BILL CRAWFORD: Skilled workforce takes extra money

By Bill Crawford

Workforce development is the single most important thing Mississippi can do to attract high-paying, high-skill jobs. So said Gov. Haley Barbour at the recent West Alabama – East Mississippi Mayors’ Regional Summit held in Meridian.
Of course, Barbour has been saying that for most of his eight years as governor. No doubt, he’ll say it again at his last “Governor’s Workforce Conference” this week in Jackson.
So, what is “workforce development?”
Part of it is “workforce education.” Many think that only means “career and technical education,” what we used to call “vocational-technical education,” offered by highs schools and community colleges. But, medical schools, law schools and other professional schools also provide high level workforce education. And, in between are numerous educational pathways that prepare students both academically and technically for jobs.
In school lingo, workforce education is “for credit” instruction that leads to diplomas, degrees and/or licenses.
The focal point of much workforce development, however, is not “for credit,” but “non-credit” skill training. The target of this training is not students, but workers. Workers need constant upgrades to keep up with the ever higher skill levels required by industry.
Many industries prefer “non-credit” training since it can be customized to their particular needs and schedules. Technical skills needed in the modern steel plant are not those needed in the modern aerospace plant, etc. Community colleges provide much of this customized training at industry sites. Many industries, though, have in-house training programs or use private sector vendors to train workers.
A growing segment of non-credit skill training focuses on “credentials.” The goal is not just to train workers but to prove that they can actually perform the skills taught, a perceived weakness in diploma/degree programs. Training is followed by rigorous skills assessments based on industry standards. No pass, no credential.
“Stackable credentials” represent the gold standard in modern non-credit training, though there is pressure to bring these into the for credit arena too. In this case the worker achieves a series of credentials. A welder would start with a Career Readiness Certificate and OSHA and CPR certifications then add one or more AWS credentials such as Certified Welder, Certified Robotic ARC Welder, or Certified Welding Fabricator.
Finally, non-credit workforce development has become big business. While federal Perkins and Workforce Investment Act funds plus state Workforce Enhancement Training Funds and appropriations provide millions for training, it takes extra money to obtain training systems, equipment, assessments, and credentials.
Barbour put more money on the table. With so much being cut, Mississippi’s challenge will be to keep enough in the game to be competitive.
Bill Crawford (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.