Investing in people key to attacking California unemployment woes

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

Solar panel installation class at a CET facility (Credit: CET video)

This piece originally appeared on the California Economic Summit blog

California’s unemployment rate is sitting at 10.8 percent and the nation as a whole faces 8.2 percent unemployment. But the problem isn’t entirely that there aren’t enough jobs: the problem is partly that many Americans just don’t have the skills needed to fill the jobs out there now. 

We’re not talking a couple hundred jobs: we’re talking upwards of 3 million jobs requiring skilled labor that employers are struggling to fill, even with 13 million Americans out of work. To bridge the gap and fill these positions, people’s skills need to match industry needs, and that’s where the Center for Employment Training comes in.

While the non-profit group, which has 17 centers in five states and most recently upgraded the Sacramento facility, has worked hard to upgrade the skills of workers, President and CEO of CET Hermelinda Sapien explains that it’s an uphill battle. “It’s not a matter of people not knowing [about CET],” Sapien said. “We don’t have the resources to train all the people who come to us. We only train about five percent of the people that come through our doors because of capacity.”

The lucky few that are able to get spots in CET courses, however, sit in a prime position when it comes to future employment. “In health, we train for medical assistance and medical administrative assistance, and we place everybody we train – 82 percent of our grads go to work,” Sapien said. “If people are skilled and people are prepared to pass interviews, to network, to find the jobs, we do place them. There may not be enough jobs for everyone, but 3 million jobs is a lot of jobs.”

The problem, says Sapien, is funding. And job training centers like CET felt the belt-tightening long before the economic crisis. “Up to about 1996 or 1997, the Department of Labor invested significantly in training the unskilled,” she said. “But when the Workforce Investment Act came into play, training was deemphasized and case management and direct placement became the main activity of the WIA. Now we see a big gap between the workers and the skills that employers require.” 

Sapien sees the slow demise of job training programs as the collateral damage of the welfare reform that took place in the ‘90s. “I think it was right before WIA was enacted, welfare had been reformed. The requirement there had been that people go to work,” Sapien said. “No training, no educating.”

The tightening hasn’t stopped there. “The House of Representatives is determined to reauthorize the WIA with big changes, not only with less money, but also proposing to eliminate all training programs and consolidating all of them into one for less money,” Sapien said. “It doesn’t look like there’s a big push for seriously training the workforce.”

As if a 3 million person skills disparity isn’t enough of, Sapien warns that problems could become further exacerbated if the government doesn’t buy into the success of job training programs and invest in its citizens.

“If we don’t invest in training people, we will be forced to invest in more public assistance in the form of food stamps, in the form of health benefits, in the form of all kinds of unemployment services, and most seriously our prisons and jails will grow,” Sapien added. “CET is a proven model that gives people the necessary skills to get them employed and on their way to self sufficiency. We have done that for 45 years. We continue to do it even when there are no jobs: we find the jobs. People with the skills can get the jobs.”

The good news is that Sapien and the Center of Employment Training aren’t alone in the effort to fill the skills gap in California. One of the Economic Summit’s Actions Teams is working on how to invest in people and doing a smarter job preparing our workforce for the future. Check out the Smart Workforce initiatives in our Summit Action Plan for more info.

By throwing support behind legislation in support of training, seeding and leveraging funding, and prioritizing the alignment of current workforce-training and career-education resources, we will be counterparts in CET’s effort of getting people back to work across all regions of California.


Matthew Grant Anson

All stories by: Matthew Grant Anson