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Op-Ed: Colleges Work to Close Labor Force’s Skills Gap

By Sydney Kamlager
Monday, October 5, 2015

Recently, I was reminded again that California and Los Angeles have a problem – we need to do better preparing workers for the 21st century economy.

The numbers are staggering.

JP Morgan Chase estimates that over the next decade, employment in Los Angeles is projected to grow by 12 percent. Approximately 1 million of the jobs here in Los Angeles County will be high-wage, high-growth, middle-skill occupations, with a majority of occupations in the health care, global trade, logistics and information and communications technology fields.

How do we meet that demand?

It is something that we at the Los Angeles Community College District are working on. I think we will have to work faster.

At a recent workforce meeting in Los Angeles, Pete Dietrich, an executive at Southern California Edison, told the audience that he has to fill 200 skilled electrical jobs every year – these are well-paying middle-class jobs right here in Southern California.

The problem?

“The union hall benches are empty and we have to go out of state to try to find these skilled workers,” he said.

That’s unacceptable, but not surprising.

In talking to my friends in labor, they say that in many cases Dietrich is right. A shortage exists. This “skills gap” is threatening California’s economic growth. It is also keeping people in poverty.

California already has one of the worst poverty rates and a growing homeless population. A recent study by the Working Poor Families Project said that the number of working poor families is increasing. The data set is chilling.

In California, 44 percent of families headed by a working minority parent are considered low income. Twenty-one percent of women in Los Angeles are living below the poverty line and more than one-quarter of those women have jobs!

It’s not good.

We know the best way for these families to exit poverty is to have a skill set that will enable them to enter the workforce. That can’t happen without training and education. That shouldn’t happen without collaborative triage by community colleges, employers and unions right here in Los Angeles. The imperative is to train workers with skills that translate into jobs that are needed and available.

It won’t be easy, but it is achievable. At the LACCD, our emphasis on Career Technical Education has been increasing because the problem of finding skilled workers isn’t a problem just for Edison: It’s a problem for most employers. In response to this ballooning issue, LACCD was recently awarded a $15 million Career Pathways Trust Fund grant to focus on workforce development. Those dollars can and should directly translate into productive partnerships among industry, labor and the community colleges.

There’s other momentum as well:

  • Los Angeles Trade Technical College was recently awarded a $750,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration’s Innovative Public Transportation Workforce Development Program to establish the Institute for Advanced Transportation Technology Training – the first program of its kind in a community college in the country.
  • Los Angeles Valley College will partner with another grantee to recruit and train low-income individuals, women, veterans, minorities and others from communities throughout metropolitan Los Angeles for the Moving Employees Into Transit Related Opportunities program.
  • West Los Angeles College will now be able to offer baccalaureate degrees in dental hygiene, one of the fastest-growing fields within the health sector, with starting salaries at $50,000.

I am passionate about this issue because my own family tree consists of members skilled in trades that meant jobs with solid wages, benefits and continued development. Nurses, teachers and electricians raised me – all careers that can start with incomes over $50,000.

Improving our workforce is a job for the community colleges and one we must do better.

I promise you that we will.

Sydney Kamlager is a member of the board of trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District, the largest community college district in the nation.


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