Workforce Development is Priority One

As Gov. Deval Patrick settles into his new job, he finds a rather tall pile in his ‘in’ box.

There are many issues to contend with, starting with the budget — a large deficit is projected — and continuing with energy, healthcare costs, and higher education.

While coping with all this, he must also leave time and energy to address the Massachusetts workforce and its steadily deteriorating state. The reason is obvious: without a qualified workforce, Massa-chusetts simply will not be able to compete in an increasingly global economy. Closer to home, the surge in economic development we’ve all been waiting for will not materialize unless or until we can improve the quality and quantity of workers in the Pioneer Valley.

Before getting into how to address the problem, let’s first state it. The alarming statistics are spelled out in a recent report titled Mass Economy: The Labor Supply and Our Economic Future, compiled by MassINC and the Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies. It shows that, from 2003 to 2005, the Commonwealth’s labor force shrank by 1.7%, while the U.S. workforce increased by 3.1%. Part of the reason for this is out-migration — people, especially younger constituencies, are leaving the state, in part because of fewer good job opportunities — but increasingly, the reason people aren’t working is because they’re simply not qualified to handle the work.

This phenomenon is born out in statistics that show that, statewide, there are 171,000 people unemployed, while 74,000 jobs go unfilled. There will always be a skills gap, and therefore what are known as job vacancies, meaning positions that could be filled but are not because skilled help cannot be found. But this glaring disconnect could have serious consequences for the Commonwealth if it isn’t closed.

To narrow the gap, Patrick and his administration must make a real commitment to workforce development, as other states that Massachusetts competes against have made. By ‘real’ commitment we mean funding programs on a permanent line-item basis; historically, studies and pilot programs, such as those ongoing in this region concerning precision machining and nursing, have been supported, but later, when it comes to funding the initiatives identified by those studies, the money has come inconsistently and through a mountain of red tape involving no less than 12 state agencies.

Funding must be more consistent, and the process for disseminating it must be simplified.

Overall, Patrick and his administration must use every resource available to address the workforce issue, starting with early childhood education and continuing with adult basic education initiatives, English as a Second Language programs, and other efforts to enable individuals to be workforce ready.

The state needs to bring together the various parties that are tasked with addressing this problem — employers, career centers, municipal and economic development leaders, educational institutions, and especially the state’s community colleges — and give them the resources needed to get the job done.

What the state doesn’t need is another study. While the extent of the problem can be debated, the basic facts cannot be; the state is losing workers at a time when it needs more of them, and with a greater set of skills than ever before.

There is much at stake for the Commonwealth, and especially for the Pioneer Valley. Without consistent attention to workforce development, the region’s strongest sectors, such as health care, will not be able to grow at the rate they have been. Meanwhile, if more skilled individuals are not put into the pipeline, the region will continue to lose jobs in the manufacturing sector, even among its many highly successful precision machining plants, and sectors like biotech and biotech manufacturing will struggle to get off the ground.

The governor has many priority items to address in the year ahead. They are all important, but the state’s workforce — and efforts to rebuild it — must go at the top of the pile. Without a solid workforce, the state will lose its competitive edge.