Reinventing Workforce Development

I just returned from the annual Southern Growth Policies Board meeting, which was held in Chattanooga this year. The topic was “Reinventing Workforce Development” and it was fascinating to hear how much opinions have shifted on this topic in just a couple of years.

We’re facing a crisis of skilled workers. Everyone knows the story; in fact, I’ve written about it here before (Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile). But a few things have changed. One speaker at the conference stated that 40 percent of the skilled craftsmen in the country will retire in the next five years. Maybe he’s exaggerating. But, even if you discount his estimate by half, it’s still a crisis.

One of the changes I noticed at this conference is that it’s no longer helpful to point our fingers at K-12 and say that K-12 is not doing its job. K-12 is not doing its job, but it’s too late for that to matter. (Although there was a lot of polarizing discussion about K-12, I heard nothing to change my opinion from what I wrote last August: Fixing K-12 Education.) In fact, one panelist stated that companies would rather hire students with a GED than a high school diploma, because “at least the GED demonstrates that they can accomplish something!” Ouch.

But even if we waved a magic wand and fixed K-12 starting this fall, it would take years for the impact to be felt in the workforce. If we’re going to fill the hole in our skilled trades, it’s going to have to be adult education. Retraining current employees…or retraining workers who have fallen out of the workforce and need new skills to meet the new demands of industry.

And workforce development is becoming the dominant issue in economic development, including recent multi-state “buffalo hunts” like NCR, Caterpillar, and Baxter. Both Nissan and Volkswagen representatives spoke, and both of them emphasized how important it was to locate near a pool of skilled workers. Dick Blais, director of the Southern Regional Education Board, summed up their position as “States can build us a free building for our factory, fill it up with free capital equipment, and make everything tax-free forever. Without a workforce, we’re not coming.”

Georgia Tech plays a critical role in these workforce discussions…but so do the technical schools in Georgia. The Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) educates almost 200,000 Georgians on 25 campuses. They’ve launched new programs such as “Go Build Georgia” and “College That Works” to target distressed industries, such as construction, and distressed workers who have lost their jobs. And, of course, our neighbors at QuickStart have been ranked as the best workforce training program in the country since the late 1960s.

As part of the Georgia Board of Regents system, we’re naturally biased toward the four-year college and university path. But another takeaway from this week’s conference is that more and more people are realizing there are multiple paths to success. We’re not Lake Wobegon, not all of our kids are above average, and not every kid should go to college!

At the conference, there was a lot of discussion about the unfortunately-named “middle skills” problem. Here’s a report worth reading on “Middle-Skill Jobs in the American South’s Economy.” Good insight, but lousy marketing. Who wants to have “middle skills”? Nobody. (Help us come up with a better name.)

One of the most encouraging conversations I’ve had this year was with a friend who is an honest-to-God rocket scientist. He is a research physicist at NASA in Huntsville and scary smart. His teenage son is about to graduate from high school. My friend said: “We told him we’d support any choice he made…and he’s going to go to Drake State and learn welding.”

I was thrilled! First, his son will get a good job at good wages…involuntary unemployment for a skilled and certified welder is essentially zero. Second, he’ll probably have no student loan debt. Third, he’ll pay taxes rather than consume transfer payments. Fourth, he’ll help fill that demographic gap that is looming as the welders trained in the 1960s and 1970s retire. And, most important, it struck me as a bellwether of a social and cultural change, where parents applaud their children’s decisions to go into skilled trades, rather than waste $100,000 getting a degree in hyphenated studies with no job prospects.

(Nothing against a liberal arts education. It’s a nice luxury. But Nicole Smith from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Economy finished her talk with: “It is better to get a C in chemistry than an A in literature!” And I’ve written before about how “Engineering is the new liberal arts degree.”)

We need a lot more engineering graduates. But we also need a lot more associate degrees in health care, electrical systems, diesel mechanics, and — yes — welding.

As EI2 continues to expand its economic development mission, we’re going to need to build wider and deeper linkages with the TCSG. When was the last time you talked to someone working at a technical college?


PS: I’m typing this on June 29, the last day of our fiscal year. Paul Lewis will issue a formal report later, but I wanted to let you know that it looks like EI2 exceeded $1.7 million in indirect revenue in FY12. That’s up from our previous record high of $1.4 million in FY11. Y’all have done a great job generating (and spending) sponsored contracts. Thank you!