Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thoughts on Workforce Development

What does workforce development look like?

The question is becoming more important as the term is gaining political steam.  

Politicians like to offer workforce development as an answer to the recession.  The idea is that if the folks without jobs had the skills to get the jobs that are going unfilled, then everybody would win.  Which is true, as far as it goes.

But it’s dangerous to expect too much of the “train the unemployed” strategy.

Too narrow a focus on workforce development usually has the effect of neglecting the ‘transfer’ function of community colleges.  Yes, community colleges can provide short-term training, but they can also provide the first two years of a four-year degree.  For students who are concerned about their debt loads, this can be a very attractive option.  The second word in “community college” is “college,” which is easy to forget when the political discourse reduces community colleges to training centers.

Some of us like to think that the transfer role is, in fact, a form of workforce development.  When a student from a shaky background finds her footing at the community college and eventually transfers for the four-year degree -- and sometimes more than that -- she becomes eligible for jobs she never could have attained without the degree.  That’s a potent, if slow, form of workforce development.  Conceptually, there’s no reason that transfer couldn’t be considered a part of the workforce development role, but in practical terms it’s usually considered separately.  That’s a mistake.

Still, even if everyone agreed on a broad definition, we’d still face some pretty serious issues.

-- The catastrophic increases in incarceration rates since the 1980s have done more than just starve public higher education of resources, though they have certainly done that.  They’ve also generated a tremendous number of low-skilled adults with criminal records.  Many of the jobs that pay a decent wage aren’t open to people with criminal records, even if they’ve completed a training program.  While I certainly support a more discerning approach to criminal justice, it’s hard to know what to offer the folks who’ve already been snagged in the current system.  Training them for jobs they can’t get doesn’t strike me as the answer, though.

-- Picking market winners isn’t easy.  This year’s hot field is next year’s cold one; knowing in advance what will be hot is usually educated guesswork.  I’m fairly sure that neurosurgeons and Ph.D. computer scientists will still do well, but that’s not terribly helpful at this level.  The most predictable lower-level workforce needs are actually the skills we expect students to pick up in their general education courses: effective communication, the ability to see the big picture, enough quantitative skill to know when an answer doesn’t sound right.  Those skills are evergreens, and like evergreens, they take time to grow.  

-- Sheer numbers.  Yes, there are fields in which a few local employers need some people quickly, and the work lends itself to relatively fast training.  But most of the time, the first or second group through exhausts the available openings.  

-- Adult Basic Education.  In many cases, the workforce development that’s actually needed isn’t so much training on this machine or that process, but instruction in English for Speakers of Other Languages or Adult Literacy.  This kind of instruction is usually separate from a college’s developmental track, since it isn’t necessarily geared towards getting the students into a degree program.  Unfortunately, ABE programs are often run on a shoestring, and are even more precarious economically than community colleges are.  If we really want to reach some of the hardest-to-place people, let’s start with the basics.

My free advice to any politicians reading this is simple: don’t let the fantasy of the simple, classic version of workforce development overshadow the big picture.  If you want to improve the prospects of the local workforce, start with adult basic education, add short-term training programs, and beef up the classic academic offerings at community colleges for transfer.  (While you’re at it, you might want to think about all that incarceration...)  If you want the full range of jobs, you need the full range of preparation.  Otherwise, you’ll just keep cycling people through training programs every few years, every time the economic winds shift.

And if you can come up with something practical for folks with criminal records, all the better.