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Better trained workforce will live the American dream, commission says

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Print this page by Carlos Santos

Revitalizing the American dream for the struggling middle class will take innovation, flexibility and a new way of thinking. 

One recommendation: Don’t discourage students from learning a trade. Not everybody needs a college education. Another idea: Loan money to small businesses to train their workforce.

Haley Barbour and Evan Bayh, who co-chair a University of Virginia Miller Center commission studying how to create middle class jobs, spoke Wednesday about a faltering American economy offering few jobs, flat wages and a deflated American dream. More than 100 people turned out to hear the commission’s initial findings at the Miller Center in Charlottesville.

Barbour, a former Republican governor of Mississippi, and Bayh, a Democrat and former Indiana governor and U.S. Senator, spoke as part of  the Center’s  Milstein Commission on Manufacturing Job Creation.

The middle-class job picture is a dim one. “The majority of Americans see worse things ahead,” said Bayh. “Americans are not confident in the future of the American dream.”

But Bayh said the U.S. is still the country best poised to successfully compete in a global economy. “Students from other countries come here to study,” he pointed out. “We can do great things; It’s just tougher than ever before."

Barbour said the pessimism of the middle class American worker derives in part from the 25-year run of economic success that ended a short time ago.  “There’s been five years of bad stuff but only comparatively speaking,” he said.

Both Bayh and Barbour said that to create more jobs, more attention must be focused on improving the quality of the workforce and the business environment. Keep taxes low and train the workforce, they urged. “Thirty years ago you could drop out of high school and still get a good job,” said Bayh. “Today, you’re paid for what you know.”

Training the workforce means not discouraging high school students from learning trade skills.   “We’re saying now that, if you don’t go to college, something’s wrong with you,” said Barbour. “That’s wrong. A good electrician, a good plumber, a good mechanic, they all make good money. It’s good, honest work. We shouldn’t look down our noses at it.”

Bayh said in his home state of Indiana, technical schools require introductory courses — such as math and English —that can count toward a four-year college degree. The so-called “upside- down degree” means people work first and can then decide to go to college. The commission also recommended that colleges give credit hours to members of the armed forces who learn high-tech and other skills as part of their military careers.

Job training must be pertinent, they said. “We can’t do all this training in vocational schools,” said Bayh. “We have to teach people skills that are relevant to the marketplace. We’ve got to make sure that the training is what the market is demanding… We need flexibility and market relevance.”

That means surveying businesses to find out what they need and relaying that information to young students debating a career choice. “If you give the population skills and opportunity, America is going to be fine,” said Barbour. “But you can’t take it for granted.”

Barbour said that “parental and family involvement in education is critical to success. Parents have to get involved early.”

The commission recommended the initiation of “talent investment loans” from state governments or the federal government that small businesses could use to teach skills to its workforce in conjunction with high schools and community colleges. “Lots of small businesses don’t have money to invest in training,” said Barbour. “With these loans you train everybody, make the company more profitable and then pay back the loan.”

The commission also promoted the use of a “national supply” initiative that would connect the needs of smaller businesses with those of larger businesses – making both more profitable and creating more middle class jobs.

“We’re going to sell these ideas hard,” at both the federal and state level, said Barbour. “It’s practicable and doable.”

“We want to get these ideas out into the hands of as many government and business leaders as soon as possible,” said Bayh.

The commission is part of the Center’s Milstein Symposium: Ideas for a New American Century, a five-year initiative aimed at rebuilding the American dream. The host was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Blackmon.

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