Labor secretary: Work force undertrained

Brian J. O’Connor| Detroit Free Press

Detroit — 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.”

boconnor@detnews.com

(313) 222-2145

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