Solving the Skill Shortage

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By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, April 6, 2007

The answer to the region's most pressing economic problem can be found tucked in among the nondescript office buildings and car dealerships along the west side of I-395 near Springfield's infamous "mixing bowl."

There, Northern Virginia Community College has established its fifth and newest campus, a $25 million facility to educate and train the nurses, dental hygienists, physical therapists and diagnostic technicians who are in short supply in the region's labor market and likely to be more so in the future.

In addition to classrooms and laboratories, there are clinics where local residents can get their teeth cleaned or their cuts stitched by well-supervised trainees. There is a fully equipped hospital ward and operating room, and a diagnostic lab with the latest digital equipment where students use plastic cadavers to practice taking X-rays. There's even a mock ambulance where emergency technicians practice the latest lifesaving techniques on high-tech, remote-controlled dummies.

The facility is the product of a unique collaboration of federal, state and local governments with local hospitals, universities and business groups. Using public and private money, the members of this alliance identified present and expected shortages in the region's health-care workforce: 16,000 nurses, 1,000 physical therapists, 600 occupational therapists and 800 mental health counselors. They identified the reasons why these shortages exist -- from the lack of certified teachers to the scarcity of clinical training sites. And they launched programs such as NOVA's new Medical Education Campus.

This is the way you'd expect a 21st century labor market to work. In reality, it happens only rarely. As a result, a recent study by the Greater Washington Initiative found that there is a looming mismatch between the supply and demand of skilled workers -- one that threatens to drive up costs and constrict economic growth in the Washington region.

This is as much a political problem as it is economic. The people who live in the region have made clear they don't want much population growth because of the congestion, overcrowding and sprawl that comes with it. Nor are they willing to pay higher taxes to relieve that congestion and overcrowding. Until all that changes, population growth is almost certain to slow.

For businesses wanting to grow, that's a problem. As they have in the past, they are willing and able to recruit their top talent from around the world, even it means paying higher salaries and moving expenses. But for most of the workers they need -- the ones who fall in the middle of the income and skill ladders -- paying those higher costs will render them uncompetitive. If they can't find their financial analysts, child-care workers, computer systems analysts and auto mechanics in the local labor market, they'll have to move to where those skills are more available.

"We can't recruit our way out of this," says Bob Templin, the president of Northern Virginian Community College and the moving force behind the medical workforce initiative.

Templin sees it as his primary mission to find new ways to take the "raw material" coming out of the region's high schools -- frequently, working-class kids from immigrant families -- and prepare these students for middle-income jobs demanded by the Washington economy.

Templin acknowledges that this has involved a bit of cultural change at NOVA, which like many of the community colleges in the Washington region had seen its primary mission as providing the bridge from high school to a four-year college. The orientation was more academic than vocational or economic. Perhaps because of that, there were few, if any, mechanisms for the business community to help shape the curriculum to better meet the workforce needs of the local economy.

At the same time, the business community has had few, if any, mechanisms to determine what kinds of workers it would need in the future. Nor has there been any mechanism -- or, for that matter, any inclination -- for businesses to provide ongoing financial support to the colleges for providing the skills the businesses needed.

All of which is why NOVA's medical campus in Springfield is so important, even beyond its impact on the local health-care sector.

For Templin, it is a model he hopes to replicate with other key business sectors in Northern Virginia. NOVA and Montgomery College recently launched a program with Chevy Chase Bank to train tellers, and it has been successful enough that other banks are interested in participating. And working with the Northern Virginia Family Service, NOVA has helped to expand a proven program for helping low-wage workers obtain the skills and confidence to move up to higher-paying office jobs in the services sector.

Still to be tapped is the richest target of opportunity -- Northern Virginia's technology sector, which Templin knows well from his days running the Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon.

As Templin sees it, the skill shortage can't be solved one company, one university or even one political jurisdiction at a time -- it demands solutions that are regional and sectoral, public and private.

You could also add that we need more people like Bob Templin, who can straddle the divide between town and gown, overcome competitive rivalries and convince a skeptical business community of the value of collective action.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached at pearlsteins@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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