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Column: Make Government Work for Jobs

January 31, 2017

By Peter J. Taylor, Detroit News

In recent days, all eyes in the education community have been focused on the confirmation of Michigan native Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump's choice for secretary of education. While the Department of Education sets the direction for higher education, a more holistic view of education as a means to ensuring a well-prepared workforce suggests that the nominees across the incoming administration's economic team are equally important to the education/employment equation.

The president's picks for the secretaries of Treasury and Commerce are also expected to soon face review by the full Senate. It will be these individuals, along with others in the White House, who are responsible for steering the design and implementation of the Trump administration's job-creating proposals — be they trade or tax deals, a new infrastructure package or business incentives.

But to create his promised 25 million jobs over the next decade, Trump and his cabinet will need to take a serious look at our country's significant skills gap — and the current educational offerings available to fill it.

Consider this: middle-skill jobs — those requiring more than a high school education but not a four-year degree — make up 54 percent of the Michigan labor market. Yet, only 49 percent of the state's workers are trained to this skill level. We're seeing a similar skills gap around the country.

The demand for these jobs exists. The White House has said the economy will need to fill 3.5 million skilled manufacturing jobs over the next decade. And per the Congressional Research Service, between 2000 and 2013, while manufacturing jobs for people with less than a high-school education dropped 44 percent, jobs for those with an associate degree in academic fields rose 17 percent.

The Trump administration's potential investment in infrastructure is a looming opportunity to generate additional skilled jobs. Regardless of the timing and composition of the jobs that would be created under such a proposal, the outstanding question remains whether we have the supply of skilled workers necessary to realize a meaningful return on such a major investment in infrastructure.

I believe that building the framework for long-term sustainable economic and job growth means creating a real-time pipeline of U.S. workers with the necessary skills.

To address this, government officials at the federal level — as well as at the state and local level — need to partner with career educators and private industries to identify current and future workforce shortages, provide critical inputs to building out useful curricula to meet these needs and plan for economic, business and job growth.

By utilizing reliable local-level data, we can assess areas with the greatest need for current workforce education training and help foster mutual investment. Where the most significant skills gaps are identified, we must support apprenticeships for career education students by providing incentives to private companies to support student learning and create a customized pipeline of skilled workers.

One way the new administration could prioritize career education in its first 100 days is to incorporate skills training into any policy discussion and jobs proposals by giving both employers and educators a seat at the table. If senators could secure such a commitment from the president's nominees during confirmation, that would be a big win.

Zenith Education Group is a grantee partner of ECMC Foundation. Our investments support Zenith's efforts to expand and build high-quality programs that help students succeed in their careers.

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