A Focus on Middle Class Jobs

July 24, 2014
This week has been noteworthy given the renewed focus and affirmation of workforce development programs. On Tuesday, President Obama signed into law a long-overdue update of the workforce development system – the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which received broad bipartisan support. On the same day, Vice President Biden released his much anticipated review of the federal workforce system, which features a call to action for more job-driven training as well as an emphasis on serving the long-term unemployed, promoting middle-class career pathways, and expanding access to IT occupations.  
This recent emphasis on updating our outdated workforce system is certainly welcome within the business community, particularly during a time when employers are struggling with a skills gap that is undermining their ability to grow and compete in the global economy. Case in point, a recent survey by Chegg found that 92% of executives believe there is a serious gap in workforce skills and nearly 50% are struggling to fill jobs today. In manufacturing alone, more than 600,000 jobs are currently unfilled.  In other words, we have people without jobs and jobs without people.  
Unfortunately, this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Globally, the U.S. ranks 17th in literacy, 21st in science, and 26th in math. Seventy percent of fourth- and eighth-graders score below grade level in math. Over half of all students who enter into a two-year college require remediation of basic math and reading skills. If that isn’t bad enough, 54% of bachelor’s degree holders 25 and under are either unemployed or underemployed. Left unchallenged the skills gap will grow to more than 5 million unfilled position by 2020.
Given the enormity of the growing skills gap and the many challenges we face across the education and workforce system, the signing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the release of Vice President Biden’s report should be just the beginning of a sustained engagement on preparing Americans for careers. From supporting higher standards in our K-12 education system to increasing the number of college completers with in-demand skills and credentials, the time is now for bold leadership and a revisiting of our national priorities to ensure our education and workforce system can meet the career aspirations of its citizens and the need for a competitive workforce for employers.    
While Congress and the Obama Administration have taken an important step in updating the public workforce system, what’s needed is a new way of thinking with employers at the center rising to the challenge and driving solutions that reduce the skills gap. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCCF) is looking forward to working with its membership of more than 3 million businesses and national federation of state and local chambers of commerce to play its part in helping reshape the education and workforce systems to become more demand-driven.  
Later this year the USCCF will introduce a new vision for employer engagement with education and workforce systems—one that yields more effective employment transitions for students and a better prepared workforce for all employers.  Stay tuned.
Jason Tyszko is Senior Director of Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Center for Education and Workforce.