Workforce Issues

Making Tough Choices for Our Future
Bashir Ali, Central Illinois Workforce Development

Over the last few years, there have been numerous studies and publications alerting us to some alarming trends for our society and our ability to effectively compete in a 21st century knowledge economy. These include the related issues of workforce quantity, quality, and economic alignment that impact our human capital.

The world has transitioned from a manufacturing economy, dominated by the U.S. for most of the 20th century, to a technology-driven global economy where “the world is flat.” During the 20th century, the U.S. was able to prosper with only a fraction—about one in four—of the workforce with high skills. Unfortunately, the 21st century presents a different reality. This new reality dictates that about 75 to 80 percent of the new jobs will require higher skills, ability, and education.

Due to massive Baby Boomer retirements and a low population growth rate over the next 50 years, the U.S. will face worker shortfalls of millions of workers. A complicating paradox lies in the reality that we have too many untrained people or people trained for the wrong jobs. Qualitatively, close to half of our incumbent workforce is semi-literate with minimal education and skill levels. Correspondingly, our entrant workforce of young people transitioning from high school reflects similar trends of skill levels and educational competence. Only about 75 percent of young people graduate from high school in Illinois, and only about 60 percent of them possess basic competency skills. This results in more than half of the future workforce with minimal education and skills as they enter the knowledge economy.

Ironically, there’s little debate over these trends. Unfortunately, they portend the serious choices of public policy and investment we’ll make over the next decade. These include tough decisions on the future of our education and workforce development systems.

Our education system represents the core of workforce and human capital development. However, it’s widely recognized that our current system of K-12 education doesn’t adequately prepare huge numbers of young people to compete in today’s economy. It’s also recognized that this system will need a drastic overhaul. We’ve inherited a system of education that reflects the manufacturing-based model of the 20th century. Under this system, it was acceptable for 25 to 50 percent of our students to drop out, depending on where they lived. Products of this system could still find lifelong employment and economic security in the low-skill/high-wage economy of the 20th century. That reality no longer exists.

To educate and prepare all of our children with the advanced skills necessary for the 21st century, we need a new, world-class system of education centered on the needs of each child. Systemic changes will include raised expectations and student achievement; new integrated curriculum models; learning style assessment and instruction; career development integration; increasing investment in infrastructure, technology, and professional development; more public/private partnerships and collaboration and articulation with higher education; and basic funding reform. IBI