IT’S time to admit that this state’s workforce-development system is overfunded and underperforming. The problem is this: Workforce development, often justified as a way to reduce unemployment, doesn’t create jobs.
It’s promoted as a means to close a perceived skills gap between the skill level of the existing workforce and the requirements of jobs that remain unfilled in Washington. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that existing programs have been effective in getting workers hired for open jobs despite receiving nearly a billion dollars of public investment annually, according to the Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board.
The gap between unfilled jobs and the skills of unemployed workers persists. Microsoft has lobbied Congress to increase the allotment of green cards for foreign graduates with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) because it says it cannot find qualified workers. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who hosted a Workforce Development round-table in Everett in mid-February, said the state has 52,000 unfilled job openings.
In February, Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee each announced their intent to increase “investments to end the skills gap.”
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Meanwhile, Washington’s workforce-development system has 16 programs, administered by seven different state agencies and overseen by the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, plus numerous nonprofit programs. In addition to vocational certificate and associate degree programs, workforce development offers job-application assistance, life-skills instruction, GED test-preparation assistance for high-school dropouts and reading, math and English-language-learners instruction.
In 2009, the programs overseen by the nonprofit Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County placed 47,000 people in jobs at a cost of $1,000 to $6,500 per job seeker, according to the council.
Helping disadvantaged people get to the bottom rung of the career ladder is a worthy objective, but it’s disingenuous to sell investment in workforce development as a cure for high unemployment.
Public trust in state and local government leaders can erode when these programs ultimately fail to lower the unemployment rate.
Employers don’t have a problem hiring people willing to move here for jobs and desirable amenities. If there were an unmet demand for skilled workers, why haven’t we seen wages rising as employers compete to attract the existing supply of workers?
Consider what’s happening in China: There are now 11 times as many college students in China as there were in 1989. But because the economy has been slow to produce white-collar jobs, it has eroded wages for college graduates, according to a recent New York Times article.
Or consider research released by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in January: Half of recent college grads work jobs that don’t require a degree. The number of college grads in the U.S. will grow by 19 million between 2010 and 2020 while the number of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree is expected to grow by less than 7 million.
The work of reviewing the alignment between labor supply and industry demand has already begun, as reported in the 2012 study “Bridging the Skills Gap” by American Society for Training and Development and the Workforce Development Council’s “Talent Pipeline Study.”
Information describing the skills and credentials required to get jobs should be widely publicized. But that again focuses on the supply of workers. To make job creation a top priority, we need to focus on increasing aggregate demand for workers.
Here’s how we can do that:
Challenge the notion that the benefits of automation outweigh the societal cost of jobs lost. Penalize practices such as automating customer service phone lines and installing self-checkout that eliminate jobs.
Spread work to more people by penalizing excessive overtime in industries where it affects health and safety. Recognize the connection between fatigue, multi-tasking and accidents.
Finally, make job numbers a key factor in who gets land development rights; put it on par with concern for the environment.
Soojin Kim is a real estate and municipal lawyer in Seattle.