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Shore Up The Weaknesses First

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One out of five American working men and women are now unemployed or under-employed. And yet, with 3.4 million jobs currently standing open, it's not as if the land of opportunity has closed up shop. Yes, of course, there's much to be done to strengthen the economy so those 3.4 million jobs become 6.8 million and more. But, the proximate problem isn't a lack of employment, it's a shortfall in the skills and knowledge of American workers.

What's caused this deficit? The "economic singularity." Vernor Vinge, the academician and science fiction writer, coined the term "technological singularity" to denote that point in time when machines would become smarter than humans. The economic singularity, therefore, is that moment when the workers in companies based overseas become smarter than the workers in companies based here. And, sadly, we have passed that demarcation point.

America's companies no longer compete with cheaper labor in the global economy; they compete with smarter labor. On the manufacturing floor and in the office cubicle, America's foreign-based competitors have upped their game. If we expect to continue as the world's economic leader, therefore, we must do the same.

Accomplishing that effort is clearly within our means. There is a broad range of solutions that could potentially upgrade the capabilities and thus the performance of America's workforce. All will fail, however, if we don't first shore up the weaknesses in our developmental infrastructure. It's as dilapidated as our highways and bridges.

A good place to start is in academia. We have to plug the yawning hole in the higher education we give our workers. With some notable exceptions, for the last 75 years, America's universities and its four-year and community colleges have been graduating "career idiot savants." They've taught their students a lot about a particular field of study and absolutely nothing about how to make a career in that field. Why? Because most faulty members feel that the body of knowledge and set of skills involved in career self-management isn't rigorous enough to be included in the curriculum.

Contrast that view with the situation in China. Today, every college student in that country must take -- as a requirement of graduation -- a year-long course called Personal Mastery. It teaches the principles and practices of effective career self-management.

What's that entail? Such critical competencies as how to set near- and long-term career goals; how to deal with the frustrations and disappointments that occur from time-to-time in a career; and, most importantly, how to avoid obsolescence in an era that is producing new knowledge at a breathtaking rate.

Where can the nation turn to resolve this dilemma? Every institution of higher learning has a career center, placement office or similar resource. They are under-budgeted, understaffed and under-prioritized, but they are filled with talent. They can be the corner stone for a national initiative to give students both the academic and the career preparation they need and deserve in today's global economy. The goal is not to teach students how to write a resume or conduct a job search -- that will happen, of course -- but to give them "career security," the ability always to be employed and always by an employer of their choice.

These offices will need more priority and support to execute such a mission, but they have the expertise to fill the developmental gap in U.S. higher education and to do so effectively. More importantly, they offer the only viable long-term solution to our workforce skills deficit -- teaching students how to take responsibility for the health of their own careers.

As potent as that initiative would be, however, it is not sufficient by itself. We must, in addition, fill the crack caused by the short-term vision in our skill remediation efforts. Currently, the U.S. Department of Labor and its affiliated state agencies provide financial and programmatic support to upgrade the qualifications of persons in transition. Typically, they rely on community colleges, four-year academic institutions and commercial education and training vendors to provide unemployed workers with the skills to start out in a new field of work -- one with better career prospects.

While that strategy is helpful in getting people back to work, it does nothing at all to ensure they continue working. As a result, we are now seeing more and more cases of "unemployment recidivism." The people who have been trained come back for retraining 12, 18 or 24 months later because the skills they originally gained have become obsolete.

Thankfully, there is a "shovel-ready" solution to this situation, as well. As pointed out in The A+ Solution, a forthcoming book by John Bell and Christine Smith, the country's 80,000-plus professional societies offer an astonishing array of credible and current educational programs. These resources are specifically designed for occupational development; they transfer state-of-the-art skills and knowledge to individuals in a specific field, regardless of their employment status. In effect, they extend the preparation provided by formal academic institutions.

The tragedy is that these educational programs are not being utilized to their fullest capacity. Participation is seldom subsidized by employers and, with household income in decline, it's also more than many individuals can afford on their own. As a consequence, only a small fraction of the workforce currently benefits from the instruction.

How can access to such educational resources be made more inclusive? By changing the eligibility criteria Federal agencies use for program reimbursement and grants and by promoting the availability and relevance of society-based training to local workforce investment boards. No new bureaucracy or massive investment is required. In addition to their initial skills training program, people in transition would simply be given a credit toward a society-based educational program they could take in the future to keep their skills current.

The workforce skills deficit is a proximate threat to both our individual and collective well-being. While the need to redress the situation is urgent, however, we must first attend to the structural weaknesses that could undermine the effectiveness of any solution we implement. And, the best way to accomplish that repair work is with two under-utilized, yet potent national assets -- the career centers of our academic institutions and the educational programs of our professional societies.

Peter Weddle is the author or editor of over two dozen books on employment and the American workplace. His most recent book, A Multitude of Hope: A Novel About Rediscovering the American Dream, was published this year. For more information, visit www.AMultitudeofHope.com.