Martin Cooper speaks from two perspectives when he indicts the lack of qualified workers in the Valley. In addition to serving as the Valley Industry and Commerce Association’s chairman, Cooper has also worked for the past 23 years as the chairman of his own company a public relations and marketing firm, Cooper Beavers Inc. He and many other business owners across the Valley have come to the unfortunate conclusion that in many ways, our area labor pool is woefully untrained and it’s hurting the economy. Employers are having increasingly difficult times finding employees with adequate literacy skills and that while local training programs have proved helpful, they are not marketed well enough to adequately treat the problem. “People can’t write simple sentences today. Grammar is atrocious. The ability to write is terribly important for business. There’s a significant difference between what you find in the real world and what children are taught in school. Young people don’t realize proper business etiquette: how important it is to use the right title, spell the person’s name right or spell a company’s name right,” Cooper said. “It hurts the economy. The better trained our workforce is, the better the work product will be. It gives businesses the ability to grow.” And it’s even more basic than etiquette and writing skills, according to other business leaders. Jack Kyser, senior vice-president and chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, claims that many of today’s workers lack certain indispensable traits needed to conduct business. “People don’t have the work ethic and understanding of how a workplace operates. You come into work on time and you call in if you are sick. It’s the niceties of dealing with people, having good hygiene, and the skills to interact with employees,” Kyser said. Kyser maintained that this lack of knowledge leads to economic dysfunction. “It hurts the economy. If you’re trying to find workers, what do you do? Other states are out there all the time, touting what great labor pools they have, or employers decide to go overseas. The general complaint is people lack reading and writing skills. Math skills would also be nice, it’s just the basics,” Kyser said. Daniel Blake, the director of California State University Northridge’s San Fernando Valley Economic Research Center and a professor of economics, agrees. “I’ve heard lately that the labor pool is lacking. From 2000 through early 2003, businesspeople were relatively happy with the labor supply. Demand was slack and they could hire whom they wanted. As we went in to 2003 and 2004, we saw labor demands pick up. Some of the people with good skills were hired and the labor pool became less qualified,” Blake said. Literacy problem According to a recent study conducted by the City of Los Angeles Workforce Investment Board, 53 percent of the Los Angeles workforce possesses deficient literacy skills. In a study done by the Employment Policy Foundation, Los Angeles has the highest percentage of undereducated adults in the nation, with almost one quarter of the adult population lacking a high school diploma. Needless to say, employers often face difficulties in finding entry-level workers fluent in the numerous computer programs that are vital to all industries. “Employers have long been interested in improving the job pool and people’s abilities in understanding and comprehending instruction. It’s all about creating more efficiency,” Pamela Welden, the director of the College of the Canyons’ employee training institute said. “There is a need for better computer skills, getting better at new versions of existing programs, maximizing outlook and calendaring skills and maximizing abilities to update websites and use them in new ways.” E. Kenn Phillips, the director of education and workforce investment for the San Fernando Valley Economic Alliance, hears complaints from beleaguered businesspeople regularly. “When it comes to priorities for new hires, the three top things that our surveys tell us is that businesses want employees with good communication skills, ethics and teamwork.” Of course, there’s the fact that a significant percentage of the Valley’s work force does not speak English as a first language. At San Fernando-based Precision Dynamics Corporation, approximately half of the company speaks little English, according to Fabian Grijalva, Precision’s director of human resources. Because of this, the company has partnered with Los Angeles Valley College to provide English as a Second Language courses for its employees. “We’ve had two sections of ESL classes for our employees. We’re finding that by providing ESL classes it serves two purposes. Not only does it upgrade their overall work skills but it helps them deal with their kids at home and it makes them a more valuable commodity in general. We’ve also brought in Spanish as a second language courses as well,” Grijalva said. Help available Despite the litany of problems recited above, there are options for the businessperson seeking better workers. In recent years, a complex web of job training organizations has sprung up to improve the Valley’s labor pool. The Economic Alliance has partnered with the local community colleges, the Work Source Centers and many local businesses to teach employees skills ranging from ESL to Microsoft Excel to teaching the fundamentals of efficient lean manufacturing. These programs have had significant success, according to all parties involved. “When we collaborate on different types of projects, we’re very successful in improving the work lives of both employers and employees. If the employees complete one of our training courses, there is usually less turnover and we have high employer satisfaction,” Phillips said. “When businesses do things individually, it’s less successful and costs go up. If you hire a private job recruiter, it often costs $2,500 per employee.” Perhaps the central problem with the job training organizations in the Valley is that not enough employers know of them. “I’m impressed by the people in the classes. The programs offered are very good. But frankly, I think they are poorly marketed. A lot of senior business executives don’t know about their existence. Untold is unsold. We need to expand the workforce training that we already have and do a better job of marketing the graduates of those courses to the business community,” Cooper said.
Knowledge Gap Drains Firms