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Minnesota needs major changes in adult ed and workforce systems

Minnesota needs to foster an adult education and workforce system that responds to the realities and the needs that actually exist — not as we imagine them to be.

food preparation and service
50,000 of all openings are in four low-wage occupations — sales, personal care, protective service, and food preparation and service — and more than half are part-time; the median wage is $12.30/ hour.
Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash

In 2013, Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, published a major study stating that the United States would create nearly 55 million new job openings over the next decade – and that 65 percent of job vacancies would require some postsecondary education and training. Carnevale forecast “a major shortage of college-educated workers.”

The predictions in “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020” proved highly influential. In 2014, the federal government authorized the Workforce Investment and Economic Opportunity Act (WIOA), which funds state level workforce development and Adult Basic Education services. The ideas embraced by Carnevale were reflected in WIOA. There was a strong emphasis on preparing adults for higher education and employment, with an eye toward constantly increasing individual skill levels.

In Minnesota, the original study greatly impacted policymakers and service providers. With WIOA requirements undergirding their work, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), Adult Basic Education, and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities were required to work together to address the predicted shortfall of skilled workers. Various “career ladders,” through which adults would train for increasingly specialized and higher paying jobs throughout their lives, were developed. Evaluation of service effectiveness shifted to measuring how successful programs were in preparing adult learners for higher education and higher skilled jobs. A tremendous amount of state and federal funding was dedicated to these efforts.

Six years later, where are we? Unfortunately, based on the overall state economy and a study of current job openings, nowhere near where anticipated.

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Recent DEED stats for the 4th quarter of 2018, summarized by the JOBS NOW Coalition, show that job openings have grown quickly: 130 percent over five years. A lack of workers is a growing problem, with only 79,000 unemployed persons seeking 137,000 job openings.

But what are the qualifications needed for the available jobs? Only 35 percent — 1 in 3 — require education or training beyond high school. The median wage for all openings is $15/hour. 50,000 of all openings are in four low-wage occupations — sales, personal care, protective service, and food preparation and service — and more than half are part-time; the median wage is $12.30/ hour. Only 56 percent of all jobs offer health benefits.

Tom Cytron-Hysom
Tom Cytron-Hysom
For several years, the Minnesota workforce development sector has focused on training people for higher-skill jobs that exist in limited numbers (only 20 percent of openings require a college degree). Employers have difficulties filling both lower- and higher-skill-level jobs, because of a worker shortage. The majority of available jobs don’t require higher education, don’t pay a family-supporting wage, and many are part time without benefits.

DEED and many other entities expend significant resources building new job-generating businesses, without any realistic plans for how new jobs being generated will be filled. For instance, had Minnesota been successful in attracting the new Amazon headquarters, how would the many thousands of highly skilled new jobs have been addressed, when Minnesota already faces a significant worker shortage?

Given continuing decreases in immigration and refugee arrivals, and overall low immigration to Minnesota from other states, the only way we can begin to fill the many open jobs is by recruiting and educating those now living in Minnesota but who are not now in the workforce. Many such individuals are victims of the K12 opportunity/achievement gap, and have significant personal barriers and educational deficits that have to be addressed in order to become employable.

Yet Adult Basic Education, which helps about 60,000 Minnesotans gain basic skills, obtain secondary credentials, and master basic job skills each year, has not received an inflationary funding boost since at least 2000 — during which time the inflation rate has surpassed 38 percent. This has led to financially strapped programs that have problems responding to basic needs, but which are expected to build sophisticated and resource intensive career ladders.

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Minnesota needs to make major changes in its workforce development and education systems, including:

  1. Less energy and resources should be focused on building new job-generating businesses unless there is a clear and realistic plan to fill resulting jobs.
  2. Educational efforts to recruit and train adults not now in the workforce (often the hardest to serve) for basic, entry-level jobs need to be adequately funded, and become a primary focus for service delivery.
  3. Career training in areas of highest need, that pay a family sustaining wage but require less than a bachelor’s degree, need to be strengthened.
  4. Workforce centers, and DEED services in general, need to focus much more strongly on assisting and supporting lower-skilled individuals, in a community context that is less reliant on bricks and mortar.
  5. Public supports, including health care and tax credits, should be funded, and minimum-wage requirements raised, so that anyone working full time at any job can support themselves and their family (DEED estimates that a Minnesota family of three with both parents working full time needs each worker to earn $15.40/hour to meet basic needs).

Minnesota needs to foster an adult education and workforce system that responds to the realities and the needs that actually exist — not as we imagine them to be.

Tom Cytron-Hysom is the facilitator of the  St. Paul Community Literacy Consortium (a group of 10 Adult Basic Education providers).

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