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Putting it all together.

In these challenging and fast-moving (downward for now) economic times, our focus naturally turns to job creation as our most pressing need. For low-income individuals and workers who have been even more negatively affected by the recession than other groups, we should not lose sight of the long-term need for skills acquisition as the gateway to good-paying jobs. The downturn in the economy may well present excellent opportunities to invest in developing people's potential to compete for the new kinds of jobs that we expect will emerge when the economy begins its inevitable upturn.


We have all seen the shift away from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based one. And in the service sector, there is a wide divide between those with higher-order skills and those who lack basic skills. This skills divide manifests itself in large disparities in earnings. Over the past several years, it has become clear that the divide falls along the line of those with at least one year of post-secondary training or an occupational certificate related to jobs in demand.

A conundrum that confounds many of us in the human service field is that even where post-secondary opportunities are available, the clients we deal with predominantly lack the basic skills to be successful in a post-secondary environment.

We can look to one state's experience to help inform our thinking on this issue. Michigan has been grappling with this problem as it tries to forge a new economic future for the state--one based on a skilled workforce as a major economic development tool that can attract better-paying jobs. In a bold move, Michigan is offering up to two years of post-secondary training for any dislocated worker or any worker in a family earning $40,000 or less. But for one-third of Michigan's workers, this is an empty promise because they lack the basic skills to function in a post-secondary environment. This led to a new emphasis on adult learning as a critical component of the state's economic transformation. With more than 300,000 workers classified as low-skilled, the response could not be another program. The response has to be a new way of looking at adult learning that cuts across multiple stakeholders, including TANF agencies, community colleges, one-stop centers, and every other stakeholder that touches talent development. The new response must also look at different types of service delivery models: those that integrate work and learning rather than rely on the traditional sequential model; those that involve employers in the learning process and at employer sites; those that integrate basic skills development with occupational training; those that utilize sector strategies to aggregate like employer needs; and those that deploy appropriate wraparound support services. The long-term success of this new approach to adult learning will not be measured by the number of people touched, but by the number of people who ultimately receive post-secondary credentials and realize increases in family income.

The Michigan adult learning model calls for highly collaborative leadership, creating a sense of urgency, intense community involvement, data driven decision-making, a thorough mapping of the existing delivery system, and a connectivity to one of Michigan's other major goals of creating green jobs. While in the midst of one of the worst economic situations in the country, Michigan is committed to this adult learning initiative to ensure the state is competitive in the long run.

The Michigan model presents a compelling story of how one state is preparing for the long run in the midst of a deep economic recession. There are lessons to be learned for all of us from this model. First, this is not a program-driven model. It is a model based on identifying common needs that cuts across multiple stakeholders and drives toward collaboration as the way to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. These may seem like overused terms, but they represent what works. The model also draws upon the best in class of adult learning and workforce development. From the adult learning side, we see the integration of work and learning and new ways to deliver services that are tailored to individual needs and not institutional ways of operating. On the workforce side, embedding adult learning in sector strategies is an important new approach. Sector strategies have proved to be the most effective way to engage employers in workforce development. Employers in similar industries have a controlling say in curriculum design and service delivery. Further, viewing TANF and workforce development as one part of a continuum that leads to what we know to be the minimum education levels to be competitive is a crucial step toward an integrated service delivery model that is tightly linked to the economic development goals of a state or region. All too often we have seen education, human services, workforce development and economic development operate in separate spheres. A better future lies in viewing these four as working hand-in-hand toward a common vision. That is where our collective work should take us.

Ed Strong is director of human capital initiatives at the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce.
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Title Annotation:making things happen; adult learning and occupational training
Author:Strong, Ed
Publication:Policy & Practice
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2009
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