Labor Day 2006 - A Need For Greater Worker Proficiency

Posted: Sep 01, 2006 12:01 AM
Labor Day 2006 - A Need For Greater Worker Proficiency

As Labor Day approaches, we observe that many recent trends merit celebration. Unemployment is lower than its average during the last decade; the economy has been adding jobs during the last few years. Inflation is relatively low despite the rise in gasoline prices. Yet all is not well. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) in its Labor Day 2005 report, "The Looming Workforce Crisis," provided a glimpse of the trouble besetting the American workforce if our country, particularly our young, is complacent:

"Just as [the] demand for better-educated and more highly-skilled workers begins to grow, troubling trends project a severe shortage of such workers. A 2005 report by the Manhattan Institute finds that 40 percent of ninth graders in 2002 will either drop out of school before completing high school or lack the needed skills for employment. At the same time, only 60 percent will get advanced training or seek a two- or four-year college degree after high school.

"In fact, results of the 2005 NAM Small Manufacturers Operating Survey conducted in July 2005 show that companies are already having trouble finding qualified workers. When asked to identify the most serious problem for their company, survey respondents ranked 'finding qualified employees' above high energy costs, the burden of taxes, federal regulations, and litigation. Only the cost of health insurance and import competition ranked as more pressing concerns.

"Together, these studies show that U.S. employers already struggling to find qualified workers will face an increasing shortage of such workers in coming years."

The quality and versatility of our country's workforce is increasingly important to ensuring our country's continued ability to innovate, produce and prosper. Merely showing up on time at the job on the assembly line is no longer sufficient. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao has said that more than nine of ten occupations created in the near future will require post-secondary education ranging from a four-year college degree to a two-year degree from a community college to specialized training in the skilled trades.

Some Americans think immigration can assist in limiting the skills gap. No doubt America has benefited greatly from the contributions of immigrants but an October 2005 brief, "The Skills Gap: Labor Supply and Demand," by the Commonwealth Corporation, a workforce development agency in Massachusetts, cautions that the recent influx of immigrants lack the skills and education needed for the more highly skilled jobs which spur economic growth. Moreover, the report warns that many foreign students may no longer view United States colleges and universities as the most desirable places to study. In the past many good foreign students chose to work for American companies, contributing their drive and superior skills to the American economy.

Secretary Chao is acutely aware that America faces a severe "skills gap" which stands to jeopardize long-term economic growth. If unchecked this gap would cost younger Americans economic opportunity as foreign countries become more innovative, strengthening their competition and forcing Americans to import rather than manufacture more products.

Chao understands the skills of American workers must be enhanced continually. America's ability to remain competitive will be determined by the ability of its workforce to create better products more quickly and distribute them to market faster. Developing this "high-performance" workforce requires new concepts in worker training.

The old system involved matching displaced workers with available jobs, perhaps requiring some retraining. One-stop career centers, essentially social service centers, doled out jobs and unemployment benefits. That is no longer sufficient, in Chao's view. "This system served the old economy well," Chao told this summer's conference on Workforce Innovations. "Retraining workers for skills in demand in the short term is not enough," Chao explained. "Lifelong learning and continually upgrading skills are the strategies required for sustaining success in today's workforce." Needed is a more flexible, integrated system that anticipates workforce demand by industries and links displaced and aspiring workers to the appropriate training.

Chao advocates an enhanced role for community colleges which can work in partnership with local businesses to provide workers with training in the skills that are most needed. "[Community colleges] represent the heart of a higher education system capable of serving today's workforce. They are accessible to nearly all Americans and have 1,200 locations nationwide. They hold evening and weekend classes. And they are adaptable to the rapidly changing demands of a regional economy," Chao told the conference. Chao announced in July the start of competition for the second round of Community-Based Job Training Grants, slated primarily for community colleges. (The first round was awarded last year.) Recipients of the grants are to lead by example, providing innovative services and curricula to fulfill the need of workers and local businesses.

Kannapolis, North Carolina provides a good example of the value that can be provided by a community college. Pillowtex Corporation, during the summer of 2003, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, laying off more than 4,000 workers in Cabarrus and Rowan Counties. Most workers were female, middle-aged, many of whom had not completed high school. Before a year had passed 1,600 workers had enrolled at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College seeking GED degrees, courses in English as a second language, training in customer service and medical billing skills and careers such as nurse's aide, according to an April 2004 paper commissioned by the North Carolina Department of Commerce on "Community Response to the Pillowtex Textile Kannapolis Closing: The 'Rapid Response' Team as a Facilitative Device."

