Build on What's Already Working, Mr. President | Commentary

By Fred Dedrick

Next week, the president will undoubtedly spend a great deal of his State of the Union address discussing the economy, jobs and long-term unemployment. President Barack Obama needs to lay out a clear road map for putting Americans back to work. And that road map should build on what’s already working.

Here are the three things that any unemployed or under-employed American, and every senator and representative, should want to hear next Tuesday. Or, for that matter, anybody deeply troubled by data such as December’s report that 2.4 million people were “marginally attached to the labor force.” They want to work, are available for work and had looked for work in the prior 12 months, but not over the past four weeks — a number that has barely changed in a year.

First of all, for those seeking employment, America should tackle the skills gap community by community. That’s because this “gap” is different depending on where one is located, what industry is being described and even what occupation needs to be filled.

Communities need flexible, innovative, short-term intensive training opportunities for the long-term unemployed to convert their outdated skills into competencies for today’s economy. Fortunately, in many communities, regional workforce collaborations — workforce development groups partnering with industry and community leaders — are already in place and have shown to have great success in meeting regional needs and getting people into good jobs. Let’s use and replicate them in other communities to stimulate this economy. It’s a model that every member of Congress can readily help implement in his or her district.

Second, those who say the answer to today’s economic malaise, long-term unemployment and high levels of youth joblessness is a four-year college degree are simply not facing the facts. The vast majority of unemployed or underemployed folks can’t go back to college full time. They don’t want to be absentee parents and their families depend on them bringing in a weekly income.

More educational opportunities will certainly help, but for most of these struggling job seekers and workers, the answer needs to be a combination of learning while working. Combining work with education and training produces great results as companies get higher-skilled workers attuned to their business environment and job seekers get skills, experience and a measure of self-worth.

Other individuals need a subsidized post-secondary pathway to in-demand careers and on-the-job training. For young adults, particularly minorities, we need to connect more of them to the labor market and to the world of work through a vastly expanded set of learn-and-work opportunities across many industries, including apprenticeships, on-the-job-training and paid internships.

Third, the president needs to outline an approach to job training based on what businesses need in different industry sectors. Partnering with business leaders to determine what skills are needed in local markets, and then building training approaches to meet these needs, will boost local economies and the economy as a whole. Congress can jump-start this by taking action on H.R. 919, the Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success Act. It’s a no-cost amendment to the Workforce Investment Act that will require states and local entities to join with business leaders and design training programs that can meet the needs of the industry sectors that will strengthen local economies and create jobs.

Most people want the dignity of a decent paying, full-time job, not income supports. Given a choice, most people would prefer to not have to rely on food stamps or welfare, which are not anti-poverty programs, only programs that allow families to survive in poverty.

But to take away these supports without creating opportunity is not only cruel, but counter-productive public policy. If you dislike income supports, the best way to reduce their size is to give individuals a better shot at working. Plus, America could save billions in federal funding and create new revenue if we could get more Americans into full time work at good wages.

Right now, more than 20 million Americans are looking for full-time jobs. Many millions more work 40-plus hours a week with wages that make reaching the middle class a bridge too far. By outlining a plan based on these precepts, the president will lead the charge on securing work and better wages for all workers who are stuck on the way to the American dream. Reaching this goal will take many years of smart investments in training, job creation and learn-and-work models. Until then, the state of the union will not be strong.

Fred Dedrick is the executive director for National Fund for Workforce Solutions.