Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Low-Skill Workers, Technology, and Education: A New Vision for Workforce Development Policy

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Low-Skill Workers, Technology, and Education: A New Vision for Workforce Development Policy

Article excerpt


At no time in American history is the possession of skills and education so necessary for individuals' economic self-sufficiency and the country's national competitiveness. For many adults, even those with the least education and work experience, locating an entry-level job is relatively easy. But simply having a job is often not enough: the real challenge lies in securing employment that offers economic self-sufficiency. Unfortunately many workers are falling short of that goal. Today some nine million working families are trying to survive in the United States in jobs that rarely offer them a living wage, let alone health benefits, pensions, or a career ladder.

The challenge of providing education and skills training is certainly great. Forty-six per cent of American adults possess literacy skills that are the minimum standard for labour market success (Kutner et al 2006). These individuals face a future of high unemployment and low-skill, low-paid work. Research is clear that education and targeted skills training helps to increase one's economic self-sufficiency (Bartik 2001; Gatta 2005); yet the challenge of reaching all those who need to upgrade their skills, given insufficient federal funding and resources, is daunting. It is estimated that only 10 to 20 per cent of the 37 million adults who need basic education, skills training, and/or English language training are enrolled in federal or state supported programs at any given time (McCain 2003).

The low participation of working adults in publicly supported programs can be attributed, in part, to an antiquated training system that is designed for an industrial economy that no longer exists. Such a system contributes to the continued unequal access to education that characterises workforce development policy and programs. Under this system the vast majority of education and training is classroom-based and logistical issues for working adults--transportation, child care, locally available classes, conflicting work schedules--prevent many from taking advantage of what exists. In addition, federal welfare and workforce policy's focus on job placement and emphasis on short-term training preclude many low-wage workers from access to education and lifelong skills development to succeed. In what is colloquially referred to as 'work-first' policy, individuals are forced by policy regulations to secure any job, regardless of pay, opportunities for advancement, or benefits packages in order to qualify for many public supports. As a result education and training seem to be an afterthought within the national workforce discourse. Most notably, in the Workforce Investment Act (WIA)--the nation's premier employment and training policy--individuals must pass through a sequence of services before they are able to qualify for education or training. This policy design has the effect of serving as a barrier to skills training for many working adults. Congressional testimony by advocates at Wider Opportunities for Women (2003) graphically illustrates at this point:

   Consider the example of a Vermont woman who sought the help of the
   One-Stop Center (1) after a long history of employment as a
   housekeeper. Recently divorced and unable to support her family on
   her housekeeper wages, she wanted to participate in a skilled
   trades training program to improve her earnings potential. She was
   turned away because she had success in the housekeeping field and
   therefore was not eligible to participate in the training program,
   which she was told, was for people with no skills and with a long
   history of unemployment (p. 5).

The need to pass through a series of steps to attain training, along with her ability to secure an entry-level job, prevented this woman from receiving any skills upgrading. The sequence of services includes a three-tiered system of core, intensive, and training services. Core services--the most basic form--include informational resources, self services, job search, and job research assistance. …

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