We’ve discussed the challenges we face as a society to meet the competition of a 21st century global economy. These challenges include transforming our culture, education, and workforce development systems to produce the quantity and quality of workers needed to prosper in the new economy. Unfortunately, our education and workforce development systems will have to make radical changes to adapt to 21st century realities.
Unlike education, workforce development is a recent concept in our country. It’s grown out of a 20th century tradition of job training programs dating back to the 1930s. The 20th century backdrop for these programs was one where the U.S. was the dominant economic power for most of the century. Our economy was manufacturing based, relying on massive quantities of low-skilled workers. During this period, most workers could look forward to long-term employment with one or relatively few employers. Despite an increasing use of technology, many jobs could be held for long periods of time with short-term, on-the-job training.
Job training and employment programs were born out of the “New Deal” of the 1930s. They grew in number throughout the remainder of the century to address the needs of population segments that needed assistance to enter or re-enter the workforce. These programs included services for unemployed and economically disadvantaged adults and youth, welfare recipients, the disabled, veterans, new immigrants, and dislocated workers. During this period, the philosophy of most job training programs was to give program participants training for a “job,” which, in many cases, would last a lifetime.
A number of problems emerged with the many job training and employment programs of the 20th century: a lack of coordination among the federal, state, and local agencies that administered the programs; no strong connection or link to the economic engines of local communities; lack of a comprehensive vision, planning, or unified system to align programs to local economies; and the creation of ineffective federal and state administrative silos siphoning off resources to local communities, inhibiting their ability to address their workforce needs.
In the mid 1990s, the concept of “workforce development” emerged from the existing job training system. Since that time, the concept has evolved to address the challenges of the 21st century knowledge economy. These new challenges include preparing a workforce for a globally competitive knowledge economy where new technologies will drive rapid and ongoing change; jobs of the future will have higher skill and education requirements; lifelong learning will be essential for professional development; most people will have multiple jobs over their lifetime; and projected skill shortages over the next 25 years of tens of millions of workers with critical shortages of engineers, scientists, technicians, technologists, and teachers.
To be relevant in the 21st century, we’ll have to create national, state, and regional workforce development systems that will address these challenges. In upcoming articles, we’ll explore what these systems should look like. IBI