Taking a Private Route out of the Workforce Crisis

Last month the Portland Tribune devoted a whole supplementary magazine to the discussion of the development of the future workforce in Oregon, warning of an approaching workforce crisis. It is estimated that the state’s economy will create 250,000 new jobs over the next decade, and another 400,000 jobs soon will open up as Baby Boomers begin retiring. There are currently 20,000 unfilled jobs in the Portland area. But employers are already having a tough time finding qualified candidates to replace retirees and to fill new positions.

Is nothing being done to expand the entire skilled workforce?

The fact is, more than 80 agencies and organizations spend $150 million per year (95.4% of which is publicly funded) to provide workforce development services in Multnomah and Washington counties. While these are the most densely populated counties in Oregon, this $150 million is spent in addition to the yearly $5 billion—plus in public funds spent on the state’s public schools. Despite the fact that about $10,000 are spent per student per year in Oregon public schools, nearly 70% of all incoming community college freshmen require corrective classes before they can take normal college courses.

There seems to be a clear disconnect between workers’ abilities and the available jobs in Portland. This makes us think carefully about three broad questions. First, what do employers expect from the workforce training system? Second, is a centralized, publicly financed regional workforce training system a good answer to the need for better skills? Third, is it relevant to look at innovative training models to prepare future workers effectively?

Employers expect job trainers to focus on skill development, including “soft skills” like being able to work in a team. The fast-changing economy requires workers not only to be skilled, but also to be adaptable and ready to compete. Businesses today realize that what keeps them ahead of others is their ability to learn and adapt faster than their competitors.

Worksystems Inc., a nonprofit that distributes federal money designated for workforce development in Multnomah and Washington counties, is working on a common resource database that will integrate relevant information and connect workers with jobs; but that is not enough to stimulate effective workforce development.

Public job training systems are a maze of complicated bureaucracy and regulations. They tend to do too much. They not only provide training, but also other support services like childcare and housing, which often leads to “mission creep” and weakens their effectiveness in providing core training services. Public money also has a lot of regulative strings attached, preventing service providers from experimenting with new training models.

It is important to understand that the roles of the public and private sectors (nonprofits and businesses) are changing radically. Social innovations once stimulated by the public sector are increasingly led by business and expanded through the market. The kind of workforce training required today can be best imparted by business operators, not government bureaucrats. Thus, employers should be encouraged to lead workforce-training initiatives.

For example, Manpower Inc., a Canada-based world leader in the employment services industry, partnered with the U.S. Department of Labor in 2003. They successfully carried out their TechReach program in many North American states and connected many unemployed individuals to high-wage technical careers. As a business model it is both effective and economical.

It is also vital to improve high school curricula. If schools perform their task well, there is no need to invest heavily in work training after school. Increased focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills, along with compulsory internship programs woven into the high school syllabus, can do wonders to motivate future workers. Unfortunately, public school bureaucracies are not designed to execute these innovative tactics efficiently or to evaluate the outcome scientifically.

Public/Private Ventures, a national “action-tank” that researches initiatives to strengthen workforce development performance, has found that “networking” among workforce training participants is also very important in motivating and retaining new workers. The upcoming NW Youth Careers Expo on May 8, 2008 at the Oregon Convention Center will provide a great opportunity to do that. Job training agencies also should introduce their current participants to some of their successful alumni who have begun stable careers.

The challenge for workforce professionals is to find the right fit between employers and job seekers. Employers are open to creative solutions and need the workforce system to break out of the traditional social-service-driven thinking. Coming up with innovative workforce solutions is an ongoing effort rather than a one-time endeavor because manufacturing and service industries are continuously advancing technologically.

It is time to think about how to do more with less. Instead of complaining about the shrinking public funding for workforce development, social and business entrepreneurs in Portland should brainstorm creative training models to prepare the future workforce. A national Workforce Innovations conference will take place in New Orleans July 15-17, 2008. Leaders around the country from workforce development agencies (both government and private), businesses, education and community-based organizations plan to explore new training strategies. Oregonians who work in workforce development-related fields may find their new ideas to be a good starting point in avoiding the upcoming workforce crisis.


Sreya Sarkar is a policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank.

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Posted by at 06:00 | Posted in Measure 37 | 19 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Jerry

    The public schools bear a huge part of the blame as they are only focusing on attempts to prepare all students for college (and they are failing at that).

    Not all students are going to go to college, not all students should go to college, not all students need to go to college.

    If you look around, though, at the high schools, you will find that all the wood shops, metal shops, auto shops, etc. are closed down. There is nothing being done about vocational education expect in a few districts, like North Clackamas, where they know not everyone belongs in college.

    Oregon’s jobs will continue to go begging as long our public schools ignore the simple fact that not all students are destined for a college campus.

  • John Fairplay

    Even setting aside for the moment vocational training, the public schools aren’t even preparing students to be able to learn more once they are out of high school, as the article notes. The problems in public education are so profound they go way beyond workforce training issues.

    I would be very interested to see the list of 20,000 unfilled jobs in Portland.

