The State of the Cities in 2012: Investing in People

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Mayors across the country are in agreement that youth must reach higher educational standards and develop problem-solving, conceptual, and analytic skills previously reserved for only a small number of students.

The reasons for these high expectations reflect broad social and technological changes that have unfolded over many decades and drastically altered the pathways to a good job and economic security. Sometimes referred to as creative destruction, the automation of industrial processes and offshoring of manufacturing facilities over the years have made it harder for today’s workers to find well-paying industrial jobs.

Media pundits often frame these economic trends as the decline of American competitiveness. The US economy is talked about like an aging boxer going up against a new, faster and stronger fighter. Cross-national comparisons on educational performance appear to reinforce this narrative, leading to further worry among policymakers that America’s future workers may not be able to compete with their international counterparts.

As expected, those hardest hit by a rapidly changing economy are workers with limited transferable skills. All signs indicate that those unable to respond to technological and educational demands will face diminishing opportunities for well-paying, stable employment. For some time now, we have witnessed rising payoffs to skills and dramatic declines in the economic status of the non-college-bound.

In their state of the city speeches this year, mayors overwhelmingly voiced their views that broad economic challenges must be matched with workforce development investments and efforts to raise the educational attainment of our future workforce. “We know that education is the engine of job growth,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer in his January 12, state of the city address.

Kentucky’s largest city is experiencing a 14 percent growth in two-year college degrees and a 7 percent growth in four-year degrees – a good sign for the mayor and the city’s 55,000 Degrees education initiative. 55,000 Degrees is a public-private partnership tasked with identifying strategies that raise educational attainment with the goal of adding 40,000 bachelor’s degrees and 15,000 associate’s degrees by 2020.

Across the board, mayors are reimagining how educational and training opportunities are delivered in their communities. High on their list is developing efforts that create pathways for youth to well-paying jobs.

In his state of the city address, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett announced the Mayor’s Manufacturing Partnership, a collaboration that brings together the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board, and the Milwaukee Area Technical College.  The effort focuses on area manufacturers and will work to link them to jobseekers and implement a training curriculum that will address the gaps between available jobs and workers’ skills.

Mayors are also focusing investment earlier and earlier in childhood to ensure young people develop skills. Caldwell, Idaho Mayor Garret Nancolas is working to provide opportunities for the city’s youth through the P16 Program – a pilot project to work with students from preschool through college graduation. This program is a partnership between the United Way, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, the Caldwell School District, the City of Caldwell, and the YMCA that aims to motivate students to go on to post-secondary education with guidance towards their chosen career.

“It’s to make sure that they are given the proper tools, the proper mentoring, the proper training to make sure that when they begin school they’re prepared and by the age of third grade that they are reading on grade level. That they graduate from high school. That they go on and have access to college and then graduate,” said Mayor Nancolas of the program.

Moving forward, mayors need continued capacity to achieve their visions to address the changing economy and provide educators and job trainers with the appropriate tools to prepare our youth. NLC has urged Congress and the Obama Administration to modernize the federal education and job training programs and place greater emphasis on learning and skills acquisition among America’s entering workforce.

As local governments continue to partner with their local businesses and industries to put people back to work and grow their economies, federal support for high quality education and job training programs is key to strengthening the state of our cities in years to come. City leaders agree that we need stronger intergovernmental partnerships between federal and local education and job training programs to achieve our high expectations for the youth of our cities and towns and retain the American tradition of promoting educational opportunity.

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