“I can’t find the skilled people I need to make my business grow.”
It’s one of the most common observations we hear at AIM from Massachusetts employers, even during a slow economy. Now, the person in charge of workforce training for Massachusetts is asking for your ideas to solve the problem.
On Thursday, November 3, Massachusetts Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Joanne F. Goldstein will conduct a morning-long 21st Century Workforce Development System “visioning” session in Burlington. The event will focus on the needs of employers, to “provide an opportunity for company representatives to share their perspectives on the most effective ways to recruit, train, and retain a 21st century workforce.”
Where to begin the search for solutions? Start with what works best – the Massachusetts Workforce Training Fund Program (WTFP). The initiative has been a success for employers and workers alike. Its flexibility has allowed it to respond to changing needs in the economy, and to evolve structurally to broaden participation (for example by accommodating small employers) and to meet pressing concerns.
The success of the WFTP owes much to the fact that it is funded by employers, and requires a direct employer match for each grant. Substantial employer skin in the game justifies the flexibility and responsiveness to specific needs required in a diverse, fast-changing economy.
Many other programs, by contrast, are narrowly categorical in terms of eligibility, and involve complex application processes. Now that a true WTFP trust fund is in place, ensuring stable funding, the program will be even more effective.
The WFTP falls under the broader heading of “middle skills,” defined as education and training beyond the high school level but short of a baccalaureate college degree. AIM’s 6,000 members employ one in five of the state’s private-sector workers, a large proportion of them in the middle-skills category.
We hear from employers constantly that development of these skills must be a priority, and that our workforce development system must be re-tuned to meet current needs and opportunities. The system must also become more readily navigable both for individuals seeking skills and for employers seeking to hire. The middle-skills agenda currently being advanced by the Skills2Compete-Massachusetts coalition is a vital contribution – especially as our state, a leader in elementary, secondary and higher education, has too often ignored this critical middle ground.
The “Great Recession” has created an immediate crisis of workplace skills. Youth employment has been devastated, leaving many young people unable to gain a basic understanding of the world of work through low-level jobs. Older people have experienced long-term unemployment that has eroded the currency of their skills. Even experienced workers may be left behind when industry patterns shift or employers retool.
Meanwhile, the recession and subsequent sluggish recovery are limiting government’s ability to address the workplace skills crisis. Federal funding streams have historically not only supported much workforce development activity, but also shaped the institutional structure through which programs are delivered. The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 created the regional Workforce Investment Boards as they now exist. That law, which expired in 2003 but has been extended annually, is now enmeshed in the broader deadlock over federal spending. Reauthorization at this point is in considerable doubt.
We face both an immediate and long-term need to change the way we approach worker training. Without improved training now, employers will not find the employees they will soon require, working lives will be blighted and Massachusetts risks losing a key competitive advantage - a highly-skilled workforce. Here, for the time being, we must use as effectively as possible the resources and structures we have, notably the Workforce Training Fund.
On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the time has come to recast our state’s workforce development system to respond to the emerging needs and resource constraints of the 21st century. Important work is being done on aspects of a new system – reconsideration of the role of the community colleges, for example – but we must end up with a coherent system that can be understood and used by jobseekers and employers (especially small employers) alike.
AIM strongly believes that workforce development must be addressed in the context of a comprehensive economic development strategy for the commonwealth. We have long advocated such planning as a key component of our Agenda for the Common Wealth flagship advocacy program, and we are very pleased that the challenge has been taken up by Governor Patrick’s Economic Development Council. As a statutory participant in that effort, we are committed to placing the highest priority on workforce development programs that effectively meet the needs of our state’s employers and fulfill the potential of our state’s residents.