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Response to Seattle Times Guest Editorial

(A shorter version of this response appeared in the Seattle Times)

May 8, 2013

by Cindy Zehnder & Tom Peterson

Workforce training programs are helping Washington residents get into better paying jobs and stimulating our economy at a rate that exceeds the state’s public investment—over $7 billion in additional earnings and tax contributions over the lifetime of the most recently evaluated participants.

Without these programs, laid off workers, single parents who lack a high school diploma, people with disabilities and others with obstacles to employment would not have a pathway to family wage jobs.

Take, for example, Maggie who was laid off after many years in customer service at an airline company earning $12 an hour.  As her debts began to pile up, the workforce development system helped Maggie get retraining and case management support from her local workforce development council.  Maggie now works at an area hospital full time as a registered nurse at $27 an hour with benefits.

There are countless stories like this so you can imagine our grave disappointment when we read in a Seattle Times guest editorial an attack on our state and local workforce development programs. The article’s unsubstantiated claims run counter to the facts.

Independent research by the state’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board (Workforce Board) demonstrates that participants in workforce development programs routinely have higher employment rates and greater earnings than people from similar backgrounds who do not participate in the programs. Statewide, the net benefit over the course of time for the almost 100,000 workforce training participants in 2012 will exceed $7 billion in the form of higher salaries, reduced social service costs and more taxes paid.

In the Seattle area, which was singled out by the article, the employment rate for adult workforce program participants was around 78 percent and for youth over 83 percent. The cost per participant for the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County (WDC) ranges from $1,500 - $6,500 (nowhere near the $29,000 stated in the article). This range speaks to the tailored nature of workforce development services because those with greater obstacles to employment often need more support to be able to acquire and hold gainful employment.

The WDC’s mission and the mission of the state’s workforce system is to support a strong economy and the ability of each person to achieve economic self-sufficiency.  Based on a nationally recognized Self-Sufficiency Standard which establishes what a person must earn to be able to support themselves, nearly two-thirds of workforce training system customers in King County reach or exceed self-sufficiency after exiting a WDC workforce program.

But workforce programs do more than move people into a better living standard. They help our economy grow by focusing our limited training resources to where the jobs are. The Workforce Board’s most recent estimate for Washington’s mid-level skill gap indicates that projected job openings from manufacturers, equipment installers and repairers, health care providers and security firms will exceed our talent supply by 3,000 per year based on the current level of support for our state’s workforce programs. This information will now be used to focus our limited training resources to meet this need.

Given the proven success rate of these programs and the demand from employers, we should be investing more, not less, in workforce programs. In fact, the Workforce Board’s independent evaluation of workforce programs show that most programs return far more in tax revenues than they cost taxpayers in public spending. These are the facts and to learn more about our workforce training system, we encourage you to look at the performance results of these programs.

(Cindy Zehnder is vice-president of Gordon Thomas Honeywell- Governmental Affairs and chair of the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board. Tom Peterson, vice-president/general manager of Hoffman Construction Company and the vice chair of the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County.)

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