A Time To Examine America’s Skills

There is a desperate need to reformulate the way skills are attained and retained in the country.
By @FrederickReese |
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    America finds itself in a quandary. According to a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), not only is the skill level of the American working populace slipping compared with the international market, but the nation’s collective skill level is also significantly beneath where it should be to maintain competitiveness.

    In reading, math and problem-solving with technology — such as determining the mileage reimbursement for a salesman, sorting emails, or comparing food expiration dates on grocery store tags, Americans scored less than the international average, according to the report. Japan, Canada, Australia, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands were among the nations that outscored the United States dramatically. It was determined that as much as 10 percent of the working population had insufficient computer skills, such as knowing how to use a computer mouse.

    With nearly two out of every three jobs in America requiring postsecondary education and training by 2020, and with over 7 percent of all companies consistently reporting that they cannot find the skilled employees they need to fill key positions, there is a desperate need to reformulate the way skills are attained and retained in the country.

    How literacy skills are distributed across a population has significant implications on how economic and social outcomes are distributed within the society, the report read. The Survey of Adult Skills showed that higher levels of inequality in literacy and numeracy skills are associated with greater inequality in the distribution of income. If large proportions of adults struggle in these areas, improvements in living standards will stall, the report stated.

    Earlier this month, educators and policymakers gathered in St. Paul, Minn. to discuss solutions in resolving the skill gap. The forum, “Strengthening Your Career Pathway Systems: Tools, Tips and Tactics” — hosted by the Greater Twin Cities United Way and sponsored by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) — argued that meeting the needs of both the worker and the employers is needed in order to maximize the benefit to both.

    “Career pathways provide adults—who often must balance work, family, and school—with manageable segments of education and training tailored to adult learner needs, closely tied to regional industry and employer needs, infused with supportive services and career navigation assistance, and resulting in marketable credentials that can be stacked throughout one’s career,” said Vickie Choitz, director of the Alliance for Quality Career Pathways with CLASP.


    Roads to success

    The career pathways approach serves as a means to offer progressive levels of basic skills attainment, postsecondary education, training and supportive services in specific sectors in a way that promotes and maximizes the success of the individual. The idea is to offer to the individual what he or she needs to succeed in a way and time that optimizes the individual’s chances for success.

    Employers communicate with educational institutions to highlight the skills they need in their workers, offer on-the-job training programs and internships and promote internally in an effort to develop the skills they need to operate and compete. Government and pathway partnership agencies offer the tools needed to encourage skills training, such as workforce training programs, child care, access to remedial skills training, income support and social, family and/or psychological counseling. Community-based partners actually help to crack cultural stigmas to education and non-traditional careers and offer assistance with societal displacement concerns. Through a combination of these three aspects, a customizable approach to skill attainment, or a career pathway, is possible.

    In principle, regardless of what point people are on  in their career tracks, pre-college, post-prison, post-military or employed in a minimal-skill job, by offering them what they need to “get his/her foot in the door,” additional skill training and career development will help to build the key competencies needed for higher paying jobs.

    It is unrealistic, experts say, to count on the pre-collegiate educational system alone to offer the basic skills that are needed in the modern workforce.

    “There are things that are going on in our educational system in which students need to feel that their identity and culture are affirmed, and they need to have teacher, aides and principals in which they can connect with,” said Shawn Lewis, program coordinator for workforce solutions for the Minneapolis Urban League. “If they are not connecting with the students in the classroom or in the educational system, we lose them — we don’t get a chance to share information. We don’t get a chance to see where they are at and see what is working and what is not working, and how we can help them to be more successful.”

    Lewis also believes that on the student side of things families and communities must do their part to explain that the world has become extremely competitive, and they’ll have to adequately prepare themselves to compete with students from all over the world.

    In concert with this idea, Choitz — in a conversation with Mint Press News — pointed out that while the K-12 system can help to mitigate some of the economic and racial disparancies that face the underskilled sector of the workforce, some of the disparancies that must be addressed come in adulthood.

    “So we have immigrants that are new to this country who never had a chance to go through our K-12 system; they are experiencing these economic and racial disparancies,” Choitz said. “We also have middle-aged and older workers in our economy who did fine through K – 12 education, but there is a need for skills and credentials that have happened since they have graduated, and that is causing a gap between where they are and where they need to be.”


    The attainment gap

    In recognizing the need for change, one must realize the gravity of the problem. As a point of discussion, let’s look at African Americans in America today.

    Since 1954, the earliest date the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded unemployment data by race, the unemployment rate for African Americans has been on average roughly 2.2 times the unemployment rates for whites, with the rate hitting a national record of 20 percent in 1983. There has never been a time when the African American and white unemployment rates have been on par; the closest the two have ever gotten was the summer of 2009, when general unemployment in the wake of the recession was so rampant that the unemployment gap between the two races was “only” a factor of 1.67. This trend, which seems to have started in the 1940s, has yet to be explained; although, racial prejudices and educational attainment may be factors.

