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Workforce in the New Year: America’s Key to Future Success

31 Dec, 2012

By: Sam Patrick

America's skilled and experienced workforce — long one of this country’s competitive advantages – is at risk of becoming a weakness.

Too many young people — tomorrow's workforce — lack fundamental skills to succeed in the emerging knowledge-driven economy. Worse, over 25 percent fail to even earn a high school diploma within four years.

Of the 70 percent of high school graduates that pursue advanced education, only 55 percent achieve a bachelor's degree within six years; less than 33 percent achieve an associate degree within three years.

And the trend is worsening.

The Center on Education and Workforce forecasts that America's economy will need 22 million degreed new workers within 10 years — and predicts a shortfall of at least three million. Some 60 percent of today's adult U.S. population has no postsecondary credential; for the first time ever, our children may find themselves less educated than their parents.

The steady drumbeat of demographics compounds America's problems, as 78 million baby boomers approach retirement, with fewer Americans ready to take their place. Industries such as manufacturing and energy will be particularly hard hit. America's manufacturing base currently cannot fill over 500,000 open skilled positions. A recent "60 Minutes" episode featured companies unable to find skilled machinists — positions paying over $60,000 annually.

The energy sector also faces a critical shortage of skilled workers — at a time when energy innovation is a top national priority. Half of the energy sector’s current workers — from line workers to power plant operators — are forecast to either retire or leave by 2020.

Across many industries, a skills gap has emerged between what workers have to offer and what employers demand — exacerbating unemployment even as quality jobs go unfilled. It is this misalignment between the needs of employers and the skills and education of tomorrow’s workforce that threatens our economic future.

These combined megatrends — an economy requiring a highly skilled workforce, an inadequate supply of appropriately skilled graduates, sweeping demographic changes — create a national imperative for talent development. Where will America's future workforce come from? How will they attain the skills needed in the global economy?

Solutions are complex, and multifaceted. But, as we enter the New Year, progress is occurring across America.

One approach requires employers investing in incumbent workers and growing their own talent pipelines. Some companies have concentrated efforts on improving basic workforce readiness skills of entry-level employees, while cross-training others. Unlike the past when employers hired entry-level employees and then trained them through apprenticeships, they expect them to arrive prepared to contribute. Nevada, beset with high unemployment, is preparing citizens for entry-level positions through combined education enhancement and onsite job training.

South Carolina has launched a workforce and economic development program to match workers with the businesses that need them. The state’s Certified Work Ready Community Initiative measures an individual's job-related skills and complements the state's use of the Work Keys assessment program that tests potential workers on reading, applied mathematics and locating information via computer — and then provides tutorials to improve skill levels.

In booming Greenville County, South Carolina, a community known for manufacturing excellence and public-private partnership, the gap between employer requirements and the skill sets of aspiring workers led to development of a training program targeted to the Transportation Manufacturing sector. The Greenville Regional Workforce Collaborative developed a tiered skills training program to provide the transportation manufacturing industry with well-prepared entry-level workers. Corporate partners provided input on entry-level hiring requirements, processes and skills needed, which include attainment of at least a Silver WorkKeys-based Career Readiness Certificate plus manufacturing math, measurement, safety, quality and continuous improvement, work flow/work pace, communication, teamwork and other foundational skills. The Greenville initiative appears to be a home run for area manufacturers — and workers.

While time-consuming and occasionally expensive, all such innovative efforts are essential to develop improving the skills of a new generation of workers. It is only by doing so that America can regain its competitive advantage – and achieve its full potential in a changing world.

Sam Patrick is a writer, speaker and marketing consultant to growing businesses and their leadership. He can be reached at www.patrickmkt.com, by email at sam@patrickmkt.com or via phone at 864.676.1907.

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