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No time to rest on workforce development

Unemployment rates have dropped from their Great Recession highs, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to connect unemployed and underemployed workers with employers—and to give workers of all ages more opportunities to gain 21st century workforce skills.

A close look at employment data shows that labor force participation rates are down and overall wages have stalled even as employers in some sectors face major challenges trying to find enough skilled workers to fill open positions.

This “skills gap” affects a wide range of industries in New York and adds to the growing ranks of workers who feel stuck and underemployed.

As a commercial banker, I talk to the leaders of New York companies every day in sectors such as manufacturing, transportation and logistics, chemicals, building materials and food and beverage; all are looking for more skilled workers. The demand goes beyond software firms and startups.

Many industries are using increasingly technical tools to increase efficiency and boost productivity. And they need workers who are trained and ready to use those tools.

So, how do we develop the workforce of the future?

Workforce development can mean investing in schools, community colleges, technical schools and job training centers. But those programs can succeed only when they have meaningful engagement by the industries and businesses that employ their graduates. That’s why Citizens Bank has invested in the development of an employer “toolkit” for the New York State Pathways in Technology initiative.

NYS P-TECHs are public schools that offer students a new approach to learning, bringing together the best elements of high school, college and career. Students graduate with an industry-recognized associate degree and the skills to succeed in high-growth industries. With a unique grades 9-14 model, the goal for P-TECH’s diverse, unscreened student population is 100 percent completion of an associate degree within six years (at no cost to the student).

The program is designed to address the education and career preparation of disadvantaged students, who would otherwise lack the academic, technical and professional skills to succeed in high-quality jobs and careers, while building the robust talent pipeline that employers are demanding to strengthen local economies. 

Through a collaborative design process, the Public Policy Institute of NYS has used Citizens Bank funding to develop a Work-Based Learning Toolkit. High schools, community colleges and local employers partnering with each of P-TECH’s 33 schools have been engaged in the development of the toolkit. The result has been a comprehensive practical guide for how businesses—small and large—can become involved with P-TECHs and invest in future employees.

One of the lessons of the Great Recession was that workforce development must play a key role if we are to have a sustained economic recovery.

More than a century ago, we drifted away from workforce models in which parents passed trades on to their children or children became apprentices to others. The rise of public education created greater workforce mobility and made it possible for anyone who works hard to achieve their career goals. However, rapid changes in industry—and decreased vocational emphasis in public education—have resulted in a disconnect between businesses and educational programs, which becomes more evident during economic downturns.

Fortunately, New York has a diversified economy built on financial services, health care, manufacturing and educational services. It is imperative that we continue to sustain this heritage of innovation and strength.

Though the business community is eagerly awaiting what our political leaders will put forth for workforce development, government can only do so much; companies also must continue to rally around this challenge, participate in the conversation and invest in solutions. When we all work together, we can tackle big issues and get things done for the good of the region.

Paul Taffe is New York president of Citizens Bank.

12/2/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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