Attention Washington: Please address the skills crisis, too

In his address to a joint session of Congress last week, President Obama said, “Tonight we meet at an urgent time for our country.  We continue to face an economic crisis that has left millions of our neighbors jobless, and a political crisis that’s made things worse.”Indeed, the evidence abounds.

In recent days, the Labor Department reported that the economy created virtually no net jobs in August—its poorest monthly showing in a year. Unemployment remained stuck at 9.1 percent. The president’s own budget office, in its midyear review, forecast that the jobless rate will persist at 9 percent into next year as well. And just today, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the national poverty rate had hit 15.1 percent last year while median household income declined. The 46 million Americans living below the poverty line last year represented the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.

Sparking an economic revival in America and creating new jobs has no higher national priority. Yet as a business membership organization representing companies that employ millions of Americans, Corporate Voices for Working Families grapples with a related and urgent imperative: A widespread skills gap, which leaves many employers struggling to fill job openings even as millions of Americans search for work.

We regard this skills gap as one of the most pressing issues facing corporate competitiveness and the economic security of working families today. That’s why we’re so pleased to be partnering with the Corporate Responsibility Officer Association (CRA) at the COMMIT! Forum 2011, where business leaders will have the opportunity to explore these and other urgent business imperatives designed to ensure a
In Those at smaller companies, who were responsible for more than half of new jobs created in recent years, felt the skills gap most acutely: Fully 67 percent said it was difficult to find and hire the right employees., a report Corporate Voices published this year in partnership with Civic Enterprises and others, 53 percent of business leaders surveyed said their companies face a “very or fairly major” challenge recruiting employees with the skills, education and training their business needs.
As federal leaders tackle the jobs crisis, we urge them to also give their immediate attention to policies that address the deficient skills of the American workforce. Above all, that means sustained investment in education and workforce training for all Americans, but especially those who have been left behind in the rapidly evolving economy of the early 21st century. In the important debate that follows President Obama’s call for action, we urge lawmakers to pursue a few broad principles in their deliberations over our national spending priorities.  
First, we must use our sharply constrained public resources in the smartest way possible. With millions of Americans out of work and historic national debt, we need to make sure every dollar invested in education and workforce training is targeted at the right jobs with the right skills, either through private sector investment or philanthropy, or through federal dollars. The Obama administration and Congress should focus on job training programs that have a proven record of success, producing positive outcomes for employers and American workers alike. Over time, dollars invested today in job training for low-skilled young adults in particular may have the greatest long-term payoff. One such program is Year Up—an intensive, one-year training program that gives urban young adults a unique blend of technical and professional skills, college credits, an educational stipend and a corporate internship. There are other best practice models of “enterprising pathway” training programs where private sector philanthropic investments are strategically used to address the skills gap and the workforce needs of employers. Programs like these deserve to be expanded, and the lessons they provide about what works should guide how our public dollars are invested.
Second, we believe that federal tax incentives could help many employers large and small overcome their anxiety about expanding payrolls in this uncertain environment. We are pleased that the president has endorsed a range of new tax credits for employers who hire unemployed Americans. Moreover, lawmakers would encourage private companies not only to hire—but to invest in education and training for those new employees—with a series of carefully targeted tax credits. Specifically, lawmakers of both parties should support tax incentives to employers who offer internship and apprenticeships programs, as well as other proven methods of work-based learning. In our experience, such programs deliver one of the most effective ways to address the skills gap, and even a small financial reward could help employers expand these important efforts.
Finally, any effort to spur job growth and economic opportunity must surely focus as well on expanded access to higher education. The case is unequivocal: Of the 47 million jobs projected to be created in the U.S. by 2018, perhaps 30 million will require at least some postsecondary education. Those jobs will simply be out of reach for too many young Americans unless they are able to negotiate the demands of school and work.
Corporate Voices’ partner companies recognize that employers can and must be active partners in preparing the talent pool of skilled employees. Another important way to do so is to invest in their continuing education and training through “learn and earn” initiatives—programs offering workers the opportunity to pursue higher education and postsecondary credentials while they earn a living. Key employers have, by design, crossed between internal departments like human resources, corporate responsibility, and talent development to create strong outcomes for their business and their employees. Our learn and earn initiative identifies, promotes and encourages innovative partnerships between employers and higher education that help people manage this balancing act—and earn a college degree. By documenting programs that work in a growing series of micro business cases, Corporate Voices hopes to interest other employers in proven efforts to cultivate a better-skilled workforce.
Undoubtedly, our national leaders must find a way to restore confidence, renew economic growth, and help the private sector create millions of new jobs. In our view, addressing this other crisis—the skills gap that limits the opportunities and dreams of too many Americans—is a necessary condition of success. We genuinely hope that reality is reflected in the policies favored by lawmakers of both parties in the important debate ahead.
Donna Klein founded Corporate Voices for Working Families a decade ago. Corporate Voices is the leading national business membership organization shaping conversations and collaborations on public and corporate policy issues involving working families.

more competitive workforce for the 21st century.Across the Great Divide

Posted September 14, 2011 in CR Blog