Workforce development is no “Field of Dreams.”

In the market for labor, “Workforce Development” is a supply-side concept. Labor is the product. Employers are the buyers. Without enough employers, there aren’t going to be enough jobs, however well-trained the workforce may be.

In Baltimore, the idea is that tens of thousands of unskilled and low-skilled unemployed and under-employed workers will spend months, or longer, training for work, acquiring knowledge and skills for certain job descriptions, but not for specific jobs with specific employers. And therein lies the problem. You go through whatever program you think makes sense and one day you graduate. Now what?

Even if there are, somehow, enough open jobs out there when you graduate, there’s no assurance that your newly acquired skills are relevant. No assurance that they match the skillsets these jobs demand. You trained for this, but the employers what that.

Workforce development may be a popular element of every Mayoral candidate’s platform, but it’s an example of supply-side economics that just doesn’t work. Eliminating unemployment and poverty is not a “Field of Dreams.” Just because you train your workforce doesn’t mean employers will magically materialize to hire them.

Field of Dreams 3The fact is, there’s no way we can anticipate the market for labor, no way that we can know in advance precisely which employers will need which workers to do what jobs. It may not be a politically popular point of view, but broad-based workforce development, whatever its forms, other than paid on-the-job training, is more often than not a huge, disappointing waste of time and money. People go through a program, but then what? Where are the jobs for which they worked so hard to prepare?

To eliminate unemployment and poverty in Baltimore, we need to focus on the demand side of the labor market. We need city government to be laser-focused, not on proactive workforce development, but on jobs creation. More specifically, we need to bring established small and larger employers of predominantly unskilled and/or low-skilled workers – preferably employers who offer paid on-the-job-training – who are willing to locate inside the city’s developing neighborhoods where unemployment is unacceptably high.

Bringing these employers inside these neighborhoods dramatically reduces workforce transportation issues, maximizes the probability that jobs will be filled locally where they are most desperately needed and will encourage organic economic development and growth in these neighborhoods the way development at a distance, elsewhere in the city, would not.

While it may not be the politically popular thing to do, our next Mayor needs to suspend workforce development programs in favor of directing her/his agencies – including the Baltimore Development Corporation that Mayor will control – to bring employers to Baltimore from outside the city and, to a lesser extent, grow companies already here. This new effort must include subsidized on-the-job-training for newly hired workers. It’s the only form of workforce development that pays you while you train and assures a perfect match between your skills and what your new job requires.

Reality check: Economic recovery for the lower half of Baltimore’s population will not be an internal process. The economy of Baltimore is too weak and cannot lift itself up by its proverbial bootstraps. We’re never going to eliminate unemployment and poverty by depending exclusively or even predominantly on internal, organic growth.

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