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Getting Serious About Education Advice For Workers

Have we come to the “end of history” on the decades-long debate over whether skills training and further education beyond high school are the best ticket to a good job and a middle class life? And, if they are, do those who choose to navigate their educational way to a satisfying and well-paying job know what kind of ticket they need? Attention to both issues is escalating, and not only inside the Washington beltway.

On June 14, the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University released a block-buster. Its Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, argued that by 2018 our economy will fall short of needed workforce qualifications “by at least 3 million postsecondary degrees, Associates or better," and in addition, “will need at least 4.7 million new workers with postsecondary certificates." This is the situation without the compounding issue of a 10% “official” unemployment rate in an apparently unending recession. Tony Carnevale, a principal author of the study, in reflecting on its implications for workforce training, noted “Our problem is, our country lacks a guidance system."

Coincidentally, on June 30, the Albert Shanker Institute, AFL-CIO, Council on Competitiveness and Council on Adult and Experiential Learning brought players from their constituencies together with representatives from the Obama White House, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education, the Congress, employer/union partnerships and policy experts, to discuss what can be done to help workers find the education and skills they need for the right job ticket. On hand was Tom Wilson, head of the British Trades Union Congress’ (TUC) Unionlearn operation, to explain how British unions and employers have worked together, with government support, to do just that. (While unions and employers may not love each other in the U.K., they at least have developed the sense to know that some problems are best solved through collaboration.)

So, here we are with a yet-to-be-authorized Workforce Investment Act, an economy loaded with skills shortages, burgeoning structural unemployment , an incumbent workforce that badly needs and wants better skills, and no coherent workforce information and training system to streamline efficient access to upgrading and transferability skills. It should be a “duh, this-is-not-rocket-science” moment.

One take on a possible solution, at least for incumbent workers, is the British invention of the role of union learning representative. This approach creates on-the-job skills and education counselors as a convenient worksite resource for employees. The training and credentialing of these learning representatives is run by the TUC’s Unionlearn, an operation that also gives government-funded grants to effective employer/union training partnerships. Central to the thinking of this innovation is the insight that workers in need of additional education are more likely to confide their aspirations – and educational insecurities -- to their union than to a company human resources department. Companies that have faced this reality and worked with it are overwhelmingly supportive of this new union role, according to surveys of British employers.

Truth be told, there are also many insightful, if generally unknown, American partnerships: Boeing and the Machinists, the United Auto Worker/Ford Education, Development and Training Program, the United Steelworkers’ Institute for Career Development, Kaiser Permanente and the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the Districts of Baltimore County and North Suburban, Illinois, and the District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund.  But, unfortunately these partnerships are neither the recognized face of the American labor movement nor of U.S. business groups, most of which can’t say a single kind word about unions.

Maybe it’s time to open our eyes and take a page from the British.  Could it really hurt to design a good workforce education and training system, at least one needed initiative on which unions and employers work together?

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