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The Hill: Trump should look local to help shrink the skills gap

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As summer comes to a close, America looks back on what has been a truly historic season for its workforce.

In June, the Department of Labor revealed that for the first time in recorded history there were more jobs available (6.7 million) than job seekers (6.3 million). Optimism surrounding the explosive growth of new jobs has sparked an uptick in labor participation.

More people than ever are entering the workforce to meet the job demand, many of whom do not have a college or even a high school diploma.

According to Bankrate Analyst Mark Hamrick, the industries that have the greatest need right now are more focused on skills of the employee than educational background: “This means that job-seekers without a degree have an increased chance of finding employment in today’s market.”

More recently the Labor Department revealed that the unemployment rate among Americans without a high school diploma is the lowest (at 5.1 percent) since it began collecting data on this demographic in 1992. For added context, the unemployment for high school dropouts in the summer of 2009 was nearly 16 percent.

Despite all of this, there are still many jobs that remain unfilled, but it is certainly not for lack of people to fill them. President Donald Trump and his administration have aptly taken steps to seek out a solution to the growing skills gap that exists between new jobs and America’s workforce.

This summer he signed a “Commitment to the American Worker,” an executive order that established two new entities: the National Council for the American Worker and the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board.

While the president should be commended for his commitment to workforce development, more thought should be applied to the execution of this order, ensuring a localized approach to workforce development rather than a centralized, top-down model.

The former approach can be executed with help from a thriving workforce development system already in place. This network consists of 550 local-business-led Workforce Development Boards (WDBs) and 1,200 American Job Centers that span across the country.

The system, while partially funded by the federal government, is an effective, locally driven model that provides public- and private-sector leaders with the opportunity to custom design programs and deploy funding to meet the unique needs of their regional labor markets.

The efforts of these WDBs support the activities of countless industry sectors, education providers and local school districts to respond to the various community needs. President Trump’s Commitment to the American Worker can be an incredible success if its administered in coordination with local WDBs rather than creating a duplicative network from scratch.

There are a number of areas in particular where the administration can be very helpful; none more important than raising awareness. More than 15 million people walk through WDB and American Job Center doors each year but data suggests that the average U.S. worker and business does not know that such a resource is available.

For this reason, the first and most impactful step that the administration can take is to use the platform of the president to raise awareness of WDBs and American Job Centers and emphasize the urgency of the skills gap.

If the administration can give spotlight to the workforce development network, WDBs will increase private funding to expand resources and reach into areas not yet being served.

More private funding means the workforce system would not have to rely so heavily on government funding, which should be especially appealing to an administration seeking frugality.

The administration can help share the countless success stories that have come out of the WDB program. For example, the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance transformed an old General Motors (GM) building into a bustling training center that has prepared thousands in its community for the job demands of GM and other local employers.

The administration could highlight personal stories like Pamela Olivera’s, a single mom of three who, with help from the San Diego Workforce Partnership, received the resources and training needed to start the business of her dreams: a thriving health beverage bar.

There are plenty more anecdotes that showcase the significant impact local WDBs are having in communities across the country. It is clear the localized approach that WDBs offer is the best method for closing the skills gap.

With more resources, they can train the American worker to gain the skills that will help him or her earn and keep a job in the ever-evolving job market of the 21st century.

If the administration chooses to engage the WDB system and build off the infrastructure already in place, providing additional resources and helping solicit private contributions and partnership, this will be a very successful endeavor, which could cut the unemployment rate lower than ever before.

Ron Painter is CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards (NAWB), the only association that advocates for Workforce Development Boards.

© 2018, The Hill