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MLC Annual Meeting panel shows how states are adjusting policies to meet workforce needs

by Tim Anderson ~ August 2019 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Every year, the Kansas Department of Labor looks at current job vacancies in the state, wage data, and short- and long-term job projections to come up with a list of “high-demand occupations.” Over the past eight school years, that list has been used as part of a fast-growing state initiative that introduces high school students to these occupations — and then prepares them for success.
“In some cases, we have students walking across the stage [with a college degree or credential] within weeks of them walking across the stage for their high school graduation,” Scott Smathers, vice president for workforce development at the Kansas Board of Regents, told legislators in July at a session of the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting.
Smathers was part of an expert-led panel that examined coming changes in the workforce, and how state policies are evolving to keep up.
Kansas’ Excel in CTE Initiative is one prominent example. About 20 percent of the state’s high school juniors and seniors now participate in it, with the state paying their tuition for technical courses at local postsecondary schools. High schools, in turn, are in line for a $1,000 bonus for every student who graduates with an industry-recognized credential in one of the state’s “high-need occupations.” (Qualifying credentials are associated with 23 different occupations, such as truck drivers, nursing assistants, welders, plumbers and aircraft mechanics.)
Fellow panelist Fred Payne, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, said his state also is making a concerted effort to identify employment sectors where more workers are needed, and where wages are at least relatively high — jobs in advanced manufacturing, health services, the life sciences, information technology and transportation.
The state is using this information to provide targeted incentives to companies and individuals. Employers who train or hire new or incumbent workers in an eligible occupation are eligible for up to a $50,000 grant from the state ($5,000 per employee). Individuals who seek training in these high-demand fields can have their tuition and other fees covered by the state.
Payne noted, too, that recent changes to Indiana’s high school graduation requirements will ensure young people leave the K-12 system with a “plan of action” when it comes to choosing a career. The state’s new “graduation pathways” put a greater emphasis on students learning employability skills, and exploring potential career paths through project-, service- or work-based learning experiences.
Likewise, Illinois’ Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act (HB 5729 of 2016) gives school districts the option of awarding college- and career-ready pathway endorsements on high school diplomas. Also under the law, students in eighth through 12th grade get yearly guidance on what they need to know in order to be college or career ready. John Rico, chair of the Illinois Workforce Innovation Board, singled out this law as the single most important step taken by state legislators in recent years in the area of workforce development.
Prior to the panel discussion, Thomas McDonald, a senior economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, gave the Midwest’s legislators an overview of projected changes in the U.S. workforce between now and 2026. In seven years, he said, nearly 1 in 4 workers will be age 55 or older. That compares to only 11.9 percent in 1996. An aging population also is expected to lead to a greater demand for workers in what has been called the “care economy.” For example, by 2026, the number of personal care aides is projected to increase by more than 777,000, highest among all occupations. Among the nation’s other fastest-growing jobs: registered nurses, home health aides and medical assistants.