Economic changes push need for new workforce training

DOVER — The future of work is changing.

People born in 2019 will probably have very different career paths than their grandparents or even their parents.

Globalization, automation, computerization — the economy of the 21st century is shaping up to be dramatically different than the one that emerged after World War II and led to prosperity for so many Americans in the second half of the 1900s.

If the newest generations are to be successful, business leaders, education officials and policymakers will have to keep an eye to the future and make changes, several people said Tuesday at a conference on workforce development.

The event, hosted by the State Chamber of Commerce, was intended to shine a spotlight on issues companies face in finding qualified workers. Despite the unemployment rate falling to pre-recession levels (including, earlier this year, the best months in that regard in 50 years), the state still has a scarcity of workers in many fields, especially blue-collar ones such as construction and autowork.

While it’s unknown what Delaware’s economy will look like in 20 years, it’s safe to say it probably won’t be predicated on the four Cs — chemicals, credit cards, cars and chickens — that have been so important to the state for decades.

According to John Taylor, director of economic research for the Delaware Prosperity Partnership — a public-private entity aimed at bolstering economic development — the fields of education/health services, leisure/hospitality and mining/logging/construction have each seen workforce growth of more than 10 percent over the past five years.

Tuesday’s seminar included a discussion between Delaware Technical Community College President Dr. Mark Brainard and National Association of Workforce Boards President and CEO Ron Painter, as well as a panel conversation and remarks by Gov. John Carney.

“In Delaware, we like to think we’re doing a lot of great things, and we are, but we want to be greater,” Mr. Brainard said.

Gone are the days of a person getting hired right out of high school to a well-paying job he or she can hold for decades and support a family on. Far more fields than ever before require a bachelor’s degree, and pensions and annual raises are a thing of the past in most jobs.

And unfortunately, much of the country has work to do when it comes to preparing the youths of today to join the workforce, speakers stressed.

“Sometimes the realities of the business community need to catch up,” Mr. Brainard told the audience, relaying a story about an employer turning down several potential hires because they lacked four-year degrees.

A bachelor’s degree has in some fields become an unnecessary barrier to entry, a requirement that exists more so to screen out would-be applicants than because of specific skills a recipient has, Mr. Painter said. In other words, it’s a test of competency but a very stringent one, and by having it, companies are in many cases missing out on talented workers.

Things like expanded “microcredentials” — requiring specific certificates or courses for a job rather than a full degree — benefit adults who did not graduate from college, Mr. Painter told the audience of several hundred people gathered at the Modern Maturity Center.

Businesses and governments should do a better job working together, both men said, to allow certifications and the like to transfer between related fields and states. Such collaboration would make it easier for people to find work when they move, eliminating requirements that may force, say, a nurse from Delaware to undergo several classes or training seminars to become licensed upon settling in Iowa.

Mr. Brainard touted several initiatives DelTech is unveiling or supporting, such as extending federal Pell Grants — need-based college assistance — to cover workforce certifications and incarcerated Delawareans.

Decisionmakers, meanwhile, need to do more to give students hands-on experience so they have a better idea what sort of careers they may seek after graduation, Mr. Painter said. Such a change could also lead to fewer students going to college, where they may rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt and then struggle to find a job that will allow them to pay off student loans.

This discussion, Mr. Painter emphasized, is not hypothetical but has consequences for the older generations as well: “Part of the Boomer retirement package they thought was they were going to sell their house and downsize.”

In part because of the debt so many Millennials carry, many retirees are failing to get what they consider to be a fair price for their homes.

Although many Americans in their 20s and 30s were taught a quality job would only come with a college degree, Mr. Brainard noted Delaware has plenty of good jobs individuals can, with just a little training, jump into straight out of high school.

The state has taken steps in recent years to strengthen and expand its career and technical education, in part to help students who would prefer or are better suited for blue-collar jobs.

“Manufacturing is no longer dark, dirty, and dangerous,” Mr. Brainard said.

Mr. Painter cited San Bernardino, California, as one city that has done a good job exposing students to different careers. In the process, he said, it has created “a sense of wonder and opportunity among youth.”

Gov. Carney, who has made one of his main goals the revitalization of old, since-diminished jobs like manufacturing as well as the creation of a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation that will look to the future, said the state must both develop its workforce and make itself an attractive place to live. By doing so, it will draw young professionals from elsewhere and keep the ones it has.

If Delaware does that, he told the audience, companies will be very interested in the First State.

Businesses looking to relocate do not want to be left in limbo or go through a long process filled with permits and other red tape — they aim to be settled in within a year, the governor said.

And in that regard, he believes Delaware has an advantage.

“What’s the role of state government? For me, it goes back to that old moniker: smaller, quicker, smarter,” he said, pointing to a newly created infrastructure fund that can be used to make minor transportation-related upgrades to attract businesses.


Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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