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An Conversation about the 21st Century Workforce

Published January 13, 2022 in The Burg

“How many positions could your company fill if finding workers was not an issue?”, I asked. “Right now? About 50.”, he replied. My first conversation with a local manufacturer in 2022 was not off to a good start, but at least there was continuity in his response. It’s the same reply I hear every day talking to employers in the Knox County area. The sky is blue and workforce development remains the biggest barrier to our region’s economic growth.

How did we get here? Historically, the entire US economy underwent a major change about 30 years ago and we are still dealing with the aftershocks of that event today. That event was the explosion of globalized trade. Over several decades, large sections of the US economy utilizing unskilled labor left our shores. This exodus left gaps in the economies of individual communities – experienced by residents through the lens of job loss and empty buildings. The industries that remained in the US and continued to be successful after the offshoring blitz were industries that required advanced skill sets from their workers – skill sets that were not readily available in foreign markets.

Unfortunately, America’s institutions did not properly plan for this change, nor did our leaders successfully communicate this new economic paradigm to citizens. Politicians of both parties routinely promise to bring the US back to the “golden age” of 1950-1975, ignoring the fact that enormous global forces and trends make those promises laughably impossible. The days when someone could find living-wage work that would provide for home ownership and raising children on an unskilled high-school education alone are gone forever. For an individual to have any kind of personal economic stability in the 21st Century, that worker needs to have a marketable skill set.

Yet hope is not lost. Workers that do obtain marketable job skills have a pathway open to them that can provide the same level of personal economic achievement as did the golden age of factory jobs. But tens of millions of Americans are not obtaining skills and are being thrust into a globalized economy where unskilled labor is cheaper elsewhere and is increasingly being automated. And thus we get to the crux – how do we encourage our citizens to obtain skills?

It starts with having an honest conversation with the American people about the realities of the 21st Century economy. That message needs to be clear: a basic high-school education is no longer enough. You must also gain specialized skills for your industry of choice. All young adults should be enrolling in vocational programs through their high school. Even the students who are planning on attending a 4-year college can benefit from vocational programs. If a student is not going to pursue a 4-year college degree (and that is perfectly okay!), we should be encouraging them to obtain a professional certification through a community college or the regional trades. Our local educational infrastructure is well-aligned with the region’s growth industries. If a vocational course is offered at the Galesburg Area Vocational Center or Carl Sandburg College, then that means that there are companies hiring those skill sets within the region.

Workforce development is the ultimate no-brainer. It is one of those rare nonpartisan issues that benefits workers, employers and government simultaneously. When our workforce gains skills, the entire community benefits.

(Ken Springer, President Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development)

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