Retooling our workforce for the 21st century
As an educator and small business owner, I know first-hand that we need to invest in training to restore our manufacturing competitiveness. Unlike the smokestack-industry, manual labor or unskilled jobs of yesterday, most of today’s manufacturing jobs require a high degree of training. Instead of bailing out big banks, we need to lay a strong foundation for our real economy — like starting our kids out in better public schools and preparing them for the 21st century workforce. This isn’t an “entitlement.” Educating our workforce is one of the smartest investments we can make to create an economy that works better for everyone.
Studies have shown the social return on investment of an effective training program is as high as $9.10 per dollar invested.1 There is simply no better place to start than retooling our education system so our kids can get the training they need from an early age.
1 Improve early childhood and K-12 education
We need to support access to quality education from the earliest age — because even those manufacturing jobs that do not require advanced degrees demand high-school degrees or community college training. Creating a highly trained workforce, therefore, starts with keeping kids in school — and the least expensive way to start doing a better job at that is to invest in early childhood education.
Recent studies have shown up to an $11 return for every dollar invested in early education.2 And children who get a strong start achieve higher graduation rates, better grades, more college enrollment and dramatically higher earning potential — up to $100,000 over a lifetime.3
2 Invest in community college, trade and vocational programs; foster collaboration with local employers
Our goal should be to provide every child the opportunity to go to college. But the reality is that many will not obtain a four-year degree. Some estimates in California have put that number as high as 70 percent.
That’s just one of the reasons why community colleges, trade and vocational programs and four-year institutions should serve local needs, both equipping a workforce with skills that are in demand locally and providing local employers with a workforce which meets employers’ needs. These higher education institutions, insofar as they are responsible for retooling our workforce, can also be an incentive for employers to locate in a community.
Our local institutions should collaborate with employers to ensure that the skills being taught in career technical education or specialized science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs meet the needs of local employers.
Fostering the development of local advisory boards composed of leaders from various local sectors and the leadership of the local community colleges can help ensure that courses being provided at a given community college equip students with a set of skills needed by local employers.
I propose a grant program for local businesses — with an emphasis on small manufacturers—that would subsidize the salaries and training of part-time two- and four-year college students. By learning on the job, students can make their academic skills relevant and acquire additional necessary skills. Students would graduate from the program ready to take their place in American manufacturing.
Under this program, small grants would be made to local businesses to give work experience to high school students pursuing a vocational career — with afternoon programs during the academic year and full-time summer school programs.
3 Support standardization of a portion of the coursework at community colleges
Standardizing basic coursework and program requirements at community colleges can allow employers to have a general sense of the skills a student has when that student graduates from a local community college or four-year institution. Because coursework can differ greatly from institution to institution, without standardization, employers are left trying to decipher a student’s transcript and degree without a clear sense, for many programs, of whether or not those courses have educated students with the skills necessary to complete the tasks a job might require.
Standardization of basic coursework for training programs will give employers some sense of the basic competencies of a student. For students, standardizing their basic coursework can improve the marketability of their degrees as employers will not need to guess at the student’s skill level.
4 Improve four-year institution completion
We also need to understand that many factory and manufacturing jobs now even require a college degree. That’s why college achievement trends are so troubling. The U.S. now ranks 12th in the world in college attainment for the 25-34 year old population.4 And according to the Public Policy Institute of California, California is not producing enough college graduates to meet the demand of the current and projected workforce.5 This is not just isolated to California. A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education found that the United States is not producing enough college-educated workers to meet economic needs.6
The Administration’s four-year completion plan calls for the improvement of our high school exit standards.7 In the United States, around forty percent of students, upon entering a four-year institution, find themselves in a position of not being equipped with the knowledge to move forward with their education and need to take remedial classes.8 By improving our standards for high schools, we will improve the preparedness of our students to take on the challenge of higher education.
I am interested in the current discussion around reforming our funding system for colleges to incentivize retention and graduation. For example, studies show that community college students who do well in math and English have higher graduation rates than students who don’t.9 Consequently, we should look at funding models that incentivize colleges to prioritize early competency in English and math.
5 Make higher education more accessible
It is time we remove the artificial barriers to higher education. The infamous barrier of cost needs to become a debate of yesterday. Our higher education institutions help to make our workforce one of the most competitive and well-trained workforces in the world. We should be taking down barriers to education, not putting them up, in order to ensure the strength of our economy.
To do this we need to increase funding of programs like Pell Grants, which are key in making it possible for low-income students to attend college. Additionally, we need legislation like the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, to provide aid to students through their financial aid offices. As institutions around the country feel their own belts tighten, their ability to lend or provide grants to students decreases. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act will help fill the gap.
I do not support granting higher loan limits to students. Our students are saddled with more debt than ever today and extending the limits up to which they can borrow is less effective than funding granting programs and scholarships. We need to make education more affordable, not just immediately, but entirely. Students should not be saddled with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt just to become qualified to participate in our specialized workforce. We need to reduce the barrier to entry.
5 Increase our number of STEM graduates
We need to increase the number of students interested and willing to work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM fields. These fields have been suffering over the years, and it’s time to shift the decreasing trend.
In order to do this we need to start in grade school with a strategy of improving our science and mathematics programs across the board.10 Starting in high school is simply not soon enough. Students need to be exposed to better science and math programs from an early age to produce the much-needed increase in the number of STEM college graduates. In order to improve our STEM programs in elementary and middle schools, we need to improve the teachers in these schools. Right now, reports are that “fewer than one in five 12th graders have both high interest in STEM and high proficiency in mathematics.”11 We can do better. And to do better, we need to strive to ensure that each school is staffed with qualified STEM teachers.
1 Social Issue Report; Economic Empowerment; Workforce Development,” (Social Impact Research, Root Cause, March 2011), available at http://www.rootcause.org/sites/rootcause.org/files/uploads/WFD-Issue.pdf.
5 Deborah Reed, “California’s Future Workforce, Will There Be Enough College Graduates?,” (Public Policy Institute of California, 2008), available at http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_1208DRR.pdf.
6 “Social Issue Report; Education and Youth Development; College Access and Success,” (Social Impact Research, Root Cause, September 2010), available at http://www.rootcause.org/sites/rootcause.org/files/uploads/CAAS-Issue.pdf.
7 Brian Levine, “A Call to Action on College Completion,” (The Middle Class Task Force, The White House, March 2011), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/03/23/call-action-college-completion.
9 Nanette Asimov, “Community college dropout rate alarms researchers,” (San Francisco Chronicle, October 2010), available at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/10/19/MNN41FUHQH.DTL.
10 “Increasing the Number of STEM Graduates: Insights from the U.S. STEM Education & Modeling Project,” (Business-Higher Education Forum, 2010), available at http://www.bhef.com/solutions/documents/BHEF_STEM_Report.pdf.