The Other Half of the Job

The Other Half of the Job

Income inequality.  Minimum wage increases.  A glut of low-skilled workers.  American competitiveness at risk.

SL LogoSuch topics comprise a growing storm of media coverage and research trying to assess why the U.S. economy continues to struggle despite recovery and the gains we’ve made since the financial collapse of 2008.  What gets lost in the rhetoric around capitalism losing its edge or the country turning socialist is the reality that our competitiveness as a nation depends on both extrinsic and intrinsic factors.

In a recent interview on Radio Boston , Michael Porter, a corporate competitiveness strategist and professor at the Harvard Business School, discusses his recently published report, An Economy Doing Half Its Job.  Porter and his co-authors argue there are two components to economic competitiveness: (1) the ability to compete in international markets; and (2) the potential for improvement in the wages and the standard of living of the average citizen.  External and internal variables.

Porter and his colleagues assert we are doing well in relation to external factors — our ability to compete globally — but that we’ve fallen dangerously behind on ensuring the promise of the “American Dream” for average citizens.  “Workers are the captives of the weakest aspects of the U.S. business environment, while firms are the beneficiaries of America’s greatest strengths,” write Porter, et. al.

Listen to the radio interview for Porter’s description of how every cohort of Americans younger than 55-65 years old has fallen behind in their skills and ability to fill middle-skilled jobs.  At the same time, the business community makes significant investments in K-12 education, hoping to stem the tide.

What of the tens of millions of adults between the ages of 18-55?  For those who no longer have access to formal or pubic education?  How do we create learning and training opportunities for low-skilled and middle-skilled workers who have the potential to do more, to build on what they’ve learned “on the job,” and to ensure a company’s return on investment in its human resources?

Businesses have an opportunity to play a significant role in maintaining the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and unlocking potential for the advancement of their employees — both while becoming stronger and more successful themselves.  Discussions around income inequality, minimum wage increases, and the challenges of employing low-skilled workers might focus first on smart things businesses can do to invest in their workforce.  Training and education are a huge part of that conversation because they fortify a business through investment in what makes it strong to begin with: people.