A reader recently pestered me to get more specific.
“OK, OK,” he said, “I get the cyclical stuff. Home prices got too high, people got too far in debt, and they won’t spend enough to drive unemployment down until they’re more confident about the future. But what, precisely, do you mean when you talk about policies to address the structural problems?”
The best example I can think of to answer that question is the ongoing two-step between the business community and the education community about the need for trained workers.
Business after business complains, “I can’t find workers with the skills I need.”
At the same time, education program developers say, “I’m willing to develop training programs for you, but I need some commitments regarding specific topics to cover, the number of enrollees and what you (both business and potential employee/student) will be willing to pay for the classes.
It is natural that businesses, which have their specific, ever-changing, training needs, would view as unresponsive an educational establishment that has an apparently cumbersome system of curriculum development and a bias toward filling its own classrooms.
By the same token, that a public institution with a limited budget, widely varied demands and its own costs to cover would see business demands as unrealistic is equally understandable.
Each enterprise unavoidably operates within its own constraints. Business wants infinite flexibility to respond to an ever-changing market. Education says we can’t retool every day to make samples; we need a production run to cover our costs.
This dilemma is a structural problem.
So what are policies to address this problem?
The best example here is the Maine Quality Centers program of the Maine Community College System.
The mission of the MQC is “to encourage businesses to locate or expand operations in Maine by providing customized workforce training at no cost to the business or to trainees.”
The MQC provides assistance in identifying specific work force needs and in recruiting, screening and training specific workers. MQC will deliver training programs at an employer’s site, on a community college campus or at a separate location.
MQC programs can be for a single company or for a group of companies that form a training partnership.
To participate, businesses must create a minimum of eight new full-time positions located in Maine or be part of a training partnership that collectively meets the eight full-time jobs requirement. The new jobs must meet a minimum skill requirement, offer a competitive salary and provide benefits.
Over its history, the MQC program has worked with more than 200 companies to create more than 11,000 jobs.
OK, this sounds good. Why not do more?
Two reasons. First, the MQC is a small and nimble operation. It has to hustle around constantly, both to find its customers (the businesses that can define a specific training need and commit to a certain level of job creation) and its workers (the instructors who will provide the training). It is, in effect, a perpetual flash mob — forever in search of a new place, a new cause and a new call to action.
Second, just doing more of what it does now is not the most productive future for the MQC.
A more visionary future — one more likely to effect lasting structural change — is to become a program incubator for future educational development.
Rather than simply training people in sequences of eight for businesses willing to make that minimal payroll commitment, the MQC should have the fundamental responsibility of testing new programs that might draw 80 or 800 potential employee/students.
If an entrepreneur has a skills need and an educator has an idea for a new certificate or degree program, why not test it through the MQC for a semester or two before undertaking the time and expense of proposing a new formal program?
Instead of having two separate communities (“silos,” to use the current buzzword) complaining about each other, why not create a forum for the two to test proposed solutions to problems they both know are real?
That’s an example of trying to solve a structural problem.
Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at: