Workforce Development: Finding Balance in Expectations

In the last month alone, I have heard the topic of workforce development discussed everywhere from closed rooms with office chairs to  the chairlifts of mountain resorts. The question of how to fuel an industry with qualified candidates, coupled with the demand to get the job done is constantly in conflict. As a recent graduate, I have been personally navigating this gap.

WorkforceDevelopmentI remember the feeling of entrapment after college. The smell of fryers and the grease-covered burns on my arms followed me home from my kitchen shift at the pub. The 2am bike ride home was cleared of cars and my friend’s comment from earlier that day filled the space: “If I do not collapse at the end of every night, I know I haven’t made enough money to pay my bills.” He was working a full-time job and doing full-time school all the while committed to avoiding any student debt. He epitomized the wherewithal required of an individual to move beyond dissatisfying industries and into a skills-based job market.

For me, that sense of entrapment after college, aroused by the heat of debt burning at my heels, spurred an anxiety I am sure is all too common for individuals: will my education go to waste for an easy paycheck? Then came the alternative – was my education even enough? The environmental industry is highly competitive in Oregon, often requiring no less than a Masters degree to remain a competitive applicant; it seemed I would be working in the service industry for awhile. Despite my network of professors, local officials, tenured employees in conservation and water districts, there was hardly a space for a recent graduate when Phd students and accomplished professionals were fighting for the same low-level environmental position. Naturally, to get ahead of the applicant-saturated market, I followed the most considerate advice I ever received: move.

However, where Oregon might have an environmental field saturated with overqualified applicants, I have been hearing that California suffers from the opposite. Especially in relation to environmental jobs, the demand to shepard a new generation of conservation-minded individuals is echoed throughout the forested areas and down into the Valleys of metal and software. And yet, the last meeting I attended that addressed this issue, I saw written on top of my neighbor’s page: “Need more graduate students”.

The importance of education – general, specialized and higher education – can not be underestimated. Yet, how regressive of a standard to expect all applicants to have any higher education at all. We should not rely on a Masters degree as the sought-after requisite to fill the workforce gap.

As an Americorps Civicspark Fellow, I appreciate those programs that teach and steward younger generations, recent graduates or individuals looking to break into the field through service-based skills development. Where people comment on the need to have more skills-based applicants, these programs are filling the workforce development gap with more individuals ready to work regardless of education background.

In the environmental field, I regard conservations corps as doing one of the most valuable work out there: youth career and life skills development. Yet we need more! Not conservation corps specifically, but we need more workforce development programs that train for community organizers, policy analysts, grant writers – ie. all the other sectors that administer, regulate and finance the state towards an ecologically-centered community. There are already some great initiatives and non-profits already in existence, but how can we diversify these networks and build capacity for local governments and rural communities to benefit on a larger scale?

When I first returned to California from Oregon, working under California Council of Land Trusts Apprenticeship Program’s pilot year, we were given a speech. In it, the speaker was nearly brought to tears when he spoke of the next generation’s role in land management. After working in the field for over 50 years he left us with the question: “who will inherit the land once yesterday’s stewards are gone?”.