Displaced workers in the Kannapolis area benefited from their proximity to other urban areas. In July 2005, the Department of Labor presented Rowan-Cabarrus Community College with a "Recognition of Excellence" award based on its work to help those workers displaced by Pillowtex's bankruptcy.

Kannapolis was chosen last year as the site for the North Carolina Research Campus, a venture between Duke University, the University of North Carolina, Dole Food Company, Inc., and Castle & Cooke, to provide laboratories for biotechnology, health and nutrition research. Justin Murdock, Senior Vice President of Dole and Castle & Cook, commented last year, "Young people who are graduating from high school in North Carolina will go on to institutes of higher education in this state, and then will be able to return to Kannapolis for employment in the scientific laboratories or to create their own businesses."

Jobs are projected to be created for electricians, plumbers and landscapers, requiring courses that can be provided by the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. Further, many of the more technical positions will require specialized skills but not necessarily undergraduate degrees so current and aspiring workers in the Kannapolis area who are interested in enhancing their background in science and technology can begin taking courses at Rowan-Cabarrus to gain an edge when the hiring begins.

Unfortunately, too many young Americans appear willing to let opportunities pass by. TIME Magazine, in its cover story earlier this year on "Dropout Nation," profiled the dissatisfaction with high school felt by many high school students in Shelbyville, Indiana. Approximately one-third of the freshman class at Shelbyville High School in 2002 were not expected to graduate. Those students who are currently dissatisfied with high school will discover their work options equally unsatisfying upon dropping out.

Leaders in Shelbyville and Indiana with good reason are working to persuade the young to stay in school. Three decades ago, a majority of workers in manufacturing jobs lacked a high school diploma but it is expected that within six years over 40% of factory jobs will require post-secondary education. Manufacturers have an increasing demand for workers with strong computer skills, the ability to interpret flowcharts and spreadsheets, to work in teams and to manage. Even stronger ability in reading and writing is essential.

The Department of Labor is distributing IN DEMAND booklets to high schools which detail lucrative careers in healthcare, energy, construction and advanced manufacturing. Many of the jobs profiled do not demand a four-year college degree but require advanced skills and post-secondary education. The careers of several young workers in the issue of IN DEMAND examining "Advanced Manufacturing" are instructive.

Brandon Farrison, a 32-year old health and safety team leader for Pitney Bowes, is profiled. Farrison says his primary job is to operate printing equipment but in today's workplace safety is imperative. Accidents not only slow production, cost money in terms of medical bills and replacing workers, but can lead to expensive litigation. Farrison started with Pitney Bowes as a papercutter, working his way into network operations. He now ensures the safety practices of Pitney Bowes are followed, that the manufacturing equipment is indeed safe. "I keep a record, daily or weekly logs, of all our inspections...I don't have a college degree but that hasn't been a detriment. I stayed focused and I learned continuously," he explains.

Daniel McGee, a 21-year old metal fabrication intern at the E. J. Ajax Company, in Fridley, Minnesota, is another striver who is profiled. Experienced metal fabricators at the senior level can earn as much as $25 an hour. McGee, a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, uses punch presses, lathes and forming presses to make handcuffs, hinges and metal framing. McGee says he has not only been learning to use metal-working machines, he has been receiving instruction in "...metallurgy, geometric tolerances, and a lot of math like algebra and trigonometry." McGee is intent on expanding his knowledge about metal work. "I may go on to college next year and earn a bachelor's degree in industrial technology," he says.

Chao and the Department of Labor are working closely with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to improve the proficiency of young Americans in science and mathematics, a stumbling block that threatens continued American supremacy as a leader in manufacturing. Spellings has warned that nearly half of America's 17-year olds lack the mathematics skills required to work as a production associate in a modern automotive plant. Chao concurs, emphasizing that were this trend to continue it would be costly. "In the next 10 years, there will be more than 6 million new and replacement job openings that require strong math and science skills," she told this summer's Workforce Innovations conference.

Too many young Americans are being shortchanged by an inadequate educational system. As educators move to improve their curricula, young Americans, such as those in Shelbyville, should bear in mind that, according to 2004 data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobs requiring less than a high school diploma were in decline and paid an average of $479 in weekly earnings. Jobs requiring some college or associate degrees were expected to grow and paid at least $767 in weekly earnings. Not all jobs require a college degree to earn a good living but in this increasingly complex economy the best jobs require better skills and more than a high school diploma.

Chao and Spellings deserve credit for rousing young Americans and leaders in business and education to realize more must be done to protect the strong standard of living which has enabled many Americans to prosper and succeed. This Labor Day Americans have much for which to be thankful for but there is important work to do if we are to foster the skilled workforce that will assure our country's continued success in an increasingly competitive world.