During the past few years, millions of dollars, hundreds of hours and a profusion of good intentions have been devoted to retraining America. Technology and globalization have been the biggest drivers so far in this effort, but retiring Baby Boomers are beginning to drop out of the workforce, signaling greater problems ahead.
So have all of the resources and sweat equity made a dent? Certainly. Has enough progress been made? It depends on your perspective.
- Many of the improvements resulting from programs designed to fill the gap are too new to judge sustainable; others are shining examples of what business, community and education coalitions can do together.
- Inside corporations, spending on training has increased significantly, topping $57 billion in 2001. At the same time, some of the country's largest companies were quick to cut their training budgets during last year's slowdown.
- And in the schools, progress is hit and miss. Math scores for 2000 were up in some grades, while the number of qualified math teachers is shrinking.
Agreeing that more needs to be done, many of those working on the frontlines of workforce development are cautiously optimistic that the worst of the shortage predictions can be avoided. Others aren't so sure. What can't be disputed is that there is a critical ongoing need for skills and education—immediately and long term.
Healthcare, information technology and professional services are among the industries already feeling the pinch, but employers across all industries bemoan the difficulty of finding skilled people. "About 25 percent of America's workforce is highly competitive, having the skills they need," says Edward Gordon, author of Skill Wars: Winning the Battle for Productivity and Profit (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000). "But we need about 50 percent of the workforce to be competitive today."
Being competitive basically means having postsecondary training. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls) data, as reported by the Washington, D.C.-based Employment Policy Foundation (epf), show that between September 2000 and September 2001, more than 944,000 new jobs went to workers with four-year college degrees, vocational training or certifications. Job losses of 1.1 million during that period were concentrated among workers with a high school education or less.
Projected employment patterns show a continuation of that trend. Between 1998 and 2008, bls projects that 63 percent of the rougly 55 million job openings will be replacement needs. Professional specialty occupations are projected to grow by 5.3 million new jobs by 2008, more than any other major occupational group. Teachers, librarians, and counselors; computer, mathematical and operations research occupations; and health assessment and treating occupations are expected to account for two-thirds of this job growth. Most of these positions will require a bachelor's degree and short to moderate on-the-job training.
Between 1998 and 2008, the number of jobs in occupations requiring an associate degree is projected to increase at a faster rate than other categories, although actual job openings will fall below openings requiring other training due mostly to projected replacement needs.
Given the statistical realities, even organizations that think they can't afford investing in workforce development need to think again. By the end of this decade, the labor market could be short nearly 4.8 million workers. And that gap could be in the form of skilled workers that often make the difference between an organization's success and failure.
But maybe not. On the following pages, you'll find examples of what organizations are doing to maintain employee skills, add to the entry-level workforce pool and work with community educators to ensure that students of all ages will have the skills they need. Yes, much still needs to be done. And yes, much progress is being made.