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Originally published Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Resolve to go back to school, get a degree and join the workforce

The Washington state workforce does not meet the needs of the job market, writes guest columnist Bob Rosner.

Special to The Times

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FOR many of us, a new year brings renewed commitment to our goals. But it’s difficult for a lot of Washingtonians to think about quitting smoking or joining a gym when all they want to do is find a decent job.

As the calendar turns, frustration grows. The want ads are filled with decent, well-paying jobs. But for many people looking for work, the phone just isn’t ringing.

How about making going back to school your New Year’s resolution?

Our state has lots of unemployed people and lots of unfilled jobs. How can this happen?

The problem is structural unemployment.

Structural unemployment is when the skills — or education — of the workforce don’t meet the needs of the job market. It’s a growing problem in Washington. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 60 percent of workers in our state lack even an associate degree. But over the next five years, two-thirds of the jobs in Washington will require a college education, according to a Georgetown University study.

All we need is more working adults to get their degree, right? Wouldn’t that mean lower unemployment, a stronger workforce, and a happy new year for Washington’s economy? Like saying no to that second piece of pie at a holiday party, it’s easier said than done.

The problem is tuition costs have quadrupled over the past 30 years, well beyond the rate of inflation. Many people are priced out of an opportunity at a college degree.

Millions are taking out student loans to pay for school. It’s hard enough to pay off a loan for a college graduate. Imagine if “life happens” and a student can’t finish their degree? The money still has to be paid back. According to a Wall Street Journal report, dropouts default on their loans four times more often than grads. That’s yet another massive burden on a nation already submerged in a debt crisis.

Education clearly equals more jobs and bigger paychecks, but who can afford a college education today?

The answer: you.

Working adults in our state have a cost-effective solution to the structural unemployment dilemma — our community and technical colleges, as well as WGU Washington, a division of Western Governors University.

At the state’s 34 community and technical colleges, the cost of an associate degree is only about $4,000 a year. A student can choose from numerous fields of study in high-job-growth areas. The average graduate, over his or her entire career, earns close to half a million dollars more than a person with only a high-school diploma.

For working adults wishing to go further than a community or technical college, they can earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree at WGU Washington, the state’s only nonprofit and state-endorsed all-online university. With tuitions skyrocketing at four-year institutions, WGU Washington hasn’t increased tuition since 2008. For approximately $6,000 a year, the university offers some of the most reasonably priced, accredited degrees in the state. Besides affordability, an online program offers working adults flexibility.

My advice: Arm yourself with the knowledge to succeed. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we will change jobs more than 11 times during our lives, whether we want to or not. We must be ready to meet the demands of the ever-changing job market.

I went back to school as an adult — twice. Maybe 2013 will be the year you resolve to head back to school, too.

Bob Rosner is an author, journalist and founder of Workplace911.

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