Talent A Terrible Thing to Waste

May 17, 2011


05/17/2011—Last Monday, Rutgers’ Heldrich Center for Workforce Development hosted a Workforce Diversity 2011 Summit. I chaired a panel of leading experts on building inclusive organizations: Anthony Carter, Chief Diversity Officer for J&J, Toni Riccardi, who runs the Global Diversity network for the Conference Board, and Monica Emerson, the Navy’s first Chief Diversity Officer.

The summit was filled with fascinating and useful information. What stood out to me was Monica’s story of the US military’s recruiting challenge. She said that the Department of Defense needs to recruit 170,000 of the roughly 4 million 18-24 year-olds in the US each year to replace those leaving the services. Of these 4 million, about half are unable to meet the DoD’s minimum capability and aptitude standards. Another 1 million are ruled out because of obesity or other physical limitations, a criminal record, or not being a US citizen. This means that the military must attract 17% of the most able young people, the same pool that is being recruited by the nation’s most selective universities.

This story puts the current challenges facing America’s workforce in stark perspective. What does it say about how well we’re preparing our young people for the challenges of the global economy that 3 out of 4 do not qualify for military service, which was once seen as a primary route for career advancement for high school graduates who were not planning to go to four-year colleges? To learn more about how the DoD is defining and tackling this challenge, see the report of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, "From Representation to Inclusion:Diversity Leadership for the 21st-Century Military".

Just as sobering was a column this week by David Brooks on “The Missing Fifth:”  He observes that "...in 1954, 96 percent of American males aged 25–54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent.  ...the United States has a smaller share of prime age men in the work force than any other G-7 nation.”  And over the last decade the number of Americans on permanent disability has increased from 5 to 8.2 million at annual cost of $115 billion.

As some letters in response to his column noted, this story may not be all negative—some of the decline in paid employment for men may reflect greater opportunities for women in the workforce and a more equal sharing by their partners of child-rearing responsibilities.

But the primary culprit is the failure of the economy and US companies, more than a year into the recovery, to be generating a sufficient number of good middle-class jobs. Today the number of unemployed Americans (14 million) far exceeds total employment in US manufacturing (11.7 million), which had been a primary source of good jobs for men without college degrees. And the public sector, which had replaced manufacturing as a key creator of jobs with living wages and benefits, is now cutting back on employment. The combined effect of these cutbacks is that more than six million individuals have been out of work for six months or more, many despairing of ever finding living-wage jobs again.

There are some encouraging signs of a US manufacturing revival, thanks to the combination of a falling dollar, rising transportation costs, and new technologies that are enabling lower-cost, more decentralized, custom manufacturing.

"Moving back to America: The dwindling allure of building factories offshore"

What’s really worrying, however, is that even if this revival accelerates, many of these individuals—both the young men failing to qualify for military service and the prime-workage men who have lost their jobs—may not be qualified for many of the new job openings. And our existing public workforce development system is not up to the task. I support the Administration's push to set aside more funds from proposed new free trade agreements to help retrain workers who've been displaced by global competition and technological change.  Future blogs will explore ways we may be able to reform this system.