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A Joint Imperative to Strengthen Skills

Guest blog post by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

As two of the newest members of President Obama’s cabinet, we’ve both spent the past few months lending a fresh set of eyes and ears to the opportunities and challenges facing middle-class workers and American businesses. One concern facing both communities that requires our full attention and our joint efforts is making sure that every American has the skills needed to succeed in the workforce.

This week we visited Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) in Maryland, where we were joined by U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer, to hear from local business, education, labor, and government leaders about the importance of skills training as both a workforce development and an economic development imperative.

In 2011 Anne Arundel Community College received a $19.7 million grant from the Labor Department to lead the National STEM Consortium, which is made up of 10 community colleges in nine states. Together, they’re working with employers, labor unions, and industry groups to develop certificate programs designed to train workers for mid-skill technical careers that have a high volume of openings in a particular region. Over the next decade, more than half of the new jobs created will be middle skills jobs meaning they require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree.

For Army veteran and current AACC student Gary Pollard, the National STEM Consortium has meant a second shot at serving his country, this time as a trained cyber security analyst ready to take on one of the 15,000 related job openings in Maryland alone. The National STEM Consortium is just one example of the type of partnership that can be replicated around the country as we work to find ways to ensure American workers have the skills employers are looking for when they want to hire.

Because a skilled workforce directly impacts our ability to keep the economy growing and businesses strong, we need employers to be actively involved in skills development. Locally, businesses have to be explicit with their needs and help drive training by playing a role in the development of curriculum and credentialing programs, forming partnerships with educational institutions and government at all levels, and in some cases funding new training facilities.  The educational providers, non-profits, labor organizations and others have to craft ways to meet those needs.  When all of these entities are working together, one result is a workforce that can quickly adapt to meet needs of employers looking to thrive in the modern global economy. Another result? A thriving middle-class where anyone, no matter their background, has a chance to climb the ladder of opportunity.

Our discussion focused on a lot of what works, but we also heard from a number of voices about what we can all do better. At the local level, Maryland has had tremendous success bringing key parties including government, business, non-profit, labor, high school, technical school, community college, and university leaders to meet the employment and training goals of the state.  We heard about the need for additional paid internship opportunities and better matchmaking between students and employers to help those just entering the workforce get a feel for careers they may not have thought about before. We heard about the importance of working together to change the misperception of technical careers, so that more students see specialized skills training as a pathway to success as they finish high school and look for what’s next. And we heard about the need to create a training ecosystem that is not only aligned with employer’s needs, but is also aligned with the realities of modern life and modern students.

Partnerships like the one in place at Anne Arundel Community College are succeeding all around the country, and we should continue to replicate what works so that our workforce has the skills they need to succeed. That’s good for everyone’s bottom line.

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Joint Imperative to Strengthen Skills

What is really needed is a "Pursuit of Happiness" law that requires Human Resources decision makers to improve the US, rather than allow employers to hire at dangerous cost of living; across the country. We're finding that because jobs are so specialized, its easier for employers to pay low wages; (too low to pay college loans off); specialized on-the-job training removes advancement. We can hardly expect a resume to be built on specialization and can't expect to find upward mobility within our current employer because specialization at that higher level demands rather an outside, overqualified candidate to take a lower pay-scale. Employers have figured out how to drive prosperity downward to reduce employee wage cost and have tasked human resources to hire down.