As the 21st century begins, the prosperity of the United States depends increasingly on the strength of its workforce. The world is becoming one economy, and nations that fully utilize their workers are more likely to thrive than those that do not.
There is a crisis emerging in America: workforce. The future worker shortage in the United States, the lack of worker skills, the increasing wage gaps, the disjointed public programs, and the absence of business participation all contribute to the crisis. But most importantly, it is the failure of our nation to recognize and respond to these challenges that presents the greatest risk.
Over the past twenty years, a dramatic increase in the size and skill of America’s labor force has driven its economic growth. Baby boomers were in their prime employment years, and large numbers of women entered the labor force. New workers emerged far more educated than those they replaced. The number of college-educated workers more than doubled.
These trends have ended. More than one third of the nation’s current workforce lack the basic skills needed to succeed in today’s labor market. During the next twenty years, the American workforce is expected to grow by only half of its earlier pace: there will be no growth of native-born workers in their prime working years; the percentage of the labor force composed of four-year college graduates is predicted to stagnate over the next two decades; the number of workers with two-year degrees and skill certificates will fall far short of the economy’s needs.
These labor force trends are exacerbated by globalizing competition and accelerating technological requirements in both domestic and export sectors. Taken together, these trends will lead to severe consequences for the vibrancy of the American economy and businesses. Problems on the horizon include:
- Unfilled jobs and productivity;
- Skill shortages;
- A decrease in regional economic competitiveness for some of the nation’s cities and rural communities;
- A loss of jobs to overseas workers.
However, these problems can create opportunities to better involve overlooked labor market pools in the United States.
A strong economy depends on labor force growth and increased productivity. But if the nation’s labor force does not grow, then we must find ways to increase the productivity of all American workers to meet the demands of future jobs.
Today, U.S. tax dollars support workforce development through a fragmented and under-funded patchwork system. In many communities, employers indicate that the workforce development system does not meet their needs and their engagement in workforce development programs has been superficial; publicly funded workforce programs have been constrained by funding that follows individual personal eligibility and political boundaries rather than regional economies; and systems improvements have proved elusive. As a result, employers still struggle to find workers who can help their businesses succeed, and workers still struggle to find and keep jobs that can sustain their families.
A new strategy -- what this Assembly calls a “workforce intermediary” strategy -- seeks to help workers advance, help businesses fi ll critical job shortages, and, ultimately, change systems to bolster regional and national economic development. This approach does not require creating a new category of organization or overhauling public systems but it does require the transformation of existing policies and programs so that they are more adaptable to the local labor markets. It challenges existing organizations and systems to redefine whom they serve and how they do business through the forging of new partnerships and building the capacity to do so.
Workforce intermediary approaches are practiced by a variety of organizations -- including community colleges, federally mandated Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs), state and local government agencies, unions, employer organizations, community development corporations, community development financial institutions, faith-based organizations, and community-based organizations. Groups using workforce intermediary approaches have these goals:
- To bring workers into the American mainstream. Success for these organizations means that workers are employed in jobs that offer the promise of financial stability.
- To increase business efficiency and productivity. They are equally concerned with serving employers’ needs and helping businesses become increasingly productive. They realize that business and worker success are interdependent.
- To enhance regional competitiveness. These groups understand that the health of regional economies affects the ability to advance workers and strengthen business.
This intermediary approach is results-driven, entrepreneurial and flexible, trusted by employers and workers, and collaborative.
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