The Importance of Workforce Development

When the topic of discussion is economic development, most people think about jobs.

Specifically, they think about bringing jobs to a region from elsewhere. They think about large manufacturing plants that employ hundreds, if not thousands. They think about new and emerging fields, like bioscience, and the jobs they could create.

All of the above certainly fit the definition of economic development, but there is another component that is often overlooked, but shouldn’t be — workforce development.

Why? Because before you can attract new manufacturers (or keep existing ones) or develop clusters of businesses in new sectors like biotechnology, there must be a workforce in place that can handle those demands.

And at the moment, there are serious questions about whether the Pioneer Valley, and the state as a whole, has the kind of workforce that will be needed to carry out that broad assignment. Many, in fact, see a number of warning signs on the horizon concerning the Baystate’s labor force.

The Workforce Solutions Group, comprised of a number of state business, labor, and higher education agencies, has identified what it calls a "perfect storm" of economic conditions that may imperil the state’s capacity to compete — and prosper. The three crises facing the state, according to the group, are:

– A profound mismatch in labor supply and demand. Two in five employers say there are too few qualified applicants to fill openings, and that training resources are insufficient to prepare workers to meet employer needs;

– A recognized short supply of new, well-paying jobs. The state has a net loss of more than 200,000 jobs since 2001, and only 6,200 jobs have been added since December 2003; and

– The alarming fact that many available workers cannot obtain training and education opportunities. Almost one-third of the state’s workers, 1.1 million, lack the basic skills needed for employability in the new economy. Fully 746,000 workers lack a high school diploma and another 152,000 lack the strong English language skills needed to make them employable.

To address those concerns, the Workforce Solutions Act of 2005 has been filed. It contains a number of budget

and legislative proposals designed to ex-pand lifelong learning opportunities for Massachusetts workers, students, the unemployed, and underemployed. It’s not being referred to as an economic development measure, but it should be.

The bill, as filed, would help fill critical vacancies across the Common-wealth, provide flexible training funds so that businesses can respond better to market dynamics, target health care and other growth industries — where a skilled, ready workforce will allow job growth and curb job loss — and extend the life of the highly successful Workforce Training Fund (due to sunset this year), which has helped train more than 136,000 workers in 1,714 companies since 1998.

As area manufacturers told BusinessWest (see story, page 35) Workforce Training grants have helped offset the huge cost of the training needed to enable companies to remain competitive. And they stressed that the need for such training is ongoing, especially as global competition escalates.

Another highlight of the proposed legislation is a new program that would enable more than 4,000 low-income, under-educated working adults to attend community or state colleges and obtain an associate’s degree or industry recognized credential. Still another proposal would more than triple the current appropriation earmarked to build collaborative training, education, and skills development programs among employers in a given region or industry sector.

None of these initiatives would warrant banner headlines, nor would they would likely come up in discussions about regional economic development efforts. But they are very important components of a broader strategy to help Massachusetts remain competitive on the global stage.

And we hope they become reality.