  • Sreya Sarkar

    It seems that the public school system is practically ‘untouchable’, completely over and above any kind of accountability. The vocational training system too is becoming a carbon copy of the above system. It seems people are more interested in ‘centralizing’ workforce development than actually seeing it perform.

  • Richard Brown

    My problem is private industry is no better There enough blame to go around. The common problem from the capital, the classroom, to the corporate boardroom is the over emphases and abuse of university degree. Vocational education has been abandoned in America, our high school are nothing more than feeders for the university system and college degree has become a terribly inefficient and expensive blue collar wage job training program.

    What needs to happen is a major change in American culture; a university degree is nice but not always necessary. High schools need to get back to training the student to enter the work force not just college. Second business should not get a free ride by raiding universities for workers here in the United States or internationally via the HB-1 program. I feel many jobs in the tech field can be filled by investments in high tech apprenticeship and vocation programs than a bachelor’s degree. Doubt me, then ask any sailor maintaining complex avionics system on a F-18, a nuclear reactor aboard a Sub or Aegis Fire Control system where he or she got here engineering degree from. They like me (a former Fire Control tech) would laugh.

    The solution is rebuilding our vocational education system than pouring more dollars into our universities. Our colleges need to go back to training individuals in the disciplines of the Arts, Sciences, and Academics and not just be a place to train blue-collar workers.
    Bill gate be dammed

    • Sybella

      What you say is probably true, but if you look at that list of jobs John Fairplay is talking about you will find most of those jobs really have very little with vocation.

      Too big a number of our young people have no clue about vocation, nor what to do with it if they had it.

      That blame has to first come from the families and the educational system. Those of us who hire that level employees realy don’t want to raise them. That should have been done before they arrive at the workplace.

  • JJ

    This is just another “government = bad” article intended to justify throwing taxpayer dollars at private contractors.

    • Anonymous

      You are absolutely wrong. Your attitude from your comment proves you haven’t learned the basics of our country and our rights. Trust me, if private contractors are finally out, you will be standing in the bread lines.

      I think you should spend some time learning about socialism and its problems. Study it with an open mind, not one that is snapped shut so tightly it can only hear what others want it to believe. Please do us all a favor and think for yourself with your eyes open.

  • Ted Kennedy’s Liver

    When I first entered the workforce some thirty five years ago, it was accepted that for most entry or low level positions you looked for someone with a good appearance and a good work ethic and trained them on the job. Employers today seem to expect vast experience even for the most menial of jobs – grocery clerks, call centers, light assembly, etc. I hate to break the news to all those HR recruiters out there, but almost anyone could master those positions in less than a week.

    For mid level positions you had best not apply unless you have the exact experience the employer wants. In a technical trade this makes sense, but in most others, it often does not. Project management might be different in a bearing manufacturer than at a coffee retailer, but crunching numbers is not. The skills required to manage a group of employees often have little to nothing to do with one’s knowledge of an industry sector – it’s more often about effective babysitting (if you are a manager you know exactly what I mean).

    If employers want to fill their vacant positions they need to get more hands on. Stop hiring from an HR checklist and start evaluating prospective employees for their potential worth. Train them YOUR way and you won’t have to undo bad technique learned somewhere else. You’ll get better people and they’ll likely be more loyal. Most importantly, stop expecting government to train these people for you. Talk about having to undo bad technique learned somewhere else!

    • Sybella

      for the low level and entry level employees. The first thing I look for is their appearance and their manner. If they shuffle in and shuffle out, I don’t want them no matter how talented they are.

      You’re right appearance is the first criteria. We have about 12 employees at any given time. It is not required they know how to do the job when they come on, though it is nice.

      It is required they be clean, personable, able to count money, honest, dependable.

      Over the years we probably see one in seven or eight that would qualify. Of the ones who do very few actually remain on the job more than a week because they just don’t show, get sick every other day, or just leave with no explanation. It has taken us ten years to finally get the core employees that make up our dependable workforce. That is 6 of the 10 to 12 we have at any given time.

      This is a terrible loss not only the cost to the business, but what have they gained. There is a tremendous “don’t care” attitude out there.

      • Sybella

        Oh, yes, we treat our core employees very well because they are so hard to come by. They are paid just over minimum wage, but receive large bonuses for doing a good job that some times is almost as much as their wages. They must prove themselves first to get those bonuses. They love it that way.

  • Anonymous

    I currently work for a government education entity trumpeted as one of the region’s best whose students often include people referred by the state employment office or some vocational rehab program. I have noticed two big problems:

    1. In my thirty years of employment and ten years in training and training management I have never worked for a less competent organization. The instructors are generally pretty good, but are operating under near impossible circumstances. In spite of the fact that there are twice as many administrators as instructors, the instructors are completely on their own when training. There is no standardized curriculum, the workbooks provided for a 6 hour class contain 16 – 24 hours of material so students are never given adequate hands-on time, textbooks are often not in the classroom at the start of class, classrooms are sometimes incorrectly configured (or not configured at all) for technical classes, two members of the technical staff are completely incompetent, one having been hired because a relative was on the technical staff and one to fill a quota. One program manager I worked with was completely unaware of the vast amount of instructor and student materials available for a certification class, even telling me that no such materials existed! The same program manager is only paid for 20 clock hours a week and figures this means he doesn’t have to answer instructor questions on his days off, regardless of the impact on students. These are union positions, so these people cannot be disciplined or fired. I think several of the administrators are good, once competent people who have simply said “f*** it” and stopped trying in the face of a stifling bureaucracy and impossible to deal with union. Oddly, the only non-union positions are the instructors.

