Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Training Maine's Workforce for the 21st Century

The writing community is made up of a diverse assortment of writers. Some writers, like Stephen King, are known primarily for the fiction that they write. Other writers, such as Chris Hedges (who I’m reading at the moment), operate in the realm of non-fiction.

The former category, I know little about, other than I occasionally enjoy reading a book written by a practitioner of this genre. I primarily focus my attention on non-fiction, as my choice of books, but also as the mode of writing that I’m oriented towards and most comfortable working in.

While I would love to be able to have the time to focus exclusively on my own writing, as I honestly feel that I have two or three solid outlines that I think are worth putting together proposals for, right now, I just don’t have that option, between working full-time, releasing my latest book with RiverVision and trying to get started on my next major project and first priority of a book idea.

Despite all the activity swirling around me, I’ve actually been writing a few articles that relate to the work I do to pay the bills. Last fall, I developed a Powerpoint detailing some of the issues that I think are pertinent for Maine, in the area of workforce development, which is the sphere I inhabit during my nine to five time. In fact, I think the ideas that I set forth are portable to other areas beyond the borders of the Pine Tree State.

My Powerpoint is a good starting point in the discussion of where we are and where we need to go. Recently, I took the ideas from my Powerpoint and put them into an article form, which The Employment Times, Maine’s premiere employment newspaper, was kind enough to print.

I wanted to get this article on the web, in order to have it accessible to others and in order for me to link it, as it will probably disappear off the ET’s site, at some point.

The Challenge of Remaining Competitive: Training Our 21st Century Workforce
By, Jim Baumer
[Published by The Employment Times, May 28th; Vol. 9, Issue 22]

All over Maine, New England and throughout much of the U.S., employers are finding it increasingly difficult to match qualified candidates with their open positions. By qualified, employers mean workers that have the increasingly important “soft” or “applied” skills that the 21st century world of work demands.

More and more I’m hearing experienced HR professionals tell me of their frustration, which comes from doing all the right things when it comes to recruitment—advertising their jobs in multiple places, offering above-average starting pay, with benefits, participating in job fairs and other networking events—and still, they are not getting the responses they used to and if they get a response, the skill level is usually below the basic level that their positions require.

As one recruiter said to me recently, “Whatever happened to Maine’s labor force?” Better yet, as Bryant Hoffman, Executive Director of the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board is fond of saying, “Our labor pool has become a labor puddle.”

The above question is an excellent one and it offers a great “jumping off” point to talk about Maine’s current labor market. Our state is one of the oldest in the U.S. As our working population ages, we are also seeing an out-migration of younger workers, who normally would backfill the labor pool as workers leave, due to retirement. In addition, several burgeoning employment sectors in Maine continue to require skilled workers to staff positions that accompany continued growth. Healthcare, a leading employment sector in nearly all regions of the state, is finding it increasingly difficult to fill positions associated with radiology, nursing and other healthcare-related areas.

This talent shortage is by no means unique to Maine, either. Nationwide, staffing professionals are finding talent hard to come by. According to an October, 2006 survey conducted by Manpower, a worldwide leader in staffing solutions, 51 percent of HR leaders in the Northeast who responded indicated they would have hired permanent professional staff over the past six months if they had been able to find candidates with the right skills.

The Double Whammy: Labor shortages and accompanying “brain drain”

The U.S. workforce is getting older. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is projected that from 2004-2014, workers who are 55 or older will grow from over 15 percent to 21 percent of the workforce. Not only are American workers aging, but baby boomers are nearing retirement age, creating labor shortages in various segments of the U.S. labor market.

Additionally, what’s compounding the issue, nationwide, is corporate America’s awareness of the problem, but not acting proactively to stave off the consequences. A January, 2006 survey, conducted by Ernst & Young LLP, ExecuNet, Inc. and the Human Capital Institute, predicted a looming labor shortage, driven by the retirement of boomers. The loss of employees to retirement isn’t the only issue associated with this issue. Experienced workers, when they retire, take their accumulated business wisdom with them when they leave. This leads to “brain drain” in the workplace of countless American companies. While the survey illustrated that employers are putting off tackling the issue of an aging workforce, an overwhelming 90 percent said they are committed to putting formal retention programs in place in the future. Of the 30 percent who have identified where business wisdom resides, only 67 percent have formal processes in place to transmit that business wisdom to the next generation.

