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Originally published Sunday, September 5, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Labor Day 2010: Few jobs for low-skilled workers

There is a certain irony this Labor Day at a time of record unemployment, writes Evelyn Ganzglass. Fixing the problem requires more than creating an environment in which the private sector can create new jobs. Too many of today's workers lack the skills necessary to compete in the 21st-century.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

THERE is a certain irony this Labor Day at a time of record unemployment and widespread economic uncertainty. We celebrate workers who keep the nation's economic engine running, but millions who want jobs cannot find them and millions more are involuntarily working part-time because they can't find full-time work.

All this means far too many workers and their families are struggling this year, and the traditional family Labor Day cookout, if it occurs at all, consists of fewer steaks, more hotdogs and cheaper beer.

For low-income, low-skill workers, unemployment is particularly pronounced. Long-term unemployment is at record highs, and 54 percent of those who have been out of work for more than six months have only a high-school diploma or less.

To their credit, the nation's policymakers have recognized that putting people back to work is a top public priority. Since late winter, they have introduced numerous bills designed to spur jobs creation. But fixing the unemployment crisis requires more than creating an environment in which the private sector can create new positions.

The harsh truth is that far too many of today's workers lack the skills necessary to compete for 21st-century jobs. This presents a pressing problem because many of the jobs that evaporated with the sinking economy aren't coming back, and positions that are being created require more skills than a significant percent of the current work force has.

Economists project that 63 percent of jobs in 2018 will require some education or training beyond high school. Yet just over half of today's work force meets this threshold. If current trends continue, by 2018 the work force will have a deficit of 3 million associate's, bachelor's and advanced degrees. In addition, the nation also will need 4.7 million new workers with postsecondary certificates.

Much of this skill and credential shortage is due to simple demographics. The baby-boom generation is the bulk of today's work force and already they are beginning to retire and will continue to do so en mass over the next two decades. Further, there simply aren't enough young adults entering the work force to meet demand.

Ensuring the nation's continued economic competitiveness will require investing in our existing human resources and making sure those who are entering the work force and those who have years left in the work force have the requisite skills to qualify for tomorrow's jobs.

Public discourse on the nation's economic health and 21st-century jobs too often fails to consider low-income workers. But this is a group in which we must invest to both improve their skills so they can contribute to the economy and land jobs of the future and to reduce their unemployment rates, an area in which they are overrepresented.

We can boost the rate at which low-income people complete postsecondary credentials by making better use of our existing resources and addressing these students' unique needs.

An important part of the solution is increasing awareness and political will to address this national challenge as well as more resources and investment from public and private sources. Promising strategies include career pathways that link adult literacy and basic skills to postsecondary education and training and that provide academic and support services that lower-income, lower-skilled students need to complete postsecondary credentials.

Research shows that low-skilled and low-income adults can succeed in college when they receive targeted supports designed to promote persistence and completion. We also see promise in student financial-aid programs crafted specifically for adult students. Such programs consider family budgets and the need for flexible courses and programs.

It also is critical to have better data and intelligence on how adult students are progressing through adult-education programs, English-language programs, training programs and college and to identify the points at which we lose them so we can design better strategies to help them persist and complete credentials.

This year as we observe our perennial Labor Day traditions, policymakers entrusted with addressing some of the nation's most pressing problems should also put on their plates commitment to consider all the nation's human assets, including lower-skilled and low-wage workers, and to ramp up investments in postsecondary education and training and improve programs and policies that shape such programs.

Such investment will ensure the nation can meet future skills demands and maintain our economic competitiveness into the future. And it will help ensure we can have even more to celebrate during future Labor Days.

Evelyn Ganzglass is the director of work-force development at the Center for Law and Social Policy (www.clasp.org).

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