    2. Many of the students referred by the state employment office or voc rehab should never have been referred. They are referred because they have an interest in the field in which I train without regard for ability or intelligence. All it takes is one student that is dumb as a box of rocks to ruin a class for everyone – and believe me, there’s at least one in every class. I’m not speaking merely of people who are intelligent but untrained, I’m talking about morons. There are also people who are clearly unemployed because they are lazy. They don’t study and skip classes and then complain that they weren’t properly trained.

    The best thing that could happen to the students in these classes would be the elimination of this program and their referral to private providers. The stupid would get bounced – they wouldn’t hold back the rest of the students, they wouldn’t have to endure the embarrassment of daily failure and we’d save some tax dollars. The lazy would be identified for what they are and sent packing. More tax dollars saved.

  • Not The Teachers Pal………..

    I own a small business and almost 10 years ago stopped even looking at people under 40 years old as employees. Many of the kids coming out of local colleges are dummies with no work ethic, no sense of appropriate dress for the workplace, and can’t seem to show up on time in a good frame of mind.
    Fortunately, I’m leaving this worthless state in less than two years to retire and will be looking for Oregon to become the sorry liberal backwater it deserves to be.

  • CRAWDUDE

    We teach the kids to be government dependant, non-free thinking members of society. We no longer let them learn valiable lessions in life by failing! We no longer allow them to experience the reprecussions of poor performance due to lack of effort, bad decisions. We do not allow them to experience the joy of attaining goals by personal hard work and effort.

    What exactly do we expect from kids who have been programmed, not educated in this twisted, socially liberalized / fiscally neo-con society.

    Wake up folks, we have sown the wind and we shall reap the whirl wind when its our kids turn to take care of us in old age. We’ve allowed the kids of this country to become soft, selfish , non-self reliant drones of the nanny state.

    They will fit in well with the new liberal and neo-cons “middleclass less” new world order, which is what they were trained / taught to do.

    Incidentally, if you want have the ability to keep and open mind. Pat Buchanan has a book out called ” Day of Reckoning”. It does not deal with the politics of the day but gives great insight into the current direction this country is going.

    I read it over the weekend, it started out a little slow but after 50 pages I couldn’t put it down. It filled in many unanswered questions I had about current events and people’s actions. I also gave a few scenerios of where this country and in deed this world are headed.

    My liberal, moderate and conservative fellow posters, please give it a look through and let me know whatcha think.

    • dean

      CD…you make some pretty sweeping generalizations about these darn kids today. I’m curious: do you have kids of your own? Have you spent much time of late in schools with kids and/or teachers?

      I know my kid was not raised the way you describe,even though he grew up in (2) “twisted, socially liberalized households”. He learned the value of working hard, and he learned to pick himself up and dust himself off and get back in the ring after a failure, if anything much better than I was taught.

      What is a “fiscally neo-con society?” I’m not being snarky…I’ve just never heard that phrase before. I usually associate “neo-cons” with former liberals who became foreign policy hawks and Reaganites, not with economic policy (unless we include the short and long term costs of war, which they apparently don’t).

      As one of your liberal fellow posters, I have to decline your request. I could not stomach 50 pages of Buchanan, though he is occasionally entertaining on MSNBC and PBS.

      • Anonymous

        Too bad, you might learn something or is your mind closed too?

      • CRAWDUDE

        Ya know Dean, another ultra liberal friend of mine was actually the one who suggested I read this book, it may be worth gagging through for ya. “fiscally neo-con society?”, was my invention but you’d have to read the book to understand the phrase.

        • dean

          CD…I’m not sure I qualify as “ultra” but I’ll let you be the judge. My reading list is pretty long….and I’m afraid Pat will at least have to wait until he is deep into the discount bin.

          My mind is not closed, but neither is it infinitely open at the age of 54. My reading choices are eclectic but lean left in terms of politics. I’m about 3/4 through Obama’s first memoir, and will probably pick up one of McCain’s books next, since one of those 2 (not Buchanan) is likely to be our next president.

          • CRAWDUDE

            Discounted books are often in that pile because they’ve been discounted and later proven to be correct. (my attempt at deep wisdom, lol!)

            McCain, being a neo-con and a closely mirror image of GW doesn’t intrigue me that much. I’m fairly certain his book will be about rationalizing his warped views more than being informative. Let me know if its worth reading after you’re done.

            I limit my self to an original post and 2 replies now. One should be able to make his or her point in 3 posts, after that its just bickering.

  • cc

    “What is a “fiscally neo-con society?” I’m not being snarky…”

    How would we be able to distinguish?

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