Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Searchers and Planners

William Easterly's 2006 book, "The White Man's Burden" is an excellent guide to the problems and opportunities of western foreign aid to the developing world. He also develop a great analytical tool for public policy in general.

Easterly sets the stage by dividing into planners and searchers. Planners start at the top, set goals and develop global blue prints to achieve them. Searchers look at the problem from the bottom up, and seek specific workable solutions to the specific problems.

For Easterly, planners announce good intentions but don't motivate anyone to achieve them. Searchers find things that work and get some reward. A planner thinks he knows the answers and develop technical engineering solution to achieve them. A searcher hopes to find the answer only through trial and error and experimentation. Searchers could find ways to make a specific task work if they could concentrate on the task itself instead of the big plan.

I think that Easterly's nomenclature is a great analytical tool for public policy at all levels. Obviously, few policy solutions fit perfectly into each category. However, the answer does not lie somewhere in the middle.

Action and experimentation are the only ways to actually test an idea. And look at a problem from the ground level is the only way to develop the idea. Let me provide an example. In higher education policy, we have been trying to find a way for financial aid to effectively get students through college. We could start at the top and figure out how much it costs a student to get through college and then look the income level of the student and then multiply that number times the number of students. This would be a very expensive number.

Or you could start at the bottom and figure out what is happening with individual customers when they try to figure out how to access a college education. You will find that the amount of aid available is a huge problem. But probably not the place to start. College financial aid staff on the ground level are tearing their hair out trying to figure out who is eligible for what. And students often give up in frustration figuring out what they are eligible for and how to find it. The biggest problem reported by students is lack of guidance.

A large part of the problem is it is too complicated and discouraging. A solution would lead you to spend a lot of time figuring out how to simplify it and how to market it to people so it motivate them to make to take advantage of what's available.

There is a connection between searching and planning. That might be best practices. Learning from what works on the ground and sharing it with others could provide ideas that could be adapted to similar problems elsewhere. The danger is that funders might be tempted to create a cookbook of cookie cutter approaches that determine what approaches they will fund in the future. This would discourage way to many new and good approaches to solving problems.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What does the Movie Pineapple Express, and Financial Markets have in common?

I recently saw a funny movie called the Pineapple Express. In one scene in the movie, the guys trip on a twig, startle themselves, get scared, run into a tree and fall down a hill. These guys are of courses stoned out of their minds.

This reminds me a lot of financial markets. Oh my God, unemployment claims are up. Sell, sell. Oh no, now the stock market is down. The economy is going to hell. Sell, Sell. GDP growth isn't falling as fast as it was. Buy, buy. Oh no inflation could be a problem. Sell.

Here's the problem. Theses guys aren't stoned. Sure, a lot of them create the roiling market in order to profit from the changes one way or another. But them and the rest of those short term thinker having been killing us.

Economists have been predicting since last Fall that the economy will hit bottom in June and then pick up slowly. Nothing has changed. However, the concern is now business and consumer confidence. What is creating the jitteriness? Maybe these guys should get stoned. It might actually calm them down.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lost in the maze of higher education

A few years ago I sat in a seminar room discussion with a dozen or community college workforce deans and financial aid officers along side of a group of executive and legislative higher ed staffers. The financial aid officers described how they were tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to fit students into a financial aid puzzle that would work for them. They felt the programs were confusing and complicated. The staffers responded that it really wasn't a problem. For them, the financial aid folks just didn't know how to do their jobs.

Every two years the state Workforce Education and Training and Coordination Board does a participant survey of students at Washington's Community and Technical Colleges. Not surprisingly, students were least satisfied with the advice they received on selecting programs (interestingly enough, the time and location of the classes was not nearly as difficult a problem).
In the same survey, the services students felt what they were truly missing were financial aid, job search assistance and career counseling. If my memory serves me correctly, college and career counseling has shown up as the top concern in these surveys for at least the last decade.

As part of the initial design of the Oopportunity Grant Program, the legislature asked the Workforce Board to survey financial aid officers, WorkSource Staff and students as to the main barriers to enrollment and retention of students in workforce programs. Overwhelmingly, the major barrier identified was financial aid followed by information on career possibilities and advise on how to navigate the college system.

