This post is the third of a four-part response by Corporate Voices for Working Families to the recent NPR series, “The Skills Gap: Holding Back the Labor Market,” which explores unemployment in America, the ill-prepared workforce and workforce readiness training.

NPR focused attention last week on several critical issues facing American workers and our economy: a skills gap that is preventing many workers from obtaining jobs and gaining career advancement if employed and the current level of unacceptably high unemployment that may continue for the next several years.

Corporate Voices for Working Families has been adding perspective on the issues raised in the NPR series in posts looking at the skills gap and model business programs that aim through education and training to benefit both employees and employers.

The NPR series examined the problems facing people who are unemployed – particularly the long-term unemployed and those who are looking to enter the workforce for the first time – in a segment titled, “Job Seekers Find Bias Against The Unemployed.

Here’s from the NPR report:

Unemployed workers face big hurdles as they try to get new jobs in today’s economy. First, there’s the numbers game: Close to 25 million workers unemployed or under-employed looking for jobs. In fact, there are five unemployed workers for every single job opening in the economy.

Increasingly, though, jobless workers are facing the ultimate barrier. Some employers are saying if you’re out of work, we don’t want to hire you.

The reality is that employers want to hire and retain the most qualified employees possible. And in some cases there is a disconnect – as pointed out in the NPR series and in several research studies conducted by Corporate Voices – between the skills that prospective workers have and the skills that employers require.

For instance, Tony Wagner, the Harvard-based education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” explains it this way. There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate. (Wagner was the keynote speaker at the Corporate Voices Annual Meeting in 2008.)

Whether a skills gap leads to a bias against those who are unemployed versus those who already have jobs is debatable. But the issue raised in the NPR series does point to serious challenges facing American workers who are looking for jobs during this period of sustained unemployment. Consider the most recent view of the Federal Reserve:

Unemployment is set to remain higher for longer than previously thought, according to new projections from the Federal Reserve that would mean more than 10 million Americans remain jobless through the 2012 elections – even as a separate report shows corporate profits reaching their highest levels ever.

Top Federal Reserve officials project that the unemployment rate, now 9.6 percent, will fall only to about 9 percent at the end of 2011 and about 8 percent when the next presidential election arrives, in late 2012. The central bankers had envisioned a more rapid decline in joblessness in their previous forecasts, prepared in June.

The reality: the job market is going to remain weak for even those with skills and education. But it is going to be almost impossible for those without the necessary skills and education — particularly a postsecondary credential — to compete for jobs.

Here’s from a recent New York Times column by Thomas Friedman:

As Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it to me in an interview, 50 years ago if you dropped out, you could get a job in the stockyards or steel mill and still “own your own home and support your family.” Today, there are no such good jobs for high school dropouts. “They’re gone,” said Duncan. “That’s what we haven’t adjusted to.” When kids drop out today, “they’re condemned to poverty and social failure.” There are barely any jobs left for someone with only a high school diploma, and that’s only valuable today if it has truly prepared you to go on to higher education without remediation — the only ticket to a decent job

One of the major Corporate Voices initiatives involves learn and earn models and best practices that present one crucial strategy for addressing the skills gaps that are hindering workers and businesses.

Through the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Corporate Voices for Working Families has compiled a series of micro-business case studies highlighting employers who are establishing learn and earn partnerships. These employers, who include Expeditors, CVS Caremark, and Bison Gear and Engineering Corporation, are collaborating to provide working learners with the opportunity to pursue postsecondary credentials while simultaneously working and earning a living.

Corporate Voices believes that when business and industry partner with education to create opportunities for individuals to advance academically and along career pathways, business, education and students can all reach their goals.  As reported in the recently released From an Ill-Prepared” to a Well-Prepared Workforce: The Shared Imperatives for Employers and Community Colleges to Collaborate, through collaboration:

  • Individuals will be supported and encouraged to complete postsecondary credentials essential to obtaining or growing into employment with family-sustaining wages.
  • Businesses will gain skilled, work-ready talent.
  • Education will be more closely matched to labor market demands, and businesses will support the college completion agenda.

Partnerships between business and education are essential to improving the lives of working families.  Corporate Voices, through its workforce readiness platform, will continue to highlight industry leaders, to participate in research design and to educate policy makers, all in an effort to help explain the challenges and opportunities around the education and skills gap facing our country today.  Corporate Voices invites employers who might have a learn and earn model to be highlighted and/or would like to join the Learn and Earn Business Leader Team to explore peer to peer learning of promising practices, to contact us.