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California’s an enormous state, the largest in the nation by far. As noted elsewhere on this site, if it California were its own country, it would have the 8th largest economy in the world, with a gross domestic product of 2.4 trillion. The engine for California’s economic system is powered by a diverse, geographically expansive workforce that currently includes over 14 million private sector jobs.

In order to build a California workforce fully equipped for the 21st Century economy, it is incumbent on state government to play a proactive, strategic, and realistic role in devising policy solutions that promote the specific and varied educational and training needs of as many Californians as possible, up and down the education and income scales.

As the nature of the American workforce changes and as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) knowledge and skills become increasingly central to a wider range of industries and occupations, the resources of state government must be deployed in creative yet sensible ways to complement and reinforce the efforts of educational institutions and employers in finding effective approaches and programs for creating, sustaining, and strengthening the 21st Century California workforce.

In the view of many experts in the field, however, the state and its industrial leadership are now at serious risk of losing the competitive advantage of a highly trained workforce, and that California now lags behind other states in key areas in responding to this challenge. A good illustration of the nature and extent of the problem are some key metrics by the California Business Roundtable, which found, among other alarming facts, that only 44% of our state’s k-12 students are performing at or above the designated proficiency level in English for their year.

When it comes to proficiency in math, a key to STEM success, only 33% of our students are at or above the appropriate standard. The net results appear to lead to a generation of college-age students who are far less than prepared for the rigors of post-secondary training in the Information Age, with only 25% of California’s college students assessed as fully prepared in English, and a mere 10% found to be fully prepared in Math.

California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency is tasked with overseeing the seven state departments with jurisdiction over workforce programs, benefits, and conditions. That includes the state’s Employment Development Department (EDD), which has nearly 10,000 employees in more than 400 locations.

EDD’s bureaucracy is almost unfathomably dense, even to its own employees, and many of its current programs haven’t been substantially revised in more than 20 years. In that time, the whole world has changed, and with it the demands of the economy and the needs of the California workforce. The California legislature should be taking a much more rigorous approach to finding ways toward streamlining and improving workforce-related programs and services to ensure a maximum return on the taxpayer’s annual $12 billion investment in EDD.

Further, the state’s Workforce Investment Board (WIB), which is in theory an independent body composed of leaders from business and non-profits in the service of “public-private partnerships” that inform sound workforce development policies and programs, is prone to grandstanding and drift, as are the county boards underneath them, which together administer federal funds received by California for workforce development programs across the state.  Most smart observers agree that we aren’t getting anywhere near full value there, either, and the state legislature should advocate for reform and refocus in this sphere as well.

Any of those needed reforms around the work of EDD and the WIBs should be built squarely around an emphasis on clear, objective, and quantifiable metrics that quantify progress over time in workforce education and training programs in the state. Such a dashboard is currently conspicuously lacking, despite ‘best-practice’ models in other states that could serve as good reference.

Other approaches to workforce development reform and improvement in California should also have as goals to: develop better pathways from high school to community college and beyond that impart the knowledge and skills base to support high-wage employment in technical fields; provide for increased vocational training and apprentice training programs for at-risk populations, including those who have completed sentences in the correctional system; implement provisions that better align the state’s post-secondary educational systems to guide graduates into high-growth industries, many of which are currently experience a gap between open jobs and qualified candidates.

Finally, any long-term effective approach to ensuring the development and deployment of California’s workforce must necessarily include a renewed emphasis and innovative approaches to restoring and restructuring adult education in our state. The continued expansion of for-profit educational programs (many of which are less than ethical and too often fail to deliver on their promises despite substantial cost) serves as vivid proof that Californians have a desire to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the new economy.

Our state should redirect some of the billions currently funding programs which are less than effective in order to support, a robust, strategically focused set of programs to provide increased educational opportunities and access for adults. Such a strategy should not only address the knowledge and skills gaps of those who may have been underserved by their time in the California schools system, but for new arrivals and English-learners as well.

The task of ensuring a comprehensive, well-designed overall strategy for the development of California’s workforce is daunting, one that can only succeed if the state departments involved are pressed continually to rethink and revise their approaches to match the real demands of the economy as it continues to evolve at an ever greater pace. The only way to assure that happens is to apply deliberate, continual, and thoughtful pressure at the legislative level. As your state senator, I will be an active, energetic part of that process, and will represent you tirelessly, while keeping you fully apprised, as I do.

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