Our Views: Hard lessons about skills

In the sloganeering battle over “big government” in Washington, the proper role of government is too often lost in the discussion.

Government is not here to “create jobs” or other justifications for tax breaks or special privileges for those interests powerful enough to get taxpayer money from self-interested politicians. Government takes from the taxpayer to pay for the things that allow people to thrive for themselves: physical infrastructure — roads, bridges and the like — and intellectual infrastructure, the schools, colleges and libraries.

The latter build the skills of Louisiana’s population, and those should be a focus of governmental spending.

One recent report from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center showed the importance of intellectual infrastructure.

The report — no surprise here — outlined the significant gap in New Orleans between the experience and education that available jobs require and the skills that the workforce has.

While the economy shifts toward more knowledge-based industries, such as digital media, advanced manufacturing and environmental and biomedical industries, the training opportunities needed to prepare the workforce to fill those jobs are not keeping up, said Allison Plyer, chief demographer and director for the data center.

Many of the jobs that will be generated even in high-tech fields may not require a four-year degree, Plyer noted, but knowledge-based industries with middle to high skill levels needed at work may account for more than half of all job openings by 2020.

The larger point of this report and many others that can be read across the United States is that educational attainment at all levels is the infrastructure for the success of the city. And no surprise, the same can be said of every community in Louisiana.

That is why we have been dismayed at the cavalier attitude of Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers since 2008 toward cutting higher education. In Louisiana, community colleges and technical schools are largely funded at the state level. Rising tuition in what should be lower-cost opportunities for students is a growing problem.

The New Orleans report also emphasizes another lesson that should be appreciated by taxpayers: The value of intellectual infrastructure is not limited to those who are educated in it.

Whether a family has children in school or not, school funding is important to the economy in which all of us function. Whether a family has a student in college or not, the cuts in colleges hurt Louisiana society collectively.

That’s as true, the New Orleans report indicated, whether the student is a child in school or a 20-something who has, for whatever reason, failed in the past to get an education. Whether through community college and technical schools, or other means, “we must upgrade and update the skills of the current working-age population who will make up the bulk of the labor pool for decades to come.”

The Data Center study indicated that 27 percent of the working age population lacks literacy skills, including reading, writing, numerical proficiency and computer skills.

While Plyer said that literacy can be challenging to measure. The study arrived at the 27 percent figure by looking at three groups: Working-age people without a high school diploma, those with no education past a high school diploma who are below 200 percent of the federally defined poverty level and people who speak English as a second language who have a high school diploma or less.

Workforce development must be a priority for the city, the report says, and will require an “all hands on deck” approach with no quick fixes.

That observation holds true not just for New Orleans but for communities across the state.

Addressing the problem on a large scale costs money, but it’s money spent on infrastructure that we can’t afford to neglect.