Monday, November 3, 2008

Skills Choice

"Timely reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act and full funding to ensure significant investment in lifelong learning for every American."

The United States Conference on Mayors, National Action Agenda on Poverty for the Next President of the United States, Los Angeles, September 23-24-2008.

At this historic moment we need a few big, practical ideas. The mayors have missed this moment in relation to adult education and skills enhancement, although they made sure to say who is in charge of metro areas. "As Mayors, we serve as the CEOs of the nation's metropolitan areas--the engines that drive the national economy." Is that the way to build regional collaboration?

After WIA reauthorization has laid around for a few years it's a bit oxymoronic to talk about "timely" reauthorization. And last time I checked, WIA serves a very small percentage of Americans in need of skill enhancement. A few hundred training vouchers per city isn't going to do the trick.

So, with a big, bold goal like poverty reduction, why not come up with big, bold solutions. Isn't it about time for a new version of federal workforce training -- every ten years or so seems about right? Workforce certainly won't be on the very top of the list for the next president -- but it should be up there in the second tier of things to get to work on quickly.

It seems to me that energy independence and climate change represent our "sputnik" goal for the next decade. Why not use this emerging consensus to at least model what a different workforce framework and system could look like. Start on the demand side of new investments, jobs, and businesses and then identify those "middle skill" jobs that require skills enhancement. Fund consortia of community colleges on a regional basis to map career pathways into these jobs and industries in conjunction with relevant industries, unions, and partnerships. Expand financial aid for low-income studients and workers and incentivize employers to chip into lifelong learning for entry-level workers. If done right, these pathways could link to relevant apprenticeships, transitional jobs, and barrier removal.

If we could get this right for energy independence maybe we could expand this workforce framework to other industries. Not all presidential agendas are equal in being willing to think about such ideas. Take a look.

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