01/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Building Skills Now is Our Best Hope for the Future

Last week, the severity of the nation's job crisis hit me dead between the eyes. The Chicago Urban League hosted a job fair at our Bronzeville offices in partnership with the Chicago Transit Authority to fill a possible 300 part-time bus driver positions -- anywhere from 25 to 50 hires per month -- through next spring. The CTA promoted the event through its usual channels. But no one could have imagined the outcome.

More than 1,000 people showed up -- 1,052 to be exact!

The deluge of jobseekers drew national attention. That they came from all walks of life -- from the college educated to ex-offenders -- was a clear sign of these tough economic times. The overwhelming response also demonstrated that the nation's skills deficit continues to be more pervasive in urban communities. More than half of the people who showed up for the job fair did not have a commercial driver's license qualifying them for the positions.

With 533,000 jobs lost in November -- the largest monthly job loss total in 34 years -- and more payroll cuts predicted, job training providers are sure to be stretched trying to meet the demands of an increasingly out-of-work public. What often happens is that agencies that depend on federal funding for training programs turn away the most skills-deficient job seekers because their funding is directly tied to success in job placements. That means that those perceived as hard to place will be less likely to access training.

Now, with President-elect Barack Obama pushing the largest public infrastructure campaign since the Roosevelt years, cities, states and job training providers may find themselves between a rock and a hard place trying to deliver a skilled workforce with limited funding and space to deliver.

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