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California must prepare now for changing workforce

San Jose Mercury News
April 3, 2007

California must prepare now for changing workforce
By Mike Curran, Martha Kanter and Stephen Levy
Article Launched: 04/03/2007 06:06:54 AM PDT

Two powerful forces - globalization and the coming wave of baby boomer retirements - are transforming the world of work in Silicon Valley and across the nation. In response, California needs a comprehensive workforce investment strategy with the same energy and commitment as we are now devoting to the state's physical infrastructure.

Global competition is affecting a greater number of jobs here at home. Globalization has moved beyond manufacturing to areas such as call centers, tax preparation, advertising and even hip surgery. One set of answers is well-known. We need to increase innovation and expand into new ventures, such as alternative sources of energy, where Silicon Valley companies can generate new jobs and new investments for the future. To support this, we must address the educational and fiscal challenges of equipping more workers with 21st-century science and engineering knowledge and skills.

But there is a second response to global competition - focusing on the high-wage jobs that must be performed locally. A recent NOVA study identified 78 occupations that pay good wages and are not subject to significant global competition - occupations in construction, health care, public safety and the basic technology support to operate our homes, cars and the wide range of appliances that we use in our daily lives.

The coming wave of retirements adds urgency to the challenge of increasing the skills of our workers even as we improve the education of Advertisement today's students. Nearly 6 million Californians will retire in the next 20 years, including highly skilled professionals, technicians and craftsmen now employed in all of those local high-wage jobs mentioned.

A recent meeting on the workforce requirements of alternative energy technologies highlighted the intersection of globalization and the coming wave of retirements. We learned that 43 percent of PG&E's workforce is eligible for retirement in the next 5 years - a trend reflected in business, government, labor and education throughout the valley. We learned that alternative energy companies need engineers, but they also need manufacturers, technicians, installers, transporters and operators - and there is no pipeline ready to deliver these workers in the next several years.

Current efforts to improve K-12 education, reduce dropout rates and increase students' preparation for higher education are critical, but we also need to focus attention on today's adult workforce. The vast majority of the people we will need to replace retiring workers and fill the new jobs are already in the workforce. Both the workers themselves and our regional economy will benefit from programs designed to improve the skills of today's workforce.

There are many examples of the successes and challenges of adult workforce programs in the valley. Our local workforce boards, made up of public and private sector members, have earned a national reputation for training residents for their first jobs and also retooling them throughout their careers for the emerging opportunities that await them. They have helped more than 100,000 of our workers who have been laid off to re-enter the workforce in new careers. But while demand for these services has increased, state funding has fallen by more than 40 percent in just the past two years.

Our community colleges rank among the best in the state; yet it is very difficult for adults needing retraining, especially in technical areas, to get the instruction they need when they need it. Our unions and community colleges offer invaluable apprenticeship programs in the trades, but these are often dependent on uncertain funding. Unions in partnership with employers are collectively providing literacy training in the workplace, although many adults needing better language skills also need more hours of instruction that we can't afford.

All of these efforts are just not enough. We must develop a comprehensive workforce development strategy that meets the demands of a 21st-century "talent" infrastructure, supplying the well-trained people we need from our community. In earlier times we could recruit workers from around the nation and world. We are now more dependent on maximizing the skills of our current residents to replace retiring workers and fuel the next rounds of innovation.

To address these issues, our organizations are part of the California EDGE Campaign (www.californiaedge campaign.org). The campaign is a coalition of diverse groups that are working to engage business, community and elected leaders in identifying the structural and policy changes that need to occur if we are to meet these serious workforce challenges. We invite you to join the EDGE discussion so that we can maintain our competitive EDGE and give an EDGE to our students and adult workers in today's global economy.


MIKE CURRAN is director of the NOVA Workforce Board. MARTHA KANTER is chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. STEPHEN LEVY is director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.

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