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Labor secretary: Work force undertrained

09/13/2012

The Detroit News - September 11, 2012

The U.S. labor secretary sounded the alarm on training workers for the new economy in an address Monday to a meeting of Michigan work force development specialists.

"If current trends continue, the next generation of American workers will be less educated than the previous generation for the first time in American history," Hilda Solis told the audience here at the Michigan Works! Association's annual work force development conference.

Solis warned that more than two-thirds of the country's fastest-growing occupations will soon require training or education after high school, even though half of all unemployed adults today lack any type of college degree or certificate. Work force experts say picky employers also contribute to the widening gap between the skills workers have and the ones employers need. Among workers, young people are bypassing manufacturing jobs.

And both employers and employees are scrambling to keep up with the ever-changing demands for new knowledge in the new economy.

Recently, economists and others have pushed back that the idea of the "skills gap" is purely the fault of schools and workers, and questioned why, if certain skills are in demand, employers aren't offering their own training or raising wages. One reason is that employers have cut back on training during the recession and now don't feel they can raise prices enough to cover the costs or increase wages.

But the continuing high unemployment rate also gives hiring managers exaggerated expectations, added Lisa Baraga Katz, executive director of Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan.

"Employers are looking for unicorns, and unicorns don't exist," Katz said during a conference break. "It's going to be very hard to find the exact person you're looking for."

Besides cuts to workplace training programs, there also has been less money for schools and educational programs, coupled with the workers who don't know where the jobs are, Katz added.

Young workers who grew up watching the decade-long slide of Michigan's auto industry think of manufacturing as an industry that too often makes only pink slips, noted Gregory Pitoniak, CEO of the Southeast Michigan Community Alliance.

"Manufacturing took such a hit and is so cyclical that a lot of young people don't consider it as a career," Pitoniak said.

But when training — including programs supported by the more than $219 million the Labor Department has invested in the state — connect with the right workers and employers, jobs get filled, said Lisa Johnson, lead youth advocate for the Michigan Works Wayne service center.

"Contrary to what everyone believes," she said, "our youth really do want help."