Meanwhile, writers like Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Thomas Friedman, have documented a world, which is increasingly “flat”, requiring the U.S., for the first time, to start paying attention to the need to radically alter the ways in which it prepares workers for the world of work.

Tomorrow’s Workers Not Ready for Work

The world of work has radically changed. Even entry-level jobs require essential core skills, which several recent high-profile reports indicate aren’t there. Employers are looking for talent to staff for attrition and grow their companies, and the replacements just don’t have what it takes to get these jobs done.

In the fall of 2006, The Conference Board on Education released a report that indicated that today’s high school and even college graduates, were lacking the basic skills for work—these skills, defined as “soft” or “applied” skills, are the basic foundational skills that all workers must have today.

What are these soft or applied skills?
  • Basic Communication Skills
  • Knowing the importance of showing up for work, as scheduled, ready for work
  • The ability to work as a team
  • Knowing how to manage conflict in the workplace
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Creativity/innovation

According to the report released in October, nearly 75 percent of 431 HR respondents surveyed cited deficiencies among incoming high school graduates in basic or applied skills, such as professionalism and work ethic, defined as “demonstrating personal accountability, effective work habits, e.g. punctuality, working productively with others, time and workload management.”

While over half of those surveyed indicated that critical thinking skills, as well as being able to problem solve were important, 70 percent said that recent high school graduates were deficient in both areas.

The report’s accompanying notes that the finding should serve as a key indicator and provide the necessary push to begin looking at new ways of training our future workforce.

Susan Meisinger, President and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management indicates that,

“This study should serve as an alert to educators, policy makers and those concerned with U.S. economic competitiveness that we may be facing a skills shortage. In a knowledge-based economy a talented workforce with communication and critical thinking skills is necessary for organizations and the U.S. to be successful.”

We can’t keep doing the same old things and expect our results to be any different. To expect that is to perpetuate the current dysfunctional approach to education and training.

WorkReady: An Example of a Public/Private Partnership that Works

Traditional, top-down approaches no longer work. If the global economy moves at the speed of light, education and training must also move that quick. Bureaucratic models are out-of-date and will only leave us further and further behind, eventually making the U.S. workforce outmoded and unable to compete economically on the global stage.

The Local Workforce Investment Boards have the potential to pull together the key players in each community and bring key stakeholders to the table. In their role as conveners, they have a unique ability to advocate for the kinds of business-specific training that is essential for global competitiveness.

Currently, the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board, in conjunction with other partners, has developed a foundational training initiative called WorkReady.

WorkReady is a portable credential that imparts the necessary soft skills that businesses want. It was developed in Lewiston/Auburn, from a partnership of leading businesses, Lewiston Adult Ed, Coastal Enterprises, Inc., Central Maine Community College, as well as the Lewiston CareerCenter, and is an example of the kind of local, forward-thinking approach that Maine needs more of. Other WorkReady programs are set to launch in Skowhegan and Farmington soon. Each of these local training programs aligns key local partners, including key businesses in each community.

WorkReady provides foundational skills that businesses demand. It sets the stage for and compliments additional industry-specific training and certifications, which can come from the Maine Quality Centers and other employer-based training such as apprenticeships, or on-the-job-training programs.

Business as usual will no longer work here in Maine, or anywhere else. We need to find creative ways to develop the types of skills that the flat world requires. Education and business must come together and begin a dialogue if our state and our nation have any hope of remaining competitive. We have no other choice if we hope to grow the state’s economy, as well a remaining a competitive economic force in the world as a nation.

About the Author:

Jim Baumer is the Business Assistance Coordinator for the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board. An engaging and dynamic speaker, Jim would be pleased to present to various groups and organizations about workforce training issues, employee retention and the importance of developing public/private partnerships in order to meet the training needs of the 21st century economy.

In addition to his work with the Local Workforce Investment Board, Jim is the author of the award-winning book on Maine town team baseball, When Towns Had Teams.

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