Helping America’s Remarkable Workforce Meet its Challenges

September 27, 2005By Elaine Chao

Today, America’s workforce numbers 149 million people, and more Americans are working than ever before.  At the same time, the workplace is changing rapidly—it is much different from even a decade ago.  Technology has increased not only the rate but the intensity of change.  So the key to success in the 21st century will be to focus on helping workers evolve and successfully adapt to change.

Fortunately, this is one of our country’s greatest strengths.  Americans have always responded to and thrived on change.  When America was founded, nearly our entire workforce was employed in agriculture.  Today, about 2 percent of Americans work in agriculture, yet we produce enough food for much of the world.

This positive correlation between change and increased productivity has provided a powerful historical advantage, and it is critical not only to our success as a nation, but to the higher incomes and standards of living that American workers enjoy today.  As many economists have recently observed, it is the tremendous productivity of the American worker that has produced accelerated economic growth and increased prosperity without significant inflation.

For an idea of just how dynamic America’s economy and workforce are, consider this:  In the 12-month period ending in May 2003, 52 million Americans—one-third of our workforce—left their jobs, and 55.3 million found new jobs because of new opportunities.  The fact that our society can generate this level of opportunity is a tribute to the strength of our economy and the resilience of our workforce.

Given this pace of change, how can policymakers at the local, state and federal level help workers to continue to thrive in the competitive, rapidly changing environment of the 21st century?

Job training must be relevant, and workers must have the opportunity to continually update their skills.  It’s no longer enough to learn one skill and depend upon that for life.  Technology has affected every one of our country’s industries, which are continually refining, updating and reinventing themselves.

The Department of Labor assists state and local governments to train workers though such programs as the President’s High Growth Job Training Initiative and through the use of National Emergency Grants to help workers who are dislocated through no fault of their own.  Over a recent 12-month period, the Department of Labor provided more than $77 million to fund the employment and training programs run by Iowa Workforce Development.  Additionally, the Department of Labor awarded $13 million in national Emergency Grants in response to Gov. Tom Vilsack’s requests to aid dislocated workers over the past few years.

There are workers who are looking for jobs, and yet also employers who can’t find workers with the right skills.  There is a skills gap in this country.  That’s why we must ensure that there is a strong connection among workers, education and training providers, and employers who have jobs to offer.

To ensure this connection, the president has proposed comprehensive reforms to the law that authorizes the delivery system for $15 billion in federally funded education and job-training programs.  Although the current job-training system is staffed with hardworking, compassionate professionals who want to help, they are often stymied by an overly complex system that is disconnected from local economies.

The president’s plan will help this system become more effective for workers.  It will reduce overhead, red tape and duplication and give states the flexibility they need to customize job training for their area.  In exchange for this greater flexibility, the federal government will ask for greater accountability and clear, measurable results for workers.  Also, it is important that state and local officials identify sectors of the economy that are growing rapidly and help workers get the skills required to access these new jobs.  That’s why the president launched the High Growth Job Training Initiative.  As part of this initiative, the Labor Department has already awarded over $204 million to foster public-private partnerships that will help workers train for jobs in high-growth fields.  Some of these rapidly growing sectors include biotechnology, nanotechnology, geospatial technology, health care, financial services and the skilled trades.

The president also recognizes that community colleges are a critical resource for workers looking to acquire marketable skills.  The president’s $250 million Community-based Job-Training-Grants initiative helps community colleges and other education providers train more workers for careers in today’s economy.  That’s especially important because the fastest-growing jobs require workers with post-secondary degrees.

It is clear that helping our workforce remain highly skilled and competitive is one of the most important challenges facing our country today.  By working together to implement these and other reforms, we can ensure that our workers—who are the backbone of our economy—remain the safest, most productive and competitive in the world.
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