Uncle Sam Wants You

Work It

Worker shortages - a frequently cited impediment to small-business growth - are about to come under the harsh glare of a $60 million microscope, thanks to an initiative introduced by Vice President Al Gore at the 21st Century Skills for 21st Century Jobs summit earlier this year.

Under the new program, business, government and educational institutions are encouraged to work together to identify areas suffering from skilled worker shortages and then create model programs to train workers to fill the gaps. The program consists of two parts: providing grants to joint ventures between business consortiums and the educational community to develop training programs; and then allowing organizations that win grants to actually implement these training programs. Most of the funding for the grants comes from the $500 fee imposed on employers who hire foreign workers under the H-1B temporary work visa program.

This is the Clinton administration's big push to solve what many entrepreneurs claim is a leading problem. "Small businesses have been saying the quality of workers coming out of high school, and perhaps even college, needs improvement," says Toby Malichi, founder and president of Malichi International Ltd., a business development and outsourcing firm in Indianapolis.

Could Gore's solution appease despairing employers, who have typically endured lengthy job searches or been forced to hire skilled workers from overseas? The jury's still out a s far as small-business organizations are concerned, though they seem to agree no one solution will fix the problem. "It's very difficult to second-guess what the future holds.but we have to be better at [determining the areas in which] we need people with skills," says Beth Buehlmann, executive director of the Center for Workforce Preparation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Buehlmann, who attended the job skills summit, believes it's crucial for any program addressing the issue to inform entrepreneurs about the resources available.

National Small Business United (NSBU) believes the initiative should also address the issue of worker retention. "Small businesses often train workers who then leave [for other jobs]," says Brian Crawford, a lobbyist for NSBU. Ideally, once the training models are developed, they'll be utilized by the states participating in the Workforce Investment Act passed by Congress last year. Malichi looks forward to this sort of action rather than mere discussion. "It's not a time for research; it's a time for substance," he says. "[It's time] to put money in the hands of people who can provide the [training] services."

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This article was originally published in the May 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Uncle Sam Wants You.

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