Use education to boost wages

September 14, 2006|By Jason Perkins-Cohen

This newspaper and others recently reported that according to Census Bureau data, wages for low-wage workers declined 2 percent since 2003 after factoring in inflation - this while worker productivity rose steadily. During the same period, wages for workers in the top income brackets kept well ahead of inflation.

Fortunately, despite the severity of the issue, there are ways to fight wage stagnation. We need to invest in our work force by making adult education and training readily available. Everyone knows that education and training are correlated with higher income, yet we mostly ignore their possibilities. Better-educated and well-trained workers can be hired for jobs that pay family-supporting wages in health care, technology and manufacturing that employers find hard to fill.

Here in Baltimore, nearly 40 percent of adults function at an eighth-grade literacy level or lower. This means that they have trouble understanding much of what they read and have difficulty following simple directions. These people represent a large proportion of those at the low end of our wage scale. We also know that many of them desperately want more education and a better life. More than 5,000 are on a waiting list to receive adult education services such as GED preparation or English as a second language courses.

Maryland has largely turned its back on this population. Although it is one of the wealthiest states, it ranks 46th out of 50 when it comes to spending per adult-education student, and most states spend much more than Maryland. Our neighboring jurisdictions of Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the District of Columbia spend, on average, four times more per student than Maryland on adult education.

And then there is training. The federal government has slashed training funds available through the Workforce Investment Act by nearly 40 percent since 2000, and more cuts seem to be on the way.

We need to do better - and we can. Each year, proposals surface in the Maryland General Assembly and in the U.S. Congress that would significantly increase investment in education and training. These proposals generally have wide support and no opposition, but too often policymakers find reasons to let the bills die in favor of some other "priority," leaving supporters and workers to "wait for next year" again and again.

Let's make this year different. Let's invest in our workers by providing effective education and training programs that lead to high-demand, better-wage jobs. Only then will workers be able to earn a family-supporting wage and be more productive, contributing partners in the community.

Other states know the importance of investing in their work forces, and a Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies survey from August makes it clear that Maryland residents do too. Nearly 80 percent of voters agree that the state should spend more on adult education for those who lack a high school diploma or GED. What's more, the response was the same whether the individual was white or black, male or female, Democrat or Republican.

Recent news articles have suggested that wage stagnation could affect the coming election. But this issue goes far beyond Nov. 7. The same week The Sun ran its article on the declining value of wages, it had another article on manufacturers' difficulty in finding skilled workers. Stories like this appear frequently and indicate that the lack of a skilled work force hurts our business community.

Employers need good workers to remain competitive in a global economy. Workers need good jobs to maintain a decent standard of living. We have the opportunity to help both sides by investing in adult education and training.

Jason Perkins-Cohen is executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, a local, independent, nonprofit work force intermediary. His e-mail is jason@jotf.org.

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