SKILLS is a Start

Geoff Lane photo

The American story is littered with tales of displaced workers.  These workers, often through no fault of their own, were left by the wayside as the economy’s defining characteristics evolved.  An innovation-driven, dynamic economy could change a worker’s skillset from incomparable to incompatible overnight.  That is the harsh lesson of our history as the country moved from an agrarian to an industrialized and now to an information age.  And as the country continues its march to a more knowledge-based economy, we’re seeing the rise of a displaced workforce yet again.

As far back as the Kennedy administration, the federal government, recognizing that increased automation in the economy was contributing to widespread unemployment, responded by creating the Area Redevelopment Act of 1961 and the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962.  While their impacts are still debated, they stand as unmistakable evidence that the federal government has long made workforce training and retraining a priority.

Fast forward half a decade and you’ll see that policymakers are still struggling to find ways to get workers back on their feet as quickly as possible.  With the national unemployment rate stubbornly hovering at nearly 8 percent, millions of unemployed Americans are either searching for work, or for the training needed to upgrade their skillset.  Just last year, in acknowledging the country’s need to address the systemic problem with more zeal, President Obama, during his 2012 State of the Union address called on Congress to create a one-stop shop to help displaced workers.  The initiative would streamline job training information, and forge partnerships with businesses and community colleges to arm workers with the advanced skills they need in today’s economy –skills like robotics and laser training.  

Last week the House of Representatives answered the president’s call to action, passing H.R. 803, the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act.  In short, the bill would create a block grant program for states to invest in job training initiatives, consolidate the myriad of job training programs, and increase the ratio of employers who sit on workforce investment boards.  A quick glance at the House vote on the SKILLS Act illustrates that many House Democrats still have concerns with the bill. With the bill now in the Senate, efforts to achieve a larger bipartisan majority in support of the legislation should be a high priority.

As the economy continues to modernize at breakneck speeds now, more than ever, a versatile and high-tech skillset is a must.  The high-tech sector continues to be an innovative force, creating jobs, and driving economic growth to the tune of nearly $1 trillion in gross domestic product each year.  The unemployment rate in the sector remains well below the national average, and incredibly, the number of open jobs in the high-tech sector actually exceeds the number of qualified applicants by about 2 to 1.  Numbers such as these should be alarming; just think about what the country could do if our human capital needs were met. 

While our economy anxiously waits for Congress to act on the SKILLS Act or something like it, many of the high-tech sector’s leading companies are already acting.  These companies are launching programs to provide information technology (IT) training to adults, providing mentors to help workers get acclimated to today’s workplace, and even helping aspiring entrepreneurs learn more about new and emerging information and communications (ICT) technologies. 

As I argued back in February, addressing our chronic unemployment problem starts with concerted workforce and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education investments by our policymakers.  The SKILLS Act should be a jumping off point for parties in Congress to find common ground on common sense job training solutions.

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