A few months back, I attended a chamber of commerce meeting in the L.A. area on workforce readiness. I was saddened when a local employer said she had a number of positions open all the time but no one came to apply. These were entry level positions that could lead to future careers remaining unfilled constantly. By the end of the meeting, the problem that became clear was a lack of cooperation and an agreed-upon common goal to fill these jobs and others like them.

In February, the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. delivered a letter to California legislators offering sensible reforms to the state college and university systems. At the heart of its proposal was a recommendation to align training around areas of future job growth.

In effect, the LAEDC put the spotlight squarely on a statewide, workforce-training problem – a burgeoning skills gap. Employers have jobs available for trained personnel ready to hit the ground equipped with technical skills; unfortunately, many of those looking for jobs don’t have the right skills.

As the LAEDC and other business groups have made clear, the skills gap has become so large that it is jeopardizing our fragile economic recovery. Employers in fields such as technology, health care and manufacturing say they cannot find the skilled workers needed for jobs that remain open for weeks and months.

At the same time, recent unemployment figures put the joblessness rate in Los Angeles County at 10.3 percent – a full 2.7 percentage points higher than the U.S. unemployment rate.

This is a problem that might only worsen. In Los Angeles, 75 percent of eighth-graders are below grade level in math and 75 percent of fourth-graders are reading below grade level. A staggering 21 percent of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District drop out, much less advance to college or specialized job training.

Encina Advisors, a Sacramento-based economic consulting firm, has looked closely at California’s skills gap and found that the demand for vocational training in Los Angeles County is 25 percent to 40 percent bigger than the supply of available classes in local community colleges.

The most alarming part of this report: Unfilled jobs will result in $17 billion in lost personal income countywide over the next decade.

More and more people affected by this workforce-training gap are nontraditional college students who are not necessarily on a fast track to a four-year degree and a professional position. Most of these students want to a credential that will help make them more employable or want to shift careers.

Secondary education

According to the California Employment Development Department, greater employment opportunities are predicated on obtaining postsecondary degrees such as associate degrees, or nondegree awards and certification. Many of the fastest-growing occupations in the state will only consider hiring individuals who have this vocational training. Individuals who cannot avail themselves of these options face higher unemployment – about 12 percent nationally – while individuals with an associate degree or some college cut that rate almost in half.

Those with vocational skills also command higher salaries: On average, the typical 25- to 34-year-old makes $2,272 more each year with some college and $6,432 more annually with an associate degree.

If we do not make vocational education a priority, we will stagnate. Without a dependable pool of educated, trained and available workers, businesses cannot function. Companies with available positions but no qualified applicants are at a significant competitive disadvantage in the domestic and global marketplace, inhibiting success and growth.

Vital economies are built by thriving businesses, which provide employment opportunities and economic security for individuals and families. The Encina Advisors report estimates every Californian who is denied access to vocational training will lose thousands of dollars of income annually; statewide, the loss will total $52.2 billion over the next decade.

These facts should serve as a wake-up call to the state. Our economy will suffer if career education is not a crucial part of our state’s higher education system. Southern California has an outstanding network of state and private universities, community colleges and career colleges. We need a comprehensive plan for higher education that aligns with our social, economic and labor force needs. Without it, the state – especially Los Angeles County – will pay the cost in many ways.

Vicki Schemel is campus president at Everest College in Alhambra.

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