Sector Partnerships Key to Good Jobs, Growing Economy

February 04, 2013

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told an audience at a recent forum hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that there should be an emphasis in educating not just traditional students but working adults looking for a new degree or job retraining (“Rubio calls for education reforms to focus on closing ‘skills gap,’ ” Jan. 23). He also mentioned connecting business leaders with local colleges to educate those workers with the skills those businesses need.

Given the skills gap facing this country, it was heartening to hear support for programs that invest in our workers. Despite the unemployment rate still remaining around 8 percent, there are more than 3.5 million jobs that haven’t been filled in part because employers can’t find workers with the right skills. In fact, a recent survey found that 52 percent of U.S. employers struggled to fill critical positions in 2011, up from just 14 percent in 2010.

And the problem will only get worse. Over the next decade, nearly half of all job openings will be middle-skill jobs — jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but not necessarily a four-year degree — yet this is where the skills gap is the most pronounced.

How do we fix this growing problem? Rubio is on the right track — part of the solution is to invest in sector partnerships. Sector partnerships are employer-led organizations that bring together multiple firms in an industry with local education and training providers, as well as key partners such as organized labor and community organizations, to help workers obtain the skills identified by employers as critical for the jobs openings they have today and in the future.

These partnerships are good for rebuilding our economy and growing the middle class. Businesses that get workers with the skills they need experience less employee turnover. Studies have shown that workers completing sector-focused training programs are more likely to find employment and earn significantly more.

It’s important to note that closing the skills gap will not by itself solve our unemployment problem, but it moves us in the right direction. Investing in sector-focused training and education will get more people back to work, grow industries and help ensure long-term economic health.

Currently, there is no dedicated federal support for these strategies. In July 2010, the House of Representatives passed — with bipartisan, unanimous support — the Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success (Sectors) Act, which would dedicate federal funding to the creation of sector partnerships. But this bipartisan proposal has not moved forward. With the economy still recovering and the current budget debates, Congress should invest in sector partnerships because they are effective in getting workers back on the job.

The National Skills Coalition thanks Rubio for voicing support for educating and training our workers and connecting that training with the needs of businesses. We look forward to working with him and Congress to close America’s skills gap and support programs that get Americans back to work, support our industries and grow our economy.

From Andy Van Kleunen, executive director of the National Skills Coalition, Washington, D.C.