Archived: Trained Skilled Labor Force is the Real Economic Stimulus


The federal government’s economic stimulus packages must be coupled with an aggressive training program to turn unskilled workers into skilled workers because that is where the jobs will be in the long term.

State officials had just issued the worst unemployment report in 15 years, but Steve Factor was decidedly upbeat. In the packed auditorium of San Fernando High School one recent Sunday, the SolarCity executive told Rep. Howard Berman, “My company’s hired over 200 people in the last 18 months. The entire solar industry is going to need more trained workers in the coming years.” Factor urged a job training overhaul alongside the fiscal stimulus “so people can upgrade their skills, advance their careers, increase their wages, and be the leaders of a workforce vital to the growth and success of our economy.”

Leave it to a guy in the sunshine business to see opportunity in bleak times. The state’s solar panel companies need an additional 2,400 new installers this year, according to a recent business survey. But until recently, there was only one training class in all of southern California. Community colleges are rushing to fill the gap, but long waiting lists remain. The same is true in healthcare. California will need another 3,000 nursing aids and 2,580 licensed vocational nurses every year for the next decade, but there are long waiting lists for every nursing program in the state. California’s manufacturing industries also face skilled labor shortages as experienced machinists approach retirement age. At one of Los Angeles’ last major aerospace companies, 80 percent of the manufacturers are eligible for retirement.

A four-year college degree isn’t the only route to a good job and good opportunities. Occupations that require only a postsecondary vocational award or associate degree will increase 20 percent over the next decade. Approximately 45 percent of all openings will be for such positions. It’s worth noting that unemployment among workers with associate degrees held steady in December – a month when joblessness inched upward among even workers with bachelor’s degrees.

Lawmakers are poised to pour billions of dollars into public works. But repairing schools, building wind turbines, and expanding the information superhighway require specialized skills. To be sure, federal infrastructure spending will generate jobs for lower-skilled workers. Long hours for engineers mean more drivers for take-out food. But with unemployment exceeding one in 10 among the least educated workers, America needs an aggressive program to turn unskilled Americans into skilled workers.

Trimming unemployment rolls and cultivating the skilled labor force is essential for long-term economic expansion must start now. Current trends aren’t good. American workers between the ages of 55 and 64 are among the most skilled and educated in the world. Ominously, their replacements – workers between 25 and 34 – rank 10th in the world in terms of high school completion.

This downturn is an ideal time to invest in education that will raise workers’ wages. Community colleges and adult schools can equip people for good jobs – as dental assistants, speech and respiratory therapists, or electricians.

The U.S. government spends less on training than almost any other industrialized nation. The biggest slice goes to “one-stop” career centers focused on helping displaced workers polish their resumes rather than upgrading their skills. Meanwhile, vocational schools limp along with volatile and declining funding. Torrents of red ink flooding from public coffers make matters worse.

Training programs for jobs in demand have long waiting lists and go begging for equipment and qualified teachers. Adult schools receive the same state reimbursement – whether a student enrolls in an expensive nursing lab or takes tai chi for the elderly. And California’s archaic formula for awarding Cal Grants forces older students to get in line behind recent high school graduates. Newly laid-off workers may be ineligible for financial aid. As it is, the cost of attending community college has jumped 25 percent since 2000, pricing out many adults looking to retrain.

The federal stimulus is likely to include an expanded Pell Grant program, and lawmakers must ensure that adults looking to upgrade their skills at community colleges aren’t shortchanged. Community colleges are also in line for aid. The funding could enable them to upgrade deteriorated infrastructure and better serve adult populations – offering childcare, transportation, and remedial education. But where ossified educational systems present barriers to that objective, funding should flow to more flexible non-profit partnerships of community organizations, employers, and training centers.

OneLA, the group that organized the meeting with Rep. Berman and for which I am an advisor, advocates such compacts. Global Aerospace CEO Steve Cormier attended the meeting with Berman and endorsed the idea. “We have an urgent need to find experienced workers for our industry. I want to work with institutions like LA Valley College, the North Valley Occupational Center, and groups like OneLA so manufacturing companies like mine have the trained workers we need.”

With California’s Hilda Solis as labor secretary and California Democrats in the congressional majority, such adult education partnerships could receive a financial jumpstart. As Rep. Berman assured the crowd at San Fernando High, “The federal government must come forward.”

Mara A. Cohen-Marks is a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles specializing in urban politics, community development, and race relations.

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