Finding the On Ramp for the Skills Superhighway

In March, over 1,500 workforce professionals from as far away as Guam assembled in an unseasonably chilly Washington, D.C. for the National Association of Workforce Boards Annual Forum. IREC was on hand to meet with workforce professionals and employers, to promote the value of the IREC credential as a tool for WIBs when making decisions about allocation of workforce funding, and, more broadly, quality credentials and the role they play in the skills-based economy.

During his conference keynote, U.S. Labor Secretary Perez proclaimed: “We are at an historic moment right now. We have an incredible opportunity.” Relating it to Eisenhower establishing the interstate highway system in the 1950’s, Perez said the recently enacted Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the workforce sector are building a ‘skills superhighway.’

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Watershed moment, indeed. The U.S. has seen the ratio of job seekers to jobs drop to 1.7 job seekers per open job (down from 7 job seekers per job in the depth of the recession). There is unprecedented focus on job-driven training, spurred by the White House (see Vice President Biden’s 2014 report), and bi-partisan support for WIOA, with its emphasis on the themes of skills-based training, training/jobs outcomes and industry partnerships to foster an economy where, in the words of Perez, there is “no spare American” and all of us are contributing to the revitalized economy.

More good news, many strategies to finding the ‘on-ramp’ for this skills superhighway are already in the toolkits of high quality clean energy training organizations.

Workforce training must be demand-driven. As Perez humorously noted, the times where we ‘trained and prayed’ are over. WIOA and the national landscape calls for strategic and sustained industry partnerships to ensure that training is preparing students for real jobs.

There should be multiple pathways to prosperity for Americans. It’s time to admit that a four-year liberal arts education is not necessary or even desirable for all students. Community colleges will continue to play a central role in effective workforce training (see President Obama’s call for two years of free college for Americans), along with apprenticeships. Did you know that every dollar spent on an apprenticeship has a $27 return? As modeled by countries like Germany, apprenticeships are a valuable opportunity to gain real skills matched to a range of careers, and should take their rightful place as a valid and respected pathway to prosperity.

Perez called for America to take job seekers where we find them, and make room for those with disabilities, veterans and the previously incarcerated to gain the skills they need to secure good jobs that are ready to be filled.

And finally, WIOA and the current climate necessitates that we all develop partnerships at scale. This was the primary theme of the NAWB Forum, and a familiar chorus for those of us engaged in clean energy workforce training. We’ve got some big tasks on our plate and can only succeed if we are all speaking with one another, coordinated in our forward movement and learning from one another’s successes and missteps. That is how we will build the ‘on-ramp’ to create the thriving middle class of the 21st century.

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Image: Copyright / 123RF Stock Photo

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