RECOMMENDATIONS: Commentary

Stephen S. Fuller, Ph.D.
Dwight Schar Faculty Chair and University Professor
Director, Center for Regional Analysis
George Mason University

Preparing the State’s Workforce of the Future

Workforce development is one of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s major challenges going forward. Failure to respond to this challenge will have both short-term and long-term consequences. In the short-term, these consequences will be manifest in growing shortages of workers having the required skills and educational levels to support the requirements of the State’s growing economy. The number of unfilled jobs due to this skills gap is growing across almost every sector and is contributing to the economy’s lagging recovery.

This is a problem now but it will get increasingly worse over the next ten to twenty years as the Baby Boomers leave the labor force. Forecasts for just the next ten years show Virginia will need 1.2 million new workers just to backfill vacated jobs – replacement workers – to replace retirees and fill vacancies resulting from normal turnover. Additionally, 844,000 new workers will be needed to fill net new jobs reflecting the economy’s potential future growth over the next ten years. As a result, by 2022, 40% of all workers employed in Virginia’s economy will consist of persons not in the workforce today.

Virginia is facing a severe shortage of workers (by simple head count), but when skills and educational levels are considered this shortage is beyond severe. The consequences of this shortage of qualified workers will be slower economic growth and declining household income.

To address the threat of becoming a second-rate economy, Virginia has a range of options. But no one option will eliminate the shortage of workers and yield the needed skills and educational qualifications. However, the skills and educational deficiencies can be effectively reduced by concerted public policy actions. Timing is also critical. To address both the numbers and qualifications gaps currently projected to worsen over the next five, ten and twenty years will require critical and sequential actions in the short term as this process is cumulative and spans the lifetime of the worker. Policy objectives should include:

The essential initiative to achieving these objectives is better preparing the State’s children for school and for learning.

If Virginia is to regain its competitiveness in the national economy, its homegrown workers need to be better prepared for school.

This means five-year-olds need to be school-ready. Universal, statewide early childhood development is the most cost effective approach to advancing the skills and educational levels and productivity potentials the State’s future workers at the point of job entry as well as over the full length of their careers. Too many of today’s high school graduates are not ready for work or continuing education. Northern Virginia Community College reports that 50% of its entering high school graduates require remedial math and English education.

Developing verbal and quantitative skills will be key to learning through ones’ lifetime. Early understanding of numbers and gaining comfort with words – reading and expressing one’s ideas – will be essential to mastering most occupations as these are currently evolving technically at a faster rate than the educational and skills preparation being offered in the K-12 public school systems across the State. The level of educational preparedness at age five will reverberate through the students’ subsequent schooling and training and a slow start is difficult to overcome in later years and results in an enormous opportunity cost that is magnified by a forty-plus year career.

The failure of our educational system to meet the changing needs of the State’s economy across all occupations can be significantly remedied by starting the formal childhood education process earlier. Earlier childhood development makes a critical difference in school readiness. The return-on-investment from earlier childhood development, as measured in performance in subsequent K-12 and career achievement, has been clearly established. If Virginia is serious about having a workforce that can meet the needs of its future economy, it must start at the beginning of the learning pipeline with three-year old children or even younger and this needs to be implemented statewide. Without serious investment in early childhood development, the outlook for the State’s economy is threatened by the insufficient supply of quality workers needed to support the increasingly demanding technical requirements of future jobs.

Virginia’s economic competitiveness depends on reversing its current workforce trends. Starting early will erase a major shortcoming in the State’s workforce development continuum that starts with healthy babies and extends through the full educational process and full work life that, for a growing number of workers, will continue beyond what has been considered the traditional retirement years.

Sincerely,




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