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Workforce Development

To Reduce Unemployment, We Must First Bridge the Skills Gap

6 min read

Securing employment is one of the most important steps an individual can take towards breaking out of the cycle of poverty. Without a job, there is no way of earning income. And without income, the ability to support one’s self becomes exceedingly difficult.

But a job provides so much more than just income.

The ability to provide not only for yourself, but for your family is empowering. And for those who have spent their lives trapped in the cycle of poverty, a job offers the dignity of self-sufficiency, which is a main component of lasting prosperity.

While there is no shame in finding one’s self on the receiving end of support at one time or another, many handouts serve only as a bandaid masking the real problem. To truly treat poverty’s root causes, tackling the issue of unemployment is an absolute necessity.

A New Unemployment Problem

Normally, whenever there is a national dialogue surrounding unemployment, most of the proposed solutions involve boosting job creation. And to be sure, job creation plays a vital role in decreasing unemployment rates. But as of late, the American workforce needs a different solution.

Over the last couple of years, the economy has actually started to rebound. And with this financial upturn, the rates of unemployment have been steadily decreasing. In fact, in just one year, the unemployment rate decreased from 4.4 percent to 3.9 percent. And while this is most certainly cause for celebration, it has also led to a different workforce issue. Instead of the country experiencing job shortages, the American job market is encountering another problem: they don’t have enough skilled workers to fill their open positions.

Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve released a survey revealing that the country was currently experiencing a labor shortage. In fact, at the time of the survey’s release there were 5.7 million job openings just waiting to be filled by the right applicant.

Reporting on this phenomenon, CNN Money explained how this situation is playing out around the country. On the southern East Coast, for example,“One trucking company said it’s having so much trouble finding drivers that many of its vehicles were sitting idle in the parking lot, forcing the company to raise wages.”

And in New England, “Restaurants can’t find waiters, waitresses and cooks. One manufacturer was three months behind schedule as he struggled to hire workers for a new factory. Another industrial company with 100 employees had 20 job openings. Tech companies in Boston and elsewhere said it’s getting harder to find software engineers.”

So why are so many people still struggling to find jobs when there are so many employers desperate for workers? Many suspect this problem is largely to blame on the skills gap.

Bridging the Gap

While a lot of modern professions require college degrees, many of the 5.7 million jobs currently available do not. In fact, there are many unfilled positions that do not even require high school diplomas. And while this would appear to make these job openings ideal for those who may not have completed their formal educations, there are still many prerequisite skills needed in order for a job candidate to be considered. For instance, quite a few of these open positions call for specialized skills that require specific training, like the ability to operate an 18-wheeler truck. Though, not all of these open positions come with such extensive requirements.

Without this specialized training, many unemployed individuals can’t join the workforce. This means that there is a large pool of untapped talent that is being neglected simply because of a lack of specialized training. Unlike a traditional college education, which requires many years and a lot of money, specific vocational skills training is readily available and more affordable, offering a shorter term solution to those looking for opportunities to enter these fields. The challenge is connecting this untapped talent pool with the training needed to secure an open position.

So, how can we bridge the skills gap and bring skills training to those who are most in need of jobs?

According to a paper published in McKinsey & Company entitled, Closing the Skills Gap: Creating Workforce-Development Programs That Work for Everyone, one of the most effective ways of closing the gap is to encourage and support “comprehensive, demand-driven training methods.” In other words, job training needs to be practical. Rather than focusing on a generalized set of skills, McKinsey & Company found that the best training programs involve nonprofit organizations working with employers to train on specific, desired skill sets needed to fill the jobs that are currently available.

Luckily, Stand Together Foundation has partnered with many such organizations to help prospective employees meet the needs of the American workforce. One of these organizations is the faith-based Wisconsin group called the Joseph Project.

The Joseph Project

During his first few years as a Wisconsin senator, Ron Johnson was blown away by the employment situation unfolding in his state. While metropolitan areas like Milwaukee and Madison were experiencing high levels of unemployment, manufacturers throughout the state were struggling to fill thousands of unfilled positions. Wanting to find a community solution to both of these problems, Johnson partnered with a local Milwaukee-area church to start the Joseph Project.

The Joseph Project is an organization that offers job skills training and recruits its participants from neighborhoods around the state that are under the poverty line. By working with local companies, the Joseph Project knows exactly what skills prospective employers are looking for and incorporates the appropriate training into its curriculum.

Once a month, a new group of jobseekers meets at the Greater Praise Church of God to embark on a week-long jobs training course. By focusing on the skills that are in demand locally, as well as teaching participants courses in time management, financial management and spiritual fitness, the Joseph Project prepares jobseekers for the modern workforce. The courses are taught by volunteers from both the church and Senator Johnson’s staff who work with the program’s participants each week. In addition to providing training, the Joseph Project also connects its participants to prospective employers once they have completed the training.

Another major aspect of the unemployment problem is transportation. Many of those living below the poverty line do not live where the jobs are and don’t have reliable transportation. And relocating, especially without an income, is exceedingly difficult. That’s why the Joseph Project runs shuttles 24 hours a day, seven days a week and helps ensure that employees are able to make it to and from their new jobs. While the first 30 days are free to each participant, participants have the option to continue using the services for a small fee. This part of the program has become such a success, the Joseph Project has received several donated vans to expand the service.

And while the Joseph Project is helping many Wisconsin residents reclaim the dignity that comes with successfully holding down a job and earning an income, they are hardly alone in their mission. In fact, the Joseph Project is just one of the many groups Stand Together Foundation partners with on a regular basis.

Attacking the root of poverty is the only way we can truly break the vicious cycle. And jobs are not only essential to this quest, they are also a powerful tool in the hands of individuals ready and eager to change their lives.

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