions across the United States. WIRED shares a number of flaws common to policymaking in Washington: It is too short term, too bureaucratic and started as a partisan way to go around the existing work-force system rather than reinvent it.

But key elements of the WIRED vision are correct. As suggested by the acronym, we need a new system to build connections among the different stakeholders in work-force development and job creation, including:

— Regions - encouraging local Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) and other actors in regional labor markets to coordinate their efforts to try to build high-skill ecosystems, rather than competing for scarce resources.

— Sectors - developing experts dedicated to serving the skill needs of specific industries, rather than expecting a generalist to be able to meet the needs of all employers.

— Economic development - bringing work-force and economic development together to create and fill good jobs was core to the original WIRED concept. This should include both public and private investors. Unfortunately, regions are now prohibited from spending their funds on economic development, a huge gap when our most pressing need is job creation.

— Employers - gaining the active involvement of firms and industry associations is essential to sustaining a high-quality work-force development system.

— Unions - linking union apprenticeships to college credit provides a means to train individuals for skilled occupations, while enabling them to pursue further education..

— Schools - improving science and math education in our public schools, which many of the best-WIRED regions have recognized.

— Higher education - retraining for existing jobs and helping to spur the innovation to create new ones by mobilizing our community colleges and four-year institutions. The Agricultural Experiment Stations offer an exciting model that deals both with training and innovation and is now starting to be extended successfully to tackle urban issues.

— Government policymakers - building regional connections is far more difficult if state and federal policymakers don't also foster collaboration among their work-force and economic-development programs.

— Private-sector service providers - a whole outplacement industry has emerged to help displaced workers. A new public work-force development system needs to work with rather than in isolation from these private-sector services.

— Environment - connecting work-force development with environmental and energy policymakers to develop a coordinated strategy with the new focus on “green jobs.”

Applying these lessons from WIRED — both on what to do and not to do — combined with support for at least two years of postsecondary education or training for all individuals, offers a good starting point to meet the skills challenges of the new century.

David Finegold is dean of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He was an adviser to the British and Australian government efforts to develop national skill strategies.

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