Until recently, little attention was paid to this problem. In 2006, through the Opportunity Grant program, students receiving the grant also carried with them an FTE allotment to cover the costs of counseling and career placement as well as other support services. Student retention more than doubled during the first year of the program. More recently, the Gates Foundation, SkillUp (A Seattle Workforce funding collaborative) and even the President's Council of Economic Advisers have begun to focus their thinking on dealing with this issue.

The President's advisers are looking at focusing Federal Job Service Centers (WorkSource in Washington) and federal Workforce Investment Act programs (Workforce Development Councils in Washington) more on long term career coaching and less on short term job placement.

The whole notion of career pathways is beginning to take root at the Foundation, Federal and Community College level. This is not only an effective model for student success but in the end will save time and money as students are less likely to waste time in classes that don't give them what they need. Maybe, just maybe, the people who run the state's welfare program, TANF, will be paying attention as well.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Preparing for the Green Wave

Today’s economy is starting to recover. What are the forces that will begin to move our economy back into prosperity? Historically, periods of economic growth were created by new investments in entirely new economic innovations that spurred the economy forward by creating new demands for goods and services.

The most likely candidate for the next wave of economic growth is the green economy. An emerging consensus on the definition of the green economy is: “The green economy encompasses the economic activity related to reducing the use of fossil fuels, decreasing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the efficiency of energy usage, recycling materials and developing and adopting renewable sources of energy.”

One of the main barriers to expansion of this sector is the lack of a skilled workforce. While the green sector is expected to grow 4 times faster than the rest of the economy, even in today's downturn, college classes are full and money for expansion is limited. While there is now very good data on the sectors and occupations related to green jobs, there is not a clear idea among educators and policy-makers about which new jobs and careers are just around the corner.

In Washington State there is an estimated total employment of nearly 50,000 direct green jobs which equals roughly 1.6% of state employment.

How to we maximize the benefit of the coming Green Wave? How do we ensure that all of our citizens benefit from it? How we position our society to best prepare?

If you look out on the horizon you can see some areas of the economy that are going to grow rapidly that are green driven. Nationally, Green Jobs are expected to grow by 52% over the next 7 years as compared to 14% for all other jobs.. Analysts believe that many of the jobs will be in commercial and residential energy efficiency where 70% of the new jobs will be in construction. Right now, any growth in this area will simply pull unemployed construction off the bench. But, within a year or so, as construction begins to recover, we will see significantly more job openings than we have workers.

This put us in an investment dilemma. Do we start pre-apprenticeship programs to ensure that disadvantaged kids can get the jobs and that we can actually start doing the work when the economy picks up? There's a risk. When will the jobs start to pick up?

Beyond this, there are already 1,700 job vacancies in engineering, architecture and installation and positions for environmental engineering technicians as well as electrical power line installers are already in high demand.

Other jobs that are expected to grow rapidly include:

  • Power engineers and computer technicians to design, manufacture and maintain new SmartGrid systems.
  • Machinists, electricians, operators and maintenance technicians for renewable energy production, operation and maintenance.
  • Farm workers and process technicians for the cultivation and processing of bio fuels and biomass
  • Alternative transportation designers and maintenance workers.
  • Recycling and waste management operators and technicians.
  • Organic farmers, farm workers, urban agriculture land use planners and green roof designers in sustainable agriculture and horticulture.

Community colleges and universities currently offer over 100 unique course titles and green jobs and 60 certifications programs for green jobs. However classes are already full. There is some new money from the U.S. Department of Labor that could be used to expand capacity as well as provide new offerings. However, the amount of direct aid for college classes is limited. At the same time, no new state money has been provided for green jobs and community college and university programs have been cut dramatically to balance the state budget.

If we are to get ahead of the curve here it is absolutely essential we start off by creating a dialogue between the scientists, investors and business leaders who are in the process of creating the new green jobs of the future and the educators who need to provide the professional and technical programs that can lead students to the career pathways for those jobs. This dialogue could include a review of recent research but more importantly gain insights into the "big ideas" that are likely to drive the future.

Once we have a firm understanding of the whole picture; both the existing data and research, and the futurists insights into what is coming up, we can outline the educational program needs. And most importantly, we can begin to inspire and engage young people to pursue green careers.