Where training starts

The base goal of the Workforce Investment Act in the best of American economies is to train individuals with minimal work qualifications to hold a job. As the current less-than-perfect economy has shown, these marginally trained individuals face such barriers to employment that the recession may actually be their depression.

The pressure on federally funded agencies such as Nevadaworks to improve the work skills of these people is very high and begs the question: Isn't there a better way?

The answer is so obvious it is amazing we haven't embraced it more fully. Nevadaworks should not exist. The need for its services would not exist if our basic K-12 education system was more successful. The participants in that system would leave school with a strong foundation that would carry them forward into life-long learning that would reward them personal economic success.

For the decade I have been involved with workforce development, I have heard mostly complaints when the subject of Washoe County's School District arises. Whether those complaints were valid or not does not matter. What does matter is that positive changes are occurring now. These changes are so great that our future economic base will start to grow more and more as the improved education structure provides results.

Heath Morrison, Washoe County School District superintendent, understands the connection between a good education and a strong economy. Paraphrasing him, he has asked "If we take away their future earnings by depriving them of proper education, how will that help our economic society? If the little children are excited in school now, but we know 40-50 percent of them will not graduate, is that acceptable for the jobs needed in tomorrow's economy?"

What types of jobs can we import or create if our workforce is below average in overall education? More employers are requiring a high school education as the bare minimum in their employees. We can not afford dropouts. Employers will have a great choice of educated potential employees to choose from as the economy recovers. Those at the bottom in education and skill sets will be the last to get hired if there are enough jobs to go around.

How does workforce development tie into the education system? If an individual does not have a high school education, it is even more difficult to get them trained in workforce skills. Without a diploma, individuals have a difficult time understanding current work place requirements such as using a computer in a business environment, treating co-workers and customers with courtesy and respect and anticipating the changing needs of their employer. Without a diploma, they often do not understand that learning is a continual undertaking.

The initial results of the changes implemented by Superintendent Morrison and the Washoe County School District Board have been very positive. Graduation rates were up 7 percent in one year. Parent involvement is climbing upward. Teachers are more optimistic. All staff of the largest employer in Washoe County have better focused goals. And that is just the beginning.

We must get serious about our K-12 educational structure. It must be drastically changed and improved or we will never exit the current recession. Like all investments, we must put money into it in order to have more in the future. The return on investment in K-12 education is our future workforce. We must improve K-12 now and not wait for some future event or time to occur.

As business leaders, we need to support Morrison's initiatives and encourage more and more dramatic changes. The Washoe County School District is dedicated to building a strong relationship with the business community through ongoing dialogue focusing on what employers need and want in an educated workforce. Through this relationship, businesses will better understand the initiatives and can spread the word that will build community support that will create great employees in the long term.

Another area of support must be financial. Maintaining 94 public schools is a large, expensive job. In down economic times, it is often too easy to just say "cut." But cut what? Teachers? Bus drivers? Custodial? Safety? Washoe County School District has very specialized needs across the broad spectrum of education and "cut" while maybe desirable, probably won't work.

Reform might be a much better mantra to chant. Reform has started. Reform is fragile. Reform needs business support. The business community should support the district in getting funds for better local education as ultimately, that will attract more companies to fill the substantial number of empty buildings and houses throughout our community.

Potential new employers looking at this area who want better educated workers will shy away from making a commitment if current employers do not support a new education path.

Without an educated workforce, businesses cannot grow. We must provide a better education for all students to give them the tools to succeed and to become the future leaders of our community. We must work to prepare our children for the future because we are in this together.

Let's work positively and consistently toward the day when I can write about the demise of Nevadaworks because there is no longer a need to repair a broken system. A reformed local education system succeeding to the goals Morrison and the school board have set will make Nevadaworks a historical item!

Tom Fitzgerald is chief executive officer of Nevadworks. Contact him at 284-1340 or tom@nevadaworks.com.

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