Those of us on the road and vacationing in Minnesota this summer are seeing more “Help Wanted” and “Get Job Applications Here” signs than we’ve seen in many years.
At midmorning this week, for instance, along West St. Germain Street just west of downtown St. Cloud, a man was actually wearing this happy problem. He was walking up and down the sidewalk outside a job-placement center, sporting a large sandwich board that advertised unfilled jobs in the central Minnesota region for five types of occupations, all requiring some form of specialized postsecondary education or training.
A brief conversation with the middle-aged African-American man wearing the sign revealed that he himself was seeking training for one of the occupations listed. He was smiling and hopeful.
The booming Minnesota economy, and growth that is finally being felt by those in the middle and on the bottom, obviously is good news, and it gets even better.
The almost shockingly good news out of Washington, D.C., this summer was the remarkable accord between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans and Democrats on the Workforce and Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA).
You heard that right. At a time when Congress sadly seems obsessed with obstruction for its own sake, the WIOA passed the House in late July by an incredible 415 to 6 and the Senate by 95 to 3. President Obama spoke for most of us when he said “Let’s do this more often.” And it was uplifting to hear Minnesota Republican Congressman John Kline, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, praise the accord on Minnesota Public Radio.
The Minnesota Legislature quietly achieved similar progress in the 2014 session with important breakthroughs improving our own workforce training system. This progress in Washington and St. Paul suggests that no matter what happens in November and no matter who controls the governor’s office and the state House, 2015 could be the “Year of the Workforce” for our state.
With unemployment still running too high in some regions and neighborhoods, particularly for communities of color, and with robust growth and labor shortages for many openings, we have two problems made for each other.
The federal legislation reforms and modernizes federal job training programs and gives states more flexibility to customize training programs, while improving programs aimed at those with disabilities. Programs and courses deemed ineffective have been eliminated.
An analysis of the act by the National Skills Coalition distilled the essence of the WIOA into these categories:
• Each state must come up with a unified plan and overall strategy that better coordinates federal programs and describes how training services will be aligned to regional labor demands.
• New and tougher performance measures are required for job training programs to measure their effectiveness in placement and retention and to assess whether those served are finding long-term success.
• The legislation “signals to states an interest in seeing a number of existing best practices adopted or expanded, including career pathways … industry or sector partnerships … and an increased focus on the attainment of industry-recognized certificates and credentials linked to in-demand occupations.”
In Minnesota, without much fanfare, and owing perhaps to the fact that there was such broad partisan and private-public sector agreement, similar progress was achieved. Under the leadership of key workforce and education policy committee chairs, notably state Rep. Tim Mahoney and state Sen. Terri Bonoff, legislation was enacted that partially addressed at least three basic needs:
• Tougher reporting requirements for workforce program outcomes, including better data on how trainees fare after they leave state-federal training programs, and demographic data to show outcomes by race, gender and ethnicity, and income and education level.
• Widening the availability of industry-recognized occupational training and more broadly rewarding work experience, and creating new and faster pathways to a “standard adult diploma,” which can be especially beneficial for thousands of immigrants and English language learners.
• Reducing or eliminating the use of racially biased employment screening tools, including some steps toward expungement or forgiveness of youthful histories with a criminal justice system that has too often discriminated against communities of color.
Obviously a whole lot more work needs to be done on workforce readiness, nationally and in Minnesota.
The Obama administration already is rolling out other efforts designed to prioritize workforce training and racial equity, as part of a general thematic focus on the plight of the middle class. Vice President Joe Biden recently released a sweeping report, “Ready to Work: Job-Driven Training and American Opportunity” that outlines principles and dozens of best practices underway, often by private-sector employers, nonprofits, and state governmental agencies working together.
Minnesota, as usual, is ahead of the curve. MSPWin, a new network that promotes and funds workforce training innovation and racial equity in employment, the Governor’s Workforce Development Council, and a host of other organizations, including my team at Growth & Justice, are all developing robust workforce equity policy agendas.
In keeping with the spirit of the summer, the White House recently singled out for praise Minnesota’s FastTRAC program, designed to speedily equip unemployed or underemployed adults with the skills they need for jobs that are open. The Star Tribune featured two young women who are succeeding in the program, moving from very low-wage jobs or unemployment into career-track jobs as licensed practical nurses.
This inspiring quote from one of the fast-tracked emerging nurses, Esmeralda Reyes, should impress on us how success begets success.
“I had no clue about going to college or how to find scholarships,” she said. “I have a younger sister who was going to drop out of school. She sees me make my own money. I told her about the program. Now, she’s a [certified nursing assistant], too. She’s planning to go for an LPN or an RN [registered nurse]. My youngest sister is graduating high school and going to college. I always wanted to be a role model to my family.”