Darlene Miller and Marlena Sessions
A significant percentage of our work force lacks critical education and skills needed in today’s economy — of that there can be no argument. Even though we have a large pool of unemployed workers, there’s a skills gap: They lack the technical skills and credentials necessary to work in a more technologically advanced economy. In Washington state, despite an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent, employers say every day that they cannot find workers with the “right skills” to grow their businesses.
We know what works to address this problem: investing in skills training and education, partnering with employers and training programs, and mixing public and private support. Public investment in skills training should be considered part of our public education system. The return on investment locally is well over $8 into the economy for every $1 invested in training.
Our economy requires lifelong learning and refresher certifications to keep pace with equipment and technology advances. Workers whose jobs have been eliminated may need more than on-the- job training to repair a hybrid vehicle, install a wind turbine, operate high-tech manufacturing equipment, or administer the newest insulin pump.
But a dark cloud looms over the work-force development system. Unless averted, sequestration, which has been delayed by two months, will cut funding for nondefense discretionary programs — including work-force development and career and technical education — by 20 percent overall compared to fiscal year 2010 levels.
By most conservative estimates, Washington state’s job-training programs will be cut by $12.4 million in 2013, eliminating education and training for more than 36,000 people. The impact of these cuts cannot be overstated. In fact, according to a recent report from the Aerospace Industries Association, 24,000 individuals may lose their jobs if projected funding cuts take place.
Federal funds for job training and workforce education are accountable for results in real time. The funds are invested by public boards led by the private sector. Here in Washington state, we have 12 such boards accountable to their local areas to put local job seekers back to work and make sure local employers can find the skills they need in the local work force.
Our state’s community and technical colleges, too, are on the front lines of getting laid-off workers skilled up and back to work. Thousands are being retrained and returned to the labor market armed with skills that employers desperately need. If we hamstring the very system that delivers the skilled workers employers are begging for, how can we expect their businesses — and the economy — to recover?
Surely there’s a better way to reduce the deficit than cutting work-force training. We urge policymakers to ask themselves this question in the days and weeks ahead: Isn’t it a better return on investment to turn unemployed job seekers into taxpayers and consumers?
DARLENE MILLER is executive director of the National Council for Workforce Education, based in Bellingham (www.ncwe.org). MARLENA SESSIONS is chief executive officer of the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County (www.seakingwdc.org).