    In this November, 2013, photo, Pat Schramm, CEO of Workforce Development of South Central Wisconsin (far left), Jessie Hogg-Leslie of the National Skills Coalition (center) and Byron Zuidema, senior executive to the United States Department of Labor address the crowd at the 2013 Career Pathway Forum in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo/Frederick Reese)

    In this November, 2013, photo, Pat Schramm, CEO of Workforce Development of South Central Wisconsin (far left), Jessie Hogg-Leslie of the National Skills Coalition (center) and Byron Zuidema, senior executive to the United States Department of Labor address the crowd at the 2013 Career Pathway Forum in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo/Frederick Reese)

    “The average unemployment rate for blacks in 2011 was 15.8 percent, compared to 7.9 percent for whites, and 11.5 percent for Hispanics,” the United States Department of Labor reported. “Historically, blacks have had persistently higher unemployment rates than the other major racial and ethnic groups. In addition, the increase in the black unemployment rate during the recession was larger than that for other races partly because workers with less education are particularly hard hit during recessions.”

    Once unemployed, blacks are less likely to find jobs and tend to stay unemployed for longer periods of time, and and once a worker is unemployed for a prolonged period, it becomes harder to find a new job, the report states.

    Not only are African Americans lagging behind whites in employment rates, they are lagging behind in almost every conceivable economic measure. As of 2010, the average family wealth for whites were about six times that of African Americans and Hispanics. The gap in household income between blacks and whites has not narrowed in the last 50 years, with whites making $54,620 and blacks making $32,068 on average in 2010. 45 percent of all African American children live in areas of concentrated poverty, 74.1 percent of all African American children are educated in segregated (50 percent or more non-white) schools — with 38.1 percent attending intensely segregated (90 percent or more non-white) schools. The marriage rate for African Americans is at 31 percent in 2011 — 24 points below whites — and 52.1 percent of black children lives in single-parent homes.


    Changing the conversation

    When all of this is considered in the light that 27.4 percent of all African Americans live in poverty, this becomes an overwhelming call for action.

    “I think what people forget is that accessing education and getting education credential isn’t just about the individual, but its about their family background and if they got the experience, the college knowledge, the expectation to go and earn those credentials at a post-secondary level,” Choitz said. “So if people don’t have that, they don’t know it’s an important aspect of being successful and earning family-substantive wages moving forward, especially considering all of the changes we have seen with our economy, where two-thirds of all jobs will require college education.”

    To many, however, this conversation — and all the potential presented within it — represents nothing more than a pipe dream. Real-world responsibilities, such as making sure there is enough food on the table, paying the rent, taking care of the kids and avoiding the street violence of their communities take precedence to taking night classes or volunteering for work training. In communities where there is no inherited incentive for higher education, the notion of endangering one’s present existence for a future shot at something better seems foolish and selfish.

    Many feel, however, that the way forward is to convince the individual of their potential worth. “I feel that one way to overcome this is to give youths and young adults the opportunity to envision themselves as a machinist or as a nurse, as a way for them to see themselves open those doors,” Jessie Hogg Leslie, the senior east regional field director for the National Skills Coalition, told Mint Press News.

    Hogg believes that one of the great problems that prevent students from considering manual positions is perception — which she feels can be overcome through career exploration and skill exposure at an early age.

    “A lot of times, there is the feeling that a person must have his four-years degree or he has nothing. This could be disheartening and can feel like an unobtainable obstacle. So one thing that I have seen work is sector partnerships — shining a light in what these careers look like, how you get to them, what the salary looks like,” Hogg said. “It isn’t a high school diploma or four-year degree kind of thing; there are really good jobs available for people with certificates or degrees that are one or two-years.”

    Ultimately, the skill attainment and the income disparity gaps have been problems that have persisted for more than half of a century. In finding ways forward toward perpetuating this nation’s vibrant industry and economy, these gaps must be addressed. In the end, the question that remains unanswered is: How will the nation offer the right training to the right person at the right time in the right manner for the individual?

    In academia, there is a phenomenon known as “liberal arts degree syndrome,” in which a student enters college because that is what is expected of him or her, do what is needed to get a degree — any degree — and ends up in a career that the degree did not prepare him/her for. What is needed is an honest conversation, in which the skills and competencies that are needed for the nation to maintain its productive edge is made attractive and attainable by the next generation.

    What is required is nothing less than a full societal shift in the way this nation approaches education and social health.

    As many would agree, this all seems impossible, particularly, in light of the political gridlock engulfing the nation currently. But as it was once said, “start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible. Suddenly, you are doing the impossible.”

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    • Christopher Nguyen

      There is no evidence of a skills gap. There IS evidence that a gap exists between the attainment of skills by whites versus the attainment of skills by others, and by skills -let’s be honest, we’re talking about education. What we need is to clearly define what we’re looking for when we say education, and I for one do NOT believe that we merely educate people for the purpose of making them better employees. That’s what employer-provided training is for. Education should not be a subsidy for the training that organizations ought to provide the employees they ought to be invested in.