Competition grows for skilled labor.
And so we are faced with a dilemma. In the final four years of this century, the experts estimate that our economy will create six or seven million new jobs, the vast majority of which will require higher-level skills. But barely half of all new workers entering the workforce will be equipped with these skills. A recent Washington Post survey of regional high-tech firms found that fewer than two in five job applicants had the appropriate skills required for the job. Few things pose a greater threat to our future economic health than this gaping disparity between the high demand for skilled employees and the meager supply of them available for work.
Years ago, when brawn rather than brains was the key to industrial success, all that mattered was a steady supply of broad shoulders on which to build our economy. With factories stoking at high capacity, and assembly lines churning out a steady stream of manufactured goods, the typical shopfloor worker wasn't asked to do much more than punch the time clock.
Today, the broad shoulders of this economy are actually in the brain power of its workers. Factory workers are now expected to operate sophisticated technology, work in teams, and take responsibility for quality control. More than half of all employees today must interact with computers on the job, a figure that will rise to 95% of all workers by the turn of the century.
Just about every job in the economy has been similarly transformed. The forklift operator doesn't simply operate the forklift, but also tracks inventories using a computerized database. Nor is the sales rep merely a persuasive talker any longer. He or she must be familiar with high-tech gadgetry and be able to, translate its value to prospective customers.
According to the economist Lester Thurow, "Our nation will rise and fall based on the skills and knowledge of our workers. We can have all the natural resources, all the capital, and all the technology available at our fingertips, but if we don't have the people to make it work, we don't have a competitive advantage."
This mismatch between skill needs and skilled workers is the dark cloud hanging over our economic future. But there is a silver lining. It goes by the name "skill standards," and it may be the best-kept secret for securing and replenishing our nation's competitiveness. The National Skill Standards Board - a business-led group - is working for the voluntary adoption of skill standards throughout the economy.
Much like a physician's medical boards or a pilot's jet training, skill standards would specify the knowledge and skills required to master a specific type of job, and provide clear benchmarks for making employment and training decisions. The human resource puzzle would be solved because standards would highlight a job candidate's specific skills and capabilities - and minimize the risk involved in hiring that person. A certified employee will have demonstrated the teamwork, initiative, and concern for quality that provide added value in today's workplace.
Consider the manufacturing industry. The National Skill Standards Board is working with The National Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing and The Industrial Union Department to identify standards and certify workers in key manufacturing, installation, and repair skills. Once certified, a worker will be able to walk into almost any manufacturing position in any part of the industry nationwide and apply this knowledge directly to the job. That's why it's called a standard.
For both employers and employees, skill standards provide a win-win scenario. Employers win because it ends the personnel guessing game and turns workers into tangible capital assets who add real value to the organization. For employees, who rightfully complain that they don't know what skills are required on the job and that they have no way of knowing if their training will help them get these skills, skill standards would give them something to aim for. Skill standards will provide a clear set of expectations, and a portable credential that verifies their achievement of certain skills.
President Kennedy used to say that the best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. No one denies that the sun is shining on our economy today. But our competitors abroad have shopfloors and offices full of skilled workers, and they're ready to bounce back from their current downturn and seize the economic initiative away from us. If we want to preserve our leadership and remain the most productive economy in the world, we need a perpetual and ready pool of skilled workers. Skill standards can help to ensure that.
Editors Note: Some progress toward the development of skills standards in metalworking has resulted from the work of a consortium of eight metalworking trade organizations, along with several national labor organizations, a council of state governors, metalworking companies and educators. In 1995 the National Institute for Metalworking Skills Inc, (NIMS), a non-profit organization aimed at the development of a skilled workforce for the metalworking industry was formed. For more information from the National Institute for Metalworking Skill Inc, PO Box 787, Vienna, VA 22183, phone: 703-2811610; fax: 703-938-4342; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit: http://www.nims